Fashion in World War I: July 1915

Black silk taffeta day dress by Premet

In July 1915, notwithstanding the fine weather, the mood of Paris society was dark – both figuratively and literally. At the theatre, and at benefits for wounded troops, humorous sketches fell flat with audiences ‘saddened because of the great disasters’(100,000 French soldiers had been killed in a month in the Second Battle of Artois). To fit this mood, designers like Premet showed dresses in sombre hues – black was the new fashion colour, ‘Black to suit the Parisienne’s spirit’. A wider range of colours was on offer in designs for the export market, including light-coloured tennis and garden-party frocks:

Martial et Armand, like many other couturiers…are at present making many frocks for Englishwomen. The women of London still take an interest in clothes, while the women of France, to whom the horrors of war have been brought so much closer, are dedicated to wearing simple tailored frocks and suits. Indeed, the Parisienne has forsaken teas and other social functions where elaborate costumes are worn, for the stern exactions of the sick-room and the multitudinous demands of the Croix Rouge (Vogue, July 1, p50)

Foreign buyers were reassured by Vogue that the Paris fashion industry was still functioning, and that the autumn shows would be worth the difficult – and dangerous – trip to Paris. However this assurance was undercut by comments on the changes to the fashionable life of Paris. There was also a tacit acceptance that clients might be ordering locally-made copies rather than Paris originals, with Paquin supplying Vogue with exclusive designs.

A Lanvin day dress shows military influence in a 'sword loop' at the waist

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Fashion in World War I: June 1915

The gains made by the Allies in April 1915 were short lived, and May brought a series of reverses included the sinking of several warships by German submarines, and the first use of poison gas at Ypres, to devastating effect. The French economy was increasingly affected by war, with the luxury trades hard hit by shortages of supplies – and even worse, a shortage of clients for their products. The 600,000 Frenchwomen who worked in the clothing trades were forced to compete for scarce jobs in uniform factories – dressmaking firms were laying off staff, or putting them on short time and reduced wages. As dressmakers’ wages were already barely enough for subsistence, this caused real hardship.

Vogue’s June 1915 issues devoted several pages to the sufferings of the ‘midinettes’, who were characterised as skilled, hardworking, intensely moral – and as having no greater pleasure than making beautiful dresses for clients like the Vogue reader:

From Paris comes a cry of distress that must touch many an American woman more closely than any of the appeals from places actually devastated by the great war. The midinettes of Paris – the little Mimis and Ninettes who have toiled patiently for days that you, perhaps, might shine at the opera in a Paris gown – are now face to face with destitution.

The proposed solution was a relief fund, with contributions solicited from the great and the good; Vogue headed the subscription list with a donation of $5000. Readers were solicited to contribute with a mixture of emotional blackmail and self-interest: if ‘midinettes’ left the fashion industry, even temporarily, there would be no beautiful clothes to buy once the war ended. While well-intentioned, this appeal would not be enough to support a whole industry; further efforts in France and in the USA would be necessary throughout the War, from all-star staged presentations of French fashion to boutiques selling crafts made by unemployed midinettes.

Donation form for the Midinette relief fund

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Fashion in World War I: May 1915

Drian, Gazette du Bon Ton, Spring 1915

In May 1915 there was an apparent improvement in the French position. The Gazette du Bon Ton published its first issue since the outbreak of war in Spring 1915 – and a belated revision of the issue that should have appeared in September 1914. Their editorial philosophised on the importance of fashion in wartime:

When it was recognised that France had escaped the worst danger and was marching towards a certain victory… from the moment when the masters of Fashion reaffirmed that they would never resign their duty to represent the continuing evolution of French good taste

This was a reference to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, which leading couturiers such as Paquin were using as an opportunity to promote their designs to the all-important American market. The garments shown in San Francisco may have been intended not for sale to private clients but as models for American fashion houses to copy.

American clients were understandably reluctant to travel to France at a time of attacks on shipping (the Lusitania was sunk by U-boats on May 7) and Zeppelin raids. Vogue’s Paris correspondent made light of the terror of being woken by the air-raid alarm; while there were as yet no air-raid shelters, blackouts were imposed, which made evening events difficult to plan. Fashionable life now centred on daytime events, such as visits to the  exhibit of  war trophies at Les Invalides: ‘Your concierge and your valet, your maid and your chauffeur, alike demand a holiday every Sunday in order to inspect the cannon and the aeroplanes which have been taken from the enemy’. There were also fundraising concerts for military charities, to which servicemen were of course admitted free. Women’s suits were often tailored with military details such as heavy leather belts and ‘pockets big enough to carry ammunition’. Many men were in uniform – and boys too, with groups of youths doing military drill in the Tuileries gardens.

Wartime brought opportunities for fashion retailers who were able to supply clothing that suited the more relaxed wartime dress codes. Among these was Chanel, who had established boutiques selling accessories and ready-to-wear garments in the resorts of Biarritz, Deauville and Monte Carlo. These towns became year-round havens for Parisians escaping the air-raids and blackouts of the capital, boosting Chanel’s sales of casual ensembles such as ‘jersey coats of white, mulberry, red and various shades of blue, including the new bleu soldat. They are buttoned down the middle front, and they are loosely belted, quite long, and slashed to the belt on each hip’ (Vogue, May 1 1915, p126). Jersey jackets were also recommended in the Gazette du Bon Ton, for war work and for wearing at home.

Silk jersey jacket, Gazette du Bon Ton, Spring 1915

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Fashion in World War I: March 1915

'Officier' tailored costume by Bonwit Teller, March 1915

March 1915 saw the start of a darker phase of the War, with a loss of almost 13,000 Allied troops in two days at the battle of Neuve Chapelle. For Parisians, the war was brought to their doorsteps by large numbers of troops in the capital – awaiting deployment or recuperating from their wounds. Uniformed soldiers were given free tickets for entertainments, many of which were organised as fundraisers for hospitals and other relief efforts. Patriotic themes predominated; a melodrama about the fall of Alsace to the Germans in 1870 was revived to great enthusiasm.

'Alsace' hat with ribbon bow referencing traditional costume

Military and patriotic references predominated in the fashions for Spring 1915, as reported by Vogue on March 15:

That the war should leave its impress on the spring collections was, of course, to be expected. Bleu soldat, a delightfully soft gray blue, is among the newest colors… Modified versions of the garments worn by the soldiers of the Allied Armies are seen in almost every house in Paris. There is, after all, a reason for everything thought or said or made in Paris this year, and it is the same reason for all: c’est la guerre.

'Aeroplane' hat, Vogue March 1915

However, some of the military references were more equivocal. An alternative hat trimming to giant ‘Alsatian’ bows of black ribbon were pairs of wings arranged like an aeroplane propeller. These arrived in the shops just as Paris was subjected to a strict blackout in response to attacks by German zeppelins. Air raids on cities far from the front line (London had been bombed from the air in January 1915) meant that no civilian could feel safe from the dangers of war.

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Fashion in World War I: February 1915

Fashionable mourning by Macy's of New York, February 1915

In February 1915, the fashion press was starting to feel the longterm effects of the war in Europe. With French magazines such as Les Modes ceasing publication, and travel to Paris both difficult and dangerous, information on the new season’s styles was proving elusive. American Vogue made light of some of the difficulties, with an article headed ‘What Will Women Wear in 1915′ satirizing over-zealous censorship of correspondence from France:

‘Hitherto the Allies have carefully collared all information that one might tell anyone anything about the position of the French lines…However here is a ‘scoop’ on the new fashions and the only fly in the amber is the censor. The illustrations herewith have suffered greatly from the European Suppress Bureau’s consistant opposition to a first-class war scoop…The creations shown represent those jealously guarded ideas that the French couturiers lock up in the atelier cupboards every night’.

However the lack of information from Paris was to Vogue ‘s advantage; not only did lessen the competition from other publications, it also forced American consumers to rely on their own resources. ‘This year, more perhaps than in any preceding year, will you need Vogue’s SPRING PATTERNS NUMBER. Even in times of peace, it is hard enough to tell good fashions from bad. But with the whole outside world at war, with all ordinary sources of fashion information cut off, the task becomes impossible unless you turn to Vogue.’

The competition between French and American stylists was becoming increasingly evident, with a court case brought by Paul Poiret against New York manufacturers who were selling their own designs with a ‘Poiret’ label. There was also a huge gulf between fashionable lifestyles in Europe and the USA; in Paris, restaurants and theatres were closed in the evenings, and ‘Tailored frocks of puritanical simplicity are all that one sees in the streets and tea-rooms, or at the matinees’. Meanwhile in New York, the elite were flocking to watch Irene Castle onstage in Lucile costumes, and to copy her dance moves in nighclubs.

In France, fashionable life was relocating to seaside resorts, creating opportunities for designers such as  Gabrielle Chanel, who had transferred her millinery business to the resort of Biarritz on the outbreak of war.

Valentine’s Day 1915 was likely to be a sad one, with letters bringing bad news more frequently than words of love….

'The Letter', a dress by Doucet, Georges Barbier, 1915

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Fashion in World War I: January 1915

Military braid used to refresh worn garments - Vogue, 1 January 1915

High fashion and modern warfare make uneasy bedfellows, and the fashion journals in January 1915 contain some strange juxtapositions. Les Modes for January 1915, though published in Paris, resolutely ignored the war, describing the garments seen in theatres and at Society weddings. An article on shoes claimed that the current trend was for footwear that was both showy and impractical:

‘I saw an elegantly dressed woman getting out of her car, stretching out a leg which appeared up to the knee through the slit in her tight skirt, poured into cobweb-fine stockings, the foot in shoes which appeared to be designed less to cover them than to support a buckle, a crystal, or some other very noticeable ornament’

These shoes and stockings were being worn without any regard for winter weather – but with enough furs to suit an inhabitant of the Arctic, highlighting the internal inconsistencies of fashion.  The author noted that evening shoes were being made with heels studded with crystals – though these were more suited to racy nightclubs like Maxim’s than to polite soirees. The tight focus of Les Modes on the fashions and manners of a conventional social elite would prove difficult to maintain under war conditions; the magazine was on a hiatus during 1915, and when it returned in 1916 it was with a wider and more socially aware viewpoint.

The January edition of American Vogue, in contrast, devoted several articles to the activities of the American Women’s War Relief Fund in London, which ranged from the self-indulgent (commissioning Belgian lace accessories from Belgian refugees) to the strictly practical (collecting warm underwear for troops in the trenches). The regular column on ‘Smart Fashions for Limited Incomes’ welcomed the current trend for military trimmings, as:

‘The military braiding used on some of the late models of the season is one of the few pleasant effects of the war on clothes. Not only is braiding strikingly smart, but it serves a double purpose, as it may cover a multitude of shortcomings; the suit, gown or blouse which is slightly worn may be renovated quite simply at times by binding a frayed or worn edge or trimming the front and sleeves in slightly worn spots with braid.’

Perhaps the most telling Vogue article was the one which, though optimistically titled ‘Paris at the Turning- Point – Glimpsing, Despite the Troubles of War, a Return of Normal Conditions’ opened with a description of thousands of mourners paying their respects at cemeteries on All Souls’ Day.

‘France is mourning this year as never before, although her grief is tempered with pride in her fallen heroes and she wears her mourning with the air of a conqueror’

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Fashion in World War I: December 1914

By December 1914, the first signs of new wartime fashions were appearing; the long, narrow ‘hobble’ skirts which had been in fashion since 1910 were worn underneath flared tunics or skirts reaching to mid-calf. In spite of the New York fashion show in November showcasing American designers, the inspiration for these new styles was still attributed to Paris. As  the Washington (DC) Herald reported:

Since the outbreak of war last summer there has been much surmising about the ability of America to design, to create, clothes. It has been said that there is not the right atmosphere in this country, not the atmosphere to inspire originality in our designers. It has even been stated that any one of the great French designers would be unable to produce really new and beautiful models after he had been in this country for six months….

For this reason, Paris has felt secure, no doubt, in her ability to remain the fashion center of the western world. …American designers have been working to create new and acceptable models. What the outcome of all their efforts will be, nobody knows. One reason why their efforts may result in an apparent failure is that most of them are perfectly willing to have Paris remain the fashion center. And why not? Americans have always profited by Paris-made fashions. They must be duplicated and copied here – and that gives work to dressmakers and manufacturers… and they have always proved themselves interesting, often beautiful, which is all that can be expected of any styles, whoever designs them.

At the various fashions shows wherein American designs have been shown, there have been some very good designs. Most of them, however, owe their inception to Paris – for one must remember that Paris has not yet failed the world at one of her stated openings, and is even now planning one of those for February. (Washington Herald, December 20 1914, p.48)

This article was accompanied by images of evening dresses and street ensembles which were not attributed to a named designer, so presumably based on American wholesalers’ ideas. How closely they were linked to Parisian trends will be seen in the next few months, when I will feature original designs for 1915 from the House of Paquin archives at the V&A.

Evening dress of tulle and brocaded chiffon, Washington Herald, 12-20-1914

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Fashion in World War I: November 1914

In November 1914, American designers launched an initiative to capture the US market for themselves, capitalising on the difficulties facing French fashion houses. The New York Day-Book on November 6th reviewed a glittering event held at the Ritz, but was not convinced by the designs on show:

“Made-in-USA fashions for the USA maiden are being formally presented today to some of our young multi-millionairesses, who until Wednesday night had never given a thought to the possibility of a gown daring to hail from any other place than dear Paree, with the accent and father’s thoughts on the ‘dear’. The coming-out party for American fashions started last night at the Ritz.

One hundred and twenty-five gowns with accompaniments calculated to put any ordinary father or husband in a bankruptcy court, and each one guaranteed to have been designed and executed right on the Island of Manhattan, were exhibited, the Manequins being volunteers from the homes of some of New York’s and Newport’s idlest rich…a start has been made and in all seriousness the present exhibit seems certain to lead to a state of affairs where the effects of the Rue de la Paix may be obtained by the American woman of fashion without the necessity of suffering either from mal de mer or an import duty. If nothing else has been accomplished it will be possible after the present exhibit for American designers to sew their own labels on their frocks and sell them on their merits. Heretofore it took an imported label to command a desirable price on any American-made garment”

On November 17th the New-York Tribune featured a lengthy interview with Mr Ortiz, the U.S. representative of the French Dressmakers’ Protective Society. Not surprisingly, he was not impressed by the new initiative:

“You insist upon having my opinion on American fashions? I must say, frankly, that I do not believe in the future of American styles, as represented at present, at least, nor in the success of the present movement. What need is there for American styles for American women, when every idea and every trick susceptible of adding to woman’s attractiveness have long since been excelled in by the Parisian wizards….It has been said that French fashions as originally planned are seldom suited to American women. That may be true. An American girl does not walk, does not talk and does not act like a Parisienne, and what might make the latter still more attractive might be disadvantageous to the former, but Parisian couturiers know that.”

Ortiz also pointed out that contrary to rumor the Paris fashion houses were not closed – or in the case of Poiret were soon to reopen – so that American followers of fashion need not settle for imitations of true Parisian styles. Imitating Paris fashion, it seemed, was all that American designers were good for!

Parisian fashion by Jenny, New York Tribune, November 17 1914

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Fashion in World War I: October 1914

By October 1914, Paris couture had more or less closed down as clients fled the city for country retreats or for war work. Some designers had chosen to enlist, proudly displaying the motto ‘Sous les drapeaux’ (under military orders) over the closed door of their premises. The October 15 issue of Vogue ran a feature on ‘Couturiers Under Arms’, repudiating the reputation of the profession for weakness and effeminacy. Some designers were using their expertise for the war effort; the workrooms at Doeuillet had been turned over to the production of medical supplies.

Paul Poiret was called up as a reservist, and placed in charge of a factory making military uniforms. Here his skills in simplifying the cut of garments were put to good use, rethinking the heavy overcoats issued to infantrymen. By October 22 he had produced an improved design which earned him promotion to Sergeant, as the New York Sun reported:  ‘The garment is cut so loose that it is like a bag; this permits the wearer greater freedom of movement than was possible in the old garment. At night the coat may be used as a sleeping cover; thus the soldier may sleep more warmly and fight better the next day. Of beauty there is none, but, as M. Poiret says, this matters little in war time.’

Paul Poiret in French army uniform (Vogue, 15-10-1914)

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Fashion in World War I: September 1914

September 1914 was a turning point for the French fashion industry. The fashion press was publishing predictions for the new season, such as – ‘Cloth of silver, cloth of bronze, cloth of gold and other iridescent, tinselled materials are going to be very popular, it would seem from the array displayed in the manufacturing houses and ordered by such establishments as those of Chéruit, Callot, Premet, Poiret, Paquin and Beer’ (Vogue, 1 September 1914, p.106). The image below gives an idea of how these metallic fabrics were make up.

However the  Vogue article was based on information received weeks earlier; the situation in Paris was very different by September. Many couture houses were closed, and fashion shows for the new season cancelled. American fashion buyers who had travelled to Paris found their visits not only fruitless but dangerous, with every berth in trains and boats leaving France packed to overflowing by refugees.

One intrepid American buyer did manage to bring back some garments which could then be copied and adapted for the US market, as the New York Day Book reported on the 9th September:

“HOW I ESCAPED FROM FRANCE WITH 71 FALL GOWNS!” WOMAN BRAVES DANGERS. New York. The gowns are here! Seventy-one model gowns and wraps! A plucky little U. S. A. girl sails into port with the first and only Paris fall model gowns…”

The lack of Paris originals was no problem for houses such as the London-based Madame Handley Seymour, who specialised in copies of French designs, marketed through sketches like the one below

fashion design by Madame Handley Seymour, V&A E.1103-1958

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