Fashion in World War I: Christmas 1918

The Christmas 1918 issue of Les Modes seems like an appropriate point at which to end this four-year investigation of French fashion during World War I. This issue was one of the first produced since the Armistice, and included several articles reflecting on the changes brought by war – both to fashion and to women’s lives. These are all the more interesting for appearing in a magazine that was generally conservative in its tastes (as evidenced by its reluctance to recognize the designs of Paul Poiret). The feature on ‘La Mode et les modes’ starts with a lengthy account of the ways in which elite Frenchwomen’s capabilities have been proved by their war work, and a vehement rebuttal of the view of them as ‘dolls’.

as if they were only waiting for victory in order to return to their frippery and fashions,  tea parties and chats; as if the frightful things they had seen had left no trace, and as if they had no thought than to decorate themselves mindlessly, without worrying about the suffering and the wounds that even peace could not heal; they have all been transformed into conventional figures of doll-women,  dressmakers’ dummy-women. There was never a falser picture painted, and the worst thing is that most of these falsehoods come from female pens, giving them a personal viewpoint that enhances their apparent authenticity!   But this is not the case; all this is nothing but stereotyping and a literary construct. Of course, our admirable Frenchwomen would like to return to their previous elegance, they would like to re-affirm their rule over the realms of taste where no-one will ever dare to challenge them; but this will not be to the detriment of their serious and solemn obligations that continue to fill their lives. This contact with four frightful years will leave a veil of melancholy in the depths of their eyes, and even if they are among the privileged few who have not received an incurable wound from this war, their heart will share in the mourning of others, and in the midst of their renewed social life they will keep a space for reflection and for persisting in their post-war charitable duties. The doll-woman and the dummy-woman will have disappeared – but you will not find any criticism of that change here.

It is likely that the author is responding to arguments against  female suffrage in France – which was not achieved until 1944, partly because of concerns that women lacked the ability to make independent political decisions.

The clothing styles that suited this new view of women – simply cut tailoring, and chemise dresses that could be dressed up with floating over tunics – were contrasted with the ‘byzantine complexity and hunt for luxurious originality’ of the pre-war era. The new spirit in fashion is demonstrated by an image of five day and evening outfits from Martial et Armand which are all short and loosely cut. These features are emphasized by the poses of the models, perched on a table to show off their ankles or slouched to demonstrate the absence of restrictive corsetry.

Forward-looking ensembles from Martial et Armand

The new and the old approaches both to design and to women’s levels of activity are highlighted by two contrasting images of furs in this issue. The article is illustrated with a fur wrap by Revillon – an established firm which had been a major exhibitor at pre-war international exhibitions – which muffles the top of the body while leaving arms and legs exposed. In the picture it is styled with an evening gown that wraps tightly round the wearer’s legs and extends into a long train, a form that looks back to impractical pre-war fashions. In contrast, a full page advertisement by Burberry shows belted trench coats and hats available in a range of materials, from waterproof serge to Canadian otter fur.

The most surprising reflections in this issue, however, are found not in the fashion review but in a lengthy article on ‘Noel de victoire’ signed by ‘Nite’. The author reflects back on her childhood in  the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, when the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine had been lost to Prussia. She describes the politicization of Christmas gifts, with boys receiving toy soldiers, guns, and uniforms – and girls, dolls dressed in Alsatian costume with a distinctive black  bow head-dress. These were explained as representations of women ‘stolen’ by Prussians, presenting the transfer of sovereignty in terms of kidnapping. The solution to this outrage was presented as the responsibility of the children of the 1870s:

In the future, when were stronger and when all the little boys of France had grown up, they would put on smart uniforms, like the soldiers we had seen; they would have rifles, real ones; the drums would be beaten; the bugles would sound; and they would go and take the women of Alsace and Lorraine women back from the Prussians. The women would be so happy, they would clap their hands and hug their deliverers….

What a dream for children’s imaginations!…

The wicked Prussians! The beautiful Alsatian women holding out their arms to us, like our dolls which are never more attractive than when they hold out their arms!  What child could have resisted such a touching appeal? And we feel so strong, when we are little, looking ahead to when we are grown up!

We were going to have to fight … so be it! Go to war! We would do it! And we would be victorious! We didn’t doubt it, we swore to do it to the Alsatian dolls which we hugged while waiting to hug the real Alsatian women.

This article ends with exultation that the childhood dream of re-unification has finally come to pass after forty years. For a modern reader, however, it leaves a bitter taste. If the defeat of 1871 had entered so deeply into French culture as to shape even children’s games, how would the defeat of 1918 affect German families? Would it give rise to a generation brought up to seek revenge on the victors, as French children had been? As future developments were to show, this is a factor that should have been considered more carefully in the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.

Posted in Fashion, Fashion in World War I, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: December 1918

French 'munitionettes' eating a meal provided by the American YWCA

The December 1918 issues of Vogue carried an unsettling mixture of features. Several articles prepared before the Armistice reported on the lasting effects of the war effort on the bodies of both civilian war workers and servicemen. A piece promoting American YWCA – run hostels and rest centres for young women in France discussed the munitions factories staffed by women working sixteen-hour days in toxic and often lethal conditions:

Lucienne also died for France. She was just nineteen – so young to die. But when one is a refugee from the invaded country, one doesn’t care much about death. A shell slips from one’s fingers – one’s dress catches fire – pouf! It is all over but the hospital for an hour or so, and then the priest in his black robes, chanting. One is lucky to have a funeral.

In England, the YWCA had opened a hostel for the 600 young women per fortnight who were sent to join the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in the front line. The scale of women’s involvement in the war effort was unprecedented, and the damage to their health, though never officially reckoned, must have been enormous. A more visible outcome of the war was the large number of veterans who were returning with permanent injuries. Another article draws a stark contrast between the youthful vigour of army recruits playing football in Manhattan and those disembarking from a hospital ship on Ellis Island, which was received 800 injured veterans each week, with a total of over 50,000 so far. The article discusses the treatment of these men in specialist hospitals, including one for ‘mental cases’, an early acknowledgement of the prevalence of what we now call PTSD. It also warns that the recovery process can take years, and requires not only physical retraining but also mental adjustment to new bodily limitations – and, crucially, understanding employers. The difficulty of finding employment is obliquely implied by the establishment of workshops where toys and other products were made by injured veterans.

Perhaps surprisingly, the fashion features this month also have an air of disillusionment. The review of the latest trends in bridal wear notes that the smart set are finally leaving their wartime boltholes in Biarritz and Monaco to return to Paris, and that restaurant dinners and social events are resuming: but with additional charges imposed on American clients which made eating out unaffordable.

There are also several articles that discuss wartime changes in attitudes to beauty, and the new trends in hairstyles and makeup. The fashion for short or ‘bobbed’ hair is covered through a fictive debate, with the journalist relating it to the air raids and shortages of hot water that made hair care difficult. Her fictive interlocutor disagrees, saying that bobbed hair is a matter of fashion, with women copying each other in an attempt to look different but ending up all looking the same. This leads to an interesting reflection on the tension between conformity and individualism in fashion:

There is nothing so exhausting as people who are ‘different’; both the woman who scorns fashion, and the original thinker who always opposes the majority. She claims that if people were all entirely different from one another, we should have to give far too much attention to each of them, that we should have to make a great deal of every trifle.

Where both sides of the debate agree is in the unflattering nature of the new short haircut, particularly for older women, as it makes them look as if they are trying to imitate their daughters, and restricts the face-framing possibilities of longer hair. Vogue is also surprisingly negative about the new fashion for obvious make-up,warning that ‘Very charming was the effect as the lady dashed by in her car, but, oh, what a disillusion at close range!’ A lengthy article is devoted to advice on skin care products and application, including the need to choose an appropriate shade.  Different ranges are described and sketched in detail, but the writer is strangely coy about mentioning the brand names – perhaps because they had not paid for advertising. However it is likely that the ‘Russian whose reputation circles the world’ is a reference to the Polish-born Helena Rubinstein, who had set up a New York salon in 1915 after establishing herself in Australia, London and Paris. For readers who could not afford exclusive skin care treatments, the writer stresses the importance of rest, healthy food and exercise – and refers to the effects of weight loss on the skin.

There is also a brief feature on the garments prepared for the stage star Florence Walton by the House of Premet. This is refreshingly honest about the rationale behind the innovative embroidery that was such a feature of 1918 fashions: ‘To overcome the lack of figured materials, Paris embroiders,tassels or beads a plain fabric’. This gives close-up sketches that demonstrate how the decorative effects have been worked. They include  the use of fluffy wool tassels to imitate bands of fur, making a virtue of the lack of luxury materials. The article is frank about this rationale:

The making of these elaborate all-over embroidered materials has a double purpose: to produce variety in the midst of a monotony of plain materials (all that the looms have been able to turn out this season), and to give work to hundreds of otherwise idle little sewing girls.

Thus the links between war, economics, and fashion, too often elided in histories, is addressed directly in one of the main organs of the fashion trade.

Embroidered effects on plain fabrics

Posted in Fashion, Fashion in World War I | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: November 1918

Three ensembles by Chanel trimmed with angora wool embroidery, beads, and beaver fur

In early November 1918, French couture was in a state of limbo – looking forward to the imminent end of the war, but not sure when it would arrive, and still facing shortages and disruptions. New York Vogue reflected this uncertain mood in an article headed ‘Paris states her optimism in terms of clothes’, reporting  on a show of French couture designs held in Switzerland for fashion buyers from neutral nations. The writer pondered the likely reactions of a German woman who had been a couture client until the war intervened, torn between admiration for French expertise and a wish to boost their German designers:

She must have suffered severely at the fashion show, if she was there, for she loved French dresses and was well known to our couturiers.   Of course, all this is trifling in war time, but it would be a satisfaction, just the same, to know the real feelings of those who have tried so hard to assure themselves and others that French creative genius has been killed by the war. Patience, just a short time, and perhaps we shall know.

The Paris styles reported in this issue show a variety of cut, from the straight tunics of Chanel to the draped gowns of Lucile. But there is a consistency in their use of wartime materials, with fluffy angora embroidery substituting for fur, and beading for woven decoration. One of the Chanel suits is captioned ‘pride in her brown Charmeuse costume with keep her warm’ – wishful thinking when the diversion of coal to the war effort meant that even upper-class homes were practically unheated. Another article, ‘The defences of Paris against winter’ suggested a variety of ways of mitigating a temperature of 40′ F indoors, from foot muffs to rugs designed to wrap round the body.

At the opposite extreme from fur cocoons, Vogue also reported on new trends in lightweight lingerie. These had appeared in  Les Élégances parisiennes in December 1917,  linked to shortages in fine cotton and linen fabrics as French manufacturers were closed down by the war. The French repoter had approved of lingerie in black silk trimmed with ribbon bows and rosebuds, but stated firmly that ‘the garment that I would condemn outright is the chemise in black or bright blue tulle; these are impossible to wear by respectable women’. Vogue elided this distinction, presenting combinations and chemises of sheer tulle as the latest Paris fashion, and placing a defence of their frivolity in the mouth of an imagined French saleswoman:

It is not for the kind of woman who wears ugly lingerie that a man fights….the night gown? It is a little fragile, a little extravagant, perhaps? Mademoiselle forgets the alarms that occur so frequently at night – the trip to the cellar – the meetings with one’s friends, one’s neighbours. It is dark, to be sure, in the cellar, but there is always a little light and , under one’s wrap, one would not appear – what do you say? Frumpy, like an old-maid in a comic paper. And this nightgown,  is it not delightful! It is of chiffon the colour of wood violets with bands of tulle over the shoulders…it is as if all the daintiness, the femininity that we must repress in our dresses these days had been poured into the silk and the lace that make our lingerie…Mademoiselle does not think the Americans will approve of these models, so fragile and so charming? Perhaps not.

This passage is interesting for the way in which it constructs French fashions as more daring, and more sexualised, than those that would be acceptable in the USA – in order to sell them to American buyers. Read in tandem with the article in Les Élégances parisiennes it becomes clear that this construct is directly opposition to the actual views of French consumers. The invocation of the need to keep up appearances in front of neighbours during night-time air raids also subverts the evidence of French sources. It is not the tactful concealement of a ‘cape pour la cave’ featured in Les Modes that Vogue recommends, but an artful revelation of frivolous garments under the respectable wrap.

Draped and wrapped gowns by Lucile

Posted in Fashion, Fashion in World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: October 1918

A dress and jacket in black velvet and blue and gold brocade by Cheruit

By the end of September 1918 the German bombardment of Paris had ceased, as the allies had started to push the German army out of France. The changing mood in France as a victorious end to the war seemed in sight was noted in fashion reports in Vogue titled ‘Paris Openings are Keyed to Victory’ and ‘The New Note of Hope in Paris Fashions’. This new note was evident in a return to decorative trim and feminine detailing such as ruffles and wide sashes. A newly fashionable fabric was silk batik, introduced to Paris by a Madame Pangon, who was producing designs ‘coming from the Orient but improved by French taste’. Her work was seen by Vogue as a worthy heir of Fortuny’s ‘art fabrics’, capable of being personalized to suit individual clients. Best of all – Mme Pangon was employing wounded soldiers in her workshops.

Winter dresses made of cotton velvet and 'shoddy' wool

Other fabrics noted in Vogue were ones which had not normally been accepted in high-end fashion – cotton velvet and thick duvetyn to replace heavy wool, and net to replace bobbin lace. Substitutes for the wool fabric that had been requisitioned for army uniforms took several surprising forms. One was the use of angora rabbit yarn heavily embroidered onto a light fabric to create a fluffy textured surface. Another was the use of ‘shoddy’ – fabric made from recycled wool fibres that had long been a byword for poor quality.

Layered ensemble by Boue Soeurs

Scarcity of fashion fabrics could also be seen in some of the couture ensembles praised for their innovation. Louise Cheruit was one of several designers making outfits that fulfilled the functions of a dress  for indoor social events and a suit for street wear – either with a coat-dress, or as shown above, with a dress cut like a skirt and contrasting blouse worn under a short coat to make a suit. In this outfit decorative panels of gold brocade are restricted to the sides of the bodice section, contrasting with sober black velvet for the skirt and coat. An even more striking combination of fabrics is shown in an ‘all-day’ ensemble by the couture house of Boue Soeurs: a plain black satin sheath dress for wearing at home that could be topped by a full tunic of rust coloured net for entertaining; then a jacket of rust coloured wool could be added for street wear. The result harks back to Poiret’s ‘Minaret’ line of 1913, with the short buttoned jacket referencing both English schoolboys and Ottoman Zouave uniforms. There is a suspicion here, as there is in some of the knee-length dresses by Premet featured elsewhere in this issue, that a virtue is being made out of the absolute necessity to save fabric.
One article in this issue looks back over the changes made by wartime to the wardrobes of Vogue readers. This is illuminating, as the ideal reader was a leisured lady – one who employed a lady’s maid capable of  running up flattering accessories to update her mistress’ wardrobe, no less! Readers were advised not to allow wartime price increases to get the better of them, but to choose key wardrobe pieces carefully. A column on ‘Dressing on a war budget’ described a number of suits and dresses that were presented as good investments, costing between $100 and $125. This was a high price – in the 1920 census, 70% of US workers earned less than $3,000 a year, and for them $100 be the equivalent of two weeks’ wages. Even so, war restrictions had made some healthy changes in the landscape of fashion:
Probably for the first time in the history of dress the talented designers are giving their attention to the creating of women’s working clothes. Heretofore the woman who took part in any occupation dressed in imitation of her less industrious sister of leisure, and her clothes were seldom designed primarily for her occupation. To-day all women work. This means that many women who have been accustomed to dress the part they play with the utmost attention to appropriateness, charm, and chic, are now striving to dress the part of the woman who works. Some very successful clothes have been designed for the woman who is serving her country in a capacity that does not call for a uniform.
Business clothes for women were not a novelty in 1918 – the 1890s had seen a wave of ‘white blouse’ jobs created for women office workers, who in their turn created a demand for affordable business clothing. But the rhetoric of efficiency in elite women’s wardrobes was new  and would be taken even further in the shift dresses and cardigan suits of the 1920s.

A dress for the lady office worker

Posted in Fashion in World War I, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: September 1918

Irene Castle in mourning for her husband Vernon

The September 1918 issues of Vogue included a feature on the style icon Irene Castle, famous as a dance performer and teacher who had popularized the fox-trot, tango and many other dances. However the fashions she was modelling were for mourning, as her husband and dance partner Vernon had recently been killed in an accident on a US air base where he was helping to train pilots. The coverage of Castle, while respectful, gives a sense of the intense pressure she was under to remain elegant and poised even at a time of great personal loss. The garments she models confirm the trend noted in previous issues of Vogue for mourning made of softer fabrics rather than the stiff silk crape that was previously de rigeur.

These issues also highlighted some of the stark contradictions facing Paris fashion houses; many of their premises had been damaged by German bombardments, and clients were shown exquisite lingerie in shops with shattered windows. Now more than ever, branches in seaside or mountain resorts like Biarritz, Deauville or Vichy underpinned the profitability of  established fashion houses like Lanvin and Beer – and the newcomer Chanel. Chanel was well positioned to exploit the fashion trends of late 1918, with a narrow cut enforced by wartime fabric restrictions, and a preference for knit fabrics that were easy to wear. As Vogue commented:

This artist is particularly successful in keeping her creations practical and adapting them to the times we live in. She is equally successful with hats, gowns, or furniture, for she likes to see a woman in harmonious surroundings without any exaggerated modernities

The suggestion that Chanel was designing interiors is an interesting one – in this she was following the example of Paul Poiret whose Atelier Martine furnishing division (founded 1911) featured prominently in Les Modes account of life in Paris during air-raids. In this article there was also a tantalizing reference to the concept of a ‘national dress’ for France, standardized garments that could be cheaply mass-produced with state sponsored fabric: ‘for the refugees, the numerous families impoverished by the war, and for the soldiers themselves when they are forced to return to the present civilian dress which is much too expensive for them’. This scheme (which seems not to have been put into action) predates  the attempts by Soviet Russia to standardize and simplify clothing using  designs by Alexander Rodchenko.

Vogue for September 15th included two articles indicating how the social situation of American women had changed during the war. The first detailed the work being done by the Young Women’s Christian Association to support the tens of thousands of women war workers – 45,000 around Washington D.C. alone – many of them in sites attached to army camps and far from towns. The YWCA seems to have taken a holistic view of the needs of these (mostly young) women, providing not only hostel accommodation, canteens, and medical services, but also opportunities for recreation and personal development with the women running social clubs for themselves – and for soldiers in the adjacent camps. Even more striking is the article titled ‘School for Women Voters’, detailing the outreach and education programs being organised in American cities for newly enfranchised women. American women received the franchise through their relationship to a male American head of household, so that when non-native men became citizens their wives received the right to vote. This created an anomaly as some of these women had limited engagement with American society and limited opportunities to learn English. The League of Women Voter was addressing this issue by running outreach sessions in areas of American cities with high numbers of recently naturalized families, working with translators to advise women about their rights as voters and as American citizens – including their right to maintenance payments from absent husbands. The eager reception for these sessions vindicated the long-held argument of suffragists that women would be more responsible than their menfolk in using their votes.

Posted in Fashion, Fashion in World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: August 1918

The August 1918 issues of Vogue were a little light on fashion news - there was a long article discussing the relationship between styles of dress and styles of interior decorating, and several features on juvenile fashions, illustrated with photographs of the children of the rich and famous. This is unsurprising given that the summer was not a season for new trends, and that society functions in both Paris and New York were still governed by war conditions. The report from Paris addresses this directly, with a description of a sunny afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne where:

One might almost have been tempted to forget the war, were it not for the distant dull sound of an exploding bomb, now and again, and the impossibility of getting anything other than saccharine to sweeten one’s demi-tasse.

The author also notes the social changes brought by the war:

the absence of the old-time orchestra was less felt, thanks to the virtuosity of a passing accordionist – a mere boy, blinded by a bullet at the Ypres affair. And the scarcity of the fashionable demi-mondaines of national repute was less noticeable because of the presence of the pretty mannequins who had come to enjoy the lovely sunny day and to try on the permissionaires the effect of their new summer finery

The implication that courtesans had previously mingled with the upper-class diners in the Bois underlines the gendered nature of public spaces at this time, with respectable women (and especially girls) restricted in the activities they could undertake while their fathers and brothers circulated more freely.

A Lanvin summer dress of silk and wool jersey

Chanel dress with metallic beading

The main fashion note in this issue is that silk and wool jersey fabrics are still the ‘fad of the moment – fashionable women have four or five dresses made the same but in different colours. Never, it must be admitted, have Parisiennes, and all Frenchwomen, for that matter, been in such need of simplicity’. The simplicity of the fabrics was underlined by a restrained palette, with neutral tones predominating, and preferably the whole ensemble, including shoes, stockings, hat and gloves, in the same colour. This sounds like a foretaste of 1920s chic and a far cry from the intense Fauvist hues of 1913.   However designers were providing variety by using contrast fabrics or adding bead embroidery – as in a Chanel chemise gown of fine silk marquisette with metal beads. An alternative trimming was monkey fur, applied round the hems of garments or covering hats – a reminder of very different attitudes to the natural world.

The August issues also offer reminders that war conditions were affecting American consumers and producers of fashion, with children’s clothes much more expensive than before, and fuel shortages making it hard to launder cotton or linen garments that would require copious hot water. This was an additional reason for the fashion for silk underwear among those wealthy enough to have personal maids who could hand wash garments too delicate to send out to a commercial laundry. Vogue itself was suffering from the war economy, and had to raise its cover price to 35c.

A war fundraising initiative by Vogue announced in this issue offers some curious resonances for today: bundles of magazine covers were available for pasting on to paper  totes to make decorative knitting bags to sell for war charities. Apparently this fad had started by tearing up back issues, but seeing the demand Vogue had printed additional copies of their covers (the only page of the magazine in colour) for this purpose. This was an adroit marketing ploy, associating the publication with charitable efforts for war relief, while reaching out to consumers who might not think of themselves as fashionistas – this was not a paradox, as Vogue included regular features on dressmaking and economical styling. The idea of making a cheap, low-cost bag desirable by associating it with a worthy cause seems to prefigure Anya Hindmarch’s ‘not a plastic’ bag.

A paper bag decorated with a Vogue cover

Posted in Fashion in World War I | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: July 1918

Denim uniform for volunteer 'farmerettes' made by Abercrombie and Fitch

Coat by Chanel in tan wool jersey trimmed with brown rabbit fur

The July issue of New York Vogue reported a damaging rumour that Paris couture Houses had closed down due to the bombardments, and would not be showing new collections in the autumn. In order to disprove this, they published copies of statements from the leading Houses: Cheruit, Doeuillet, Jenny, Lanvin, Premet and Paquin. The letter from Paris stated that couture firms had adapted to attacks on Paris by setting up branches in Biarritz and Deauville, where their clients were spending increasing amounts of time. In these seaside resorts, the rules of dress were somewhat relaxed and jersey dresses or suits were acceptable for all but the most formal gatherings – these were available from Chanel and many other firms as well.

Now that the USA had been in the war for almost a year, the number of women actively involved in the war effort was increasing, as discussed in the article: ‘Woman’s Place is in a Uniform. How to Know the Uniforms of the Many Women Who Are Doing Various Kinds of War Work and Becoming Real Factors in Our Fighting Forces’. In Britain, women’s branches of the Army, Navy and even Air Force had been given official status, with formal uniforms, divisional insignia, and an officer hierarchy. In the USA the situation was more fluid, with some services (such as Army Nurses) fully recognised, but a plethora of small initiatives leading to ‘several dozen different species…some of those uniforms are so recent as to cause those who pass them on the street to wonder what they represent’. The outfits described for Vogue readers highlight the possibilities for self-display in uniforms worn by groups such as the ‘farmerettes’ (allied Land Girls):  ‘ a particularly attractive uniform is worn by the farmerettes working in devastated France…six inches of blue denim breeches showing above the tops of their high boots’. Uniforms also provided an opportunity for American firms to expand their market – this and several others featured in the article were made by  Abercrombie and Fitch.

For summer beach wear, Vogue showed some stylish ensembles made by Marthe Gauthier, originator of the ‘Cellar Cape’ published by Les Modes. She was combining striped and plain wool jersey to make swimsuits and dresses that conformed to current standards of modesty while drawing attention to the wearer’s bare legs and arms. As an alternative to bathing ensembles of tunics with matching shorts, the writer reported that: ‘Many women wear bathing suits of the same sort as those worn by men, covering them with bath-robes, as varied as coats’. Male bathing suits were made from wool jersey and would cling to the body when wet, so a cloak or robe would be needed once out of the water – some of these were smart enough to be worn away from the beach as well.

Posted in Fashion in World War I | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: June 1918

Afternoon dress in silk, day dress in cotton jersey with toning embroidery, and evening dress in lace and silk crepe

In June 1918 Les Modes was not published, but Vogue reported from a Paris still subject to bread rationing – although the flight of elite families to their country estates meant that luxuries like taxis and cream were now easier to find. A letter from Phillipe Ortiz, dated April 14, gave a vivid picture of the vagaries of life under bombardment both from long-distance guns and from aircraft. The author notes members of the artistic world killed or injured – Graffin, a former secretary to Poiret, was mortally wounded in the street, while the fashion illustrator Marcel Lejeune was injured while dining in a fashionable restaurant. As the editor comments drily: ‘that, under such conditions, any work at all is done in Paris, except that necessary for life, is but another of the wonders that are France.’ This article was illustrated with some natty waistcoats made from panels of striped silk tricot by Marthe Guthier, the designer of the remarkable air-raid shelter garment featured in Les Modes. These would brighten up a plain dress or skirt and blouse, without requiring too much fabric.

Waistcoats in striped silk tricot by Marthe Gauthier

The main report on Paris fashion acknowledged the exceptional situation of Spring 1918 from its title onwards: ‘Paris Takes its summer Early – Bombardments in Paris Give a Sudden Charm to the Watering-places Which Generally Have Their Popularity in July’. The reported trends in daywear were for simple dresses or two-pieces enlivened by contrasting colours in different sections, or contrasting trimmings. There is a continuation of the complex interlaced cut, with sashes, scarves and even collars threaded through slots in the main garment to provide contrast and to tie down floating panels. For dinner and evening wear, even at fashionable resorts, there was some relaxation of dress codes, with Doucet proposing a silver sheaf covered by two panels of  beaded gauze draped diagonally from each shoulder; while Cheruit offered a ‘Gandourah’, an adaptation of a loose African tunic, for dining alone in one’s room.

The June 15 edition of Vogue addressed the serious topic of war mourning, acknowledging that practices were changing swiftly as a result of the war. once again, the article title sums up its key points: Whether American Women Will Abolish Mourning During the War, as Many Englishwomen Have, or, Like the Frenchwomen, Wear a Lighter Mourning Than Formerly, Is Still a Question. The author addresses the paradox that in France and Britain, where war casualties have been heavy, there are fewer visible signs of mourning than in the USA. This is not because bereaved women are shutting themselves away; they are resuming social functions and of course their voluntary work much earlier than was previously thought decent. This change is attributed to a recognition that personal loss must be subsumed into national effort, since ‘the wearing of mourning is a selfish thing, a gratification of personal sorrow. True mourning is of the heart not the garments’. Active engagement in war volunteering is recommended not only as therapy, but also as a way of memorializing the dead by carrying on their work. With this in mind, modern mourning clothes should avoid the ‘ theatrical…veils with becoming folds which set off their complexions and their profiles’ formerly worn by fashionable women, aiming instead for discreet sobriety. Some of the ensembles illustrated, by Madame Hayward and by Lucile, achieve this goal with fashionable shapes made up in soft dull-surfaced fabrics. Others, such as a dinner dress with sleeves of sheer ‘point d’esprit’ net, use the contrast between black fabrics and pale skin to draw attention to the wearer’s pale beauty.

Two mourning ensembles: black silk and net for afternoon wear, and silk crepe for a young girl

Posted in Fashion, Fashion in World War I, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: May 1918

A cellar fitted out as an air-raid shelter by Poiret's Maison Martine

Issue 177 of Les Modes, published in May 1918, revealed both the difficulties of life in wartime Paris, and the ways that some entrepreneurs found new business opportunities. It is also remarkable frank about the social divisions between the classses, and even between neighbours, always present but heightened by war conditions. A lengthy article, ‘LES PARISIENNES SOUS LES BOMBARDEMENTS EN 1918′, detailed the effects of bombardment from both ‘Gotha’ planes and the German super-long range cannon, firing from up to 100km away. This new weapon (called ‘Big Bertha’) created a tactical advantage, as it could bypass Parisian air-raid defences. It was also a form of psychological warfare, as the shells arrived without warning out of an empty sky. The initial effect of the bombing campaigns was a mass exodus from Paris, with up to 20% of the population leaving the city in March. However as the bombardment continued, city life resumed, at least until the clear moonlit nights favourable for air raids. The basements under Parisian apartment buildings were turned into air-raid shelters, and wealthy women who had maintained a lofty ignorance of these utilitarian spaces started boasting about them:

Why, my dear, our cellar isn’t the horrible little hole that I always thought it was! It’s a darling little cellar…the construction is modern, there’s electric lighting in all the corridors, and there’s enough space for me to have a little two-room flatlet. I’ve furnished it so that it looks charming, with a couple of rugs,  easy chairs, a chaise-longue, and a table – it’s lovely, I assure you!

Design firms such as Poiret’s Maison Martine saw a new opportunity, and offered decorative schemes for cellars, with fashionable but small-scale daybeds, chairs and tables, plus electric lamps so the occupants could distract themselves by reading or playing cards.

To be fully prepared for air-raids, it was not enough to have a furnished room to go to – there was also the weighty matter of what to put on when the sirens sounded. As the writer ‘Nite’ pointed out, ‘A thick dressing-gown … would do in front of your husband! But down below there are other women; nothing escapes their sharp eyes, which sum you up from head to toe – and after the all-clear sounds, their even sharper tongues’.  Moreover:

There are few women lucky enough to have fine golden locks that fall naturally to frame a naturally pink complexion  Most heads of hair, and most complexions, are not seen at their best in such circumstances. Once their natural bloom has faded, it takes time to get it back. But the air-raid sirens are chasing you underground … How can you spend time on your make-up in such conditions?

Fortunately, a solution to both these problems was at hand – the ‘Cape pour la cave’, invented by Marthe Gautier. This was a loose garment with a hood covering the neck and hair, framing the face with a flattering white band, and loose sleeves to show off dainty wrists. The interest of this article lies not so much in the proposed solution as in the problem itself, that of looking good without the help of elaborate skincare and hair styling rituals.

The fashion article in this number of Les Modes gave an update on the luxury tax discussed in the previous issue. Their fashion writer, Sybil de Lancy, complained bitterly at the depressing effect of this tax on the fashion trades, coming just when fashionable women were trying to update their wardrobes for summer. Some of her points read like a foretaste of current arguments for luxury consumption as a form of sustainable practice:

… the length of time that items last changes their value to the consumer. Imagine a woman who was rational enough to wear the same tailored costume for two or three seasons, sacrificing her engagement with fashion. For this to work  the outfit is made of good quality fabric and well cut, and therefore a luxury item, and taxed as such, even though it was more economical than one that only lasts a single season

However her main conclusion is one that reveals the hollowness of French government rhetoric about the ‘Union parfaite’ of citizens from all levels of society pulling together to fight a common enemy. In de Lancy’s view, upper-class women have already given up many of their privileges to the war effort, and anything that threatens to erode them further should be strongly resisted. Instead of taxing couture clothes as luxuries, the state should recognise them as necessary accoutrements of elite status:

Items that are luxuries for a lower middle-class woman are not for a titled lady, whose  social position requires a higher level of expenditure. Therefore, if both women need something and buy the same version of it, for the less well-off the purchase will be a ‘luxury item’ and will be subject to tax. For the rich woman, the same item will be more economical than those she normally buys – yet it will be taxed as a ‘luxury’ since the price is the same. Is this a fair application of taxation?

Evidently the ‘Union parfaite’ of French society under wartime conditions had its limits…

A garment for air raids, the 'Cape pour la cave' by Marthe Gautier

Posted in Fashion in World War I, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: April 1918

Worth afternoon dress in greige garbardine with circles of soutache braid

During 1918 Les Modes appeared sporadically rather than at monthly intervals: issue 176 has no date on the front cover but its discussions of events in February date it to March. This issue offers slender pickings for readers seeking news of the latest fashions, with the front cover and introductory article devoted to reflections on the fashions of the past. It reproduces a number of nineteenth-century fashion plates which are uncredited, but possibly from the collection of the House of Worth (now in the V&A Museum in London). Rather than examining the ways in which past fashions have informed current styles (which had recently featured ‘medieval’ long sleeves and ‘romantic’ shirt collars) the tenor of the article is a lament for the decline in the importance given to fashionable dress and appearance in the lives of elite women. This lament is a response to two threats toFrench  fashion discussed in the following article: a proposal to bring couture garments within the scope of the wartime luxury tax and, even worse, a denunciation of contemporary fashion from the pulpit during Lent sermons. It is unclear whether the celerical criticism was based on the perceived indecency of current styles, or a condemnation of the attention given to a frivolous topic during a national crisis.

The fashion editor of Les Modes, Sybil de Lancy, defends Paris couture on both grounds. Firstly, she claims that the fashions for Spring 1918 are an accurate reflection of the current needs of French women, establishing a happy medium between the elaborately draped and narrow cut of 1913, and the practical but rather stereotyped wide skirts and military-style capes of 1915-16. She also rebuts the charge of indecency, claiming that the new long and narrow skirts are less coquettishly revealing than the short ankle-skimming shape that they are replacing. She claims that those who denounce new styles as too extreme only reveal their ignorance of the fashion cycle: each new season’s lines are deliberately exaggerated in order to distinguish them from the previous year’s, and to gain attention for their creators. Besides, the outfits presented at fashion shows are modelled by young, slim mannequins who can get away with their daring. The versions made up for respectable society ladies will be substantially modified, with necklines raised, slits in skirts backed with chiffon linings, and sleeves lengthened to give a more decorous appearance. The distance between eye-catching catwalk styles and garments intended for wear can be seen in the outfits illustrated in the magazine; a lounging outfit with harem pants of metallic lame modelled by  a young actress contrasts with masculine-styled pyjamas made up in floral silks. The afternoon dress by Marthida, with its exaggerated diamond silhouette, short skirt, contrasting fabrics, and bead trim, seems designed to be viewed on stage, or to leap off the page of a magazine, while the Worth example, in soft greige wool with self coloured trim,  has a quiet charm that would not pall when worn daily.

Sybil de Lancy’s final argument for the validity of fashion in wartime reiterates the defence, frequetly used since 1914, of its role as a morale-booster, but with a new emphasis. Since France’s ultimate victory is growing nearer every day, it’s only right for Frenchwomen to be exquisitely dressed to welcome their returning heroes! This hope turned out to be premature, as the events of the following weeks would show….

Afternoon dress in black and white satin with bead trim, by Marthilda

Posted in Fashion in World War I | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment