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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Fashion in World War I: August 1914

Les Modes, August 1914: cover

I intend to run a series of posts showing the way that fashion changed between 1914 and 1919, both in the couture system and for women working in factories or military support. I will be uploading original texts and images of historic magazines, pattern catalogues, garments, and photographs. To start off, here is a section of the Paris magazine Les Modes from August 1914, performing a neat segue from the assasination of Franz Ferdinand to the need for new frocks!

  • ‘Since Parisians, following the example of Londoners, have extended their retreat to the seaside or the country to the end of the summer, one can no longer say that the summer season finishes with the horse racing Grand Prix, for it is prolonged by lavish entertainments. One can however say that the season reaches its apogee of elegance during the dazzling week of the races: there is an apotheosis of colours and of whispers, of applause for the winners of these famous races and for their owners. We forget, for these few days, the political disagreements and the worries of the morrow; gaiety permeates the atmosphere… This year, it was not a meteorological storm that disturbed the serenity of the sky, throwing a dark cloud over the lightheartedness that usually attends the race meetings. The horrific attack on the Crown Prince of Austria and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, roused deep emotions in our hearts. We were shocked at this new drama that drenched the ancient house of Habsburg in blood; we wept for the octogenarian ruler whose heirs had predeceased him;  we meditated on the litany of martyr kings; we were revolted by the unbounded fury of murderers who assassinated not only kings but their heirs apparent.  Finally, we were particularly saddened by this tragic end to a royal love story, and by this massacre which united in death, as in life, the heir to one of the most ancient royal families of Europe and the wife whom he loved so much, even though she would not have been permitted to share his imperial crown. This attack cast a dark shadow over the brilliant Parisian social season which was drawing to a close. But the life of high society, which is so often called artificial, is like nature in that it can produce new growth and new flowers that cover any trace of past damage. Social life is starting up again, resuming its smiles and light-heartedness after the sorrowful tributes to the deceased. Social activities are resuming, showing courage in the face of this brutal assault; and the tide of fashion has started to flow again…’    (Les Modes, Paris, August 1914, p8; original in French, my tranlation)
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Art Nouveau Fashion 1890 -1914

OPera Cloak from Marshall and Snelgrove, London c1895

My book, ‘Art Nouveau Fashion 1890-1914′ will be published by V&A Publishing in September – the preview copies are now out and looking handsome. It was a privilege to work with so many beautiful objects and documents in the V&A collections – I was really spoilt for choice. Researching it I found out so much fascinating information that it couldn’t all be included. One theme that came through very strongly was the rivalry between couturiers in Paris, London and New York – fashion was a cut-throat business, with designs being pirated and corners being cut in order to secure prestigious commissions. No less a person than Queen Alexandra of England had to swear her fashion advisors to secrecy to avoid being upstaged at her own coronation!

I will be posting more from the book over the next few months, meanwhile here is the cover image:

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Derbyshire cotton mills

Arkwright's Cressbrook Mill, 1783

A visit to the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire is a chance to see some of the most important sites in the early Industrial Revolution. Less well known than Manchester, this area was arguably more important for the development of cotton spinning technology. Between 1771 and 1783 Richard Arkwright set up three mills in the area – two within a few miles of each other – and installed his innovative ‘spinning jennies’. The machinery was powered by the water of the River Derwent, which was also used to transport raw materials and finished products. Visiting the sites now it seems incredible that factories employing hundreds were set up in such isolated valleys, miles from the ports through which cotton fibre was imported. In the 1770s the area was sparsely populated, and Arkwright had to advertise for families to come and work in his mills, and then build houses for them. There was also a scheme for employing orphans sent from London and other large cities, who were housed and educated in the mill where they worked. While this sounds like a recipe for exploitation, Katrina Honeyman’s research has shown that Poor Law authorities did try to ensure good conditions for ‘their’ children. Factories employing large numbers of children were easier to check up on, and better regulated, than traditional trades like farming and domestic service.

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The Great British Sailor Suit

Sailor Suits on Great British Sewing Bee

Saior suits from Chas. Baker & Co., 1897

Sailor suits for little boys were the first democratic fashion – easy to make and easy to wear, with no stiff collars or fussy fastenings. They were mass-produced in British factories from 1870 onwards, and became the default outfit for boys starting school. There were  washable cotton versions for seaside holidays – and fancy velvet ones with lace trim for party wear. Clothing manufacturers loved the fact that there was a constant demand for them – and issued new versions every year with slightly different trim. Mothers loved the fact that the baggy tops gave room for growth, and could be worn over layers in winter. Small boys dreamed of having a version with a cap and a whistle like a real sailor – while older boys saw sailor suits as childish, suited only for Infants School.

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Embroidered adornment for men: a Rake’s Progress

E tautz at London Fashion week 2014

The E Tautz catwalk at the 2014 London Men’s Fashion week showcased embroidered embellishments by students at the Royal school of Needlework. Following the theme of the ‘Rake’s Progress’, embroidered motifs were left unfinished and distressed, to give the impression of precious garments that were relics of former prosperity. A real-life ‘Rake’s Progress’ can be traced in Henry Cyril Paget (1875- 1905), the 5th Marquess of Anglesey. His love of extravagant entertainments bankrupted him in 1904, with debts of half a million pounds – only five years of his income, at a time when many families were living on £100 a year. Paget’s possessions were sold to pay his creditors – some of his suits were purchased by Vesta Tilley, a music-hall male impersonator who appeared as ‘Burlington Bertie’. An Art Nouveau embroidered waistcoat, probably designed especially for Paget, was bought by his friend Miss Emilie Grigsby and later presented to the V&A.

Creed waistcoat for henry Paget, c1900 V&A t.177-1967

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Remembering those who served

Pincushion made by a soldier c1875-1900, Goldsmiths' College, University of London

At the time of year when we remember those lost in wars, it’s particularly moving to see craft objects made by soldiers on active service. There is a long tradition of handicrafts made by soldiers and sailors from scraps of fabric or items at hand like shells (both the marine variety and munitions casings). Sometimes these were for sale, like the carvings done by sailors. Most interesting, however, is the large number of pieces made to send home to loved ones, often incorporating images or messages from the maker. Pincushions were pieced together from a patchwork of uniform fabrics, decorated with beads, sequins, and ribbons, then sent home ‘For Mother’ – as they tell us in beaded lettering. This example, from the collections of Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, makes a direct appeal: ‘Forget me Not’.

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Anyone for Tennis?

Tennis apron, from 'Madame Schild' Shilling Dress Patterns', Issue 7, 1889 (British Library)

Given the recent triumph by Andy Murray at the Wimbledon championships, tennis may be about to have a resurgence of interest – not before time. Lawn Tennis (so called because it was played outside, unlike ‘real’ or ‘royal’ tennis, played in a specially constructed room) has a long history in Britain, but not for the reasons we might expect. In the 1870s it became popular as an upper-class diversion, played on the lawns of large country houses. It was one of the few sports acceptable for young ladies (other than horse riding, which was much more expensive) and ‘tennis parties’ provided a welcome opportunity for young people to socialise relatively informally. Not surprisingly, ladies’ tennis clothing was chosen for its smartness as much as for its practicality; dress sleeves were so tight that it was impossible to serve underarm, and corsets and hats were de rigueur. One concession to sportswear was the ‘tennis apron’ which protected the front of the dress from grass stains and abrasion, usually made with a large pocket on the front for storing tennis balls. Patterns to make these at home started to appear around 1878.

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