Fashion in World War I: January 2016

A white 'djersette' dress with embroidery for Spring 1916

The January 1916 edition of ‘Le Style Parisien’ promoted some new trends for the coming season, including some innovative fashion fabrics produced by the leading French manufacturers. There were silks sold with lines of toning braid or fringing stitched on, ready to be made up. This would increase the cost of the fabric – and might help to sell French products in the all-important American market. However the trend for added trimmings had a down side, which was that cash-strapped consumers could add them to a home-made ensemble, bypassing fashion professionals.

The second trend in fashion fabrics was a new product by Rodier, ‘djersette’, which combined the fluidity and ‘give’ of wool jersey with the stability of woven wool. This development was a back-handed acknowledgement of the increased dominance of jersey fabrics, already noted in May 1915, which threatened the position of Rodier and other specialists in woven silks. The wartime use of knitwear laid the foundations for the simpler fashions of the 1920s – and established the reputation of Coco Chanel, one of the leaders of the trend.

‘Le Style Parisien’ also noted a Paris premiere by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Soleil de Nuit with choreography by Leonide Massine and designs by Mikhail Larionov based on Russian peasant costumes. Diaghilev’s productions since 1908 had been instrumental in popularizing striking colour schemes and exotic décor in fashion and interiors.  However  at this premiere, the most fashionable women wore black, a mark of the changed mood of Paris fashion since the outbreak of war.

Fashionable silk ribbons for Spring 1916

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Fashion in World War I: December 1915

Dresses shown at the Fete Parisienne in New York, from Le Style Parisien

The ‘Fete Parisienne’ of couture fashion in New York generated welcome publicity for Paris couturiers – and funds for French orphanages. But it also highlighted some of the tensions between French couture houses which originated designs and American wholesalers and retailers. Under war conditions, American private clients were less able to travel to Paris and thus were dependent on middlemen who could bring Paris styles to them. A lengthy editorial in ‘Le Style Parisien’ enumerated the many ways in which these middlemen were exploiting their access to couture showrooms. In addition to the long-standing practices of clandestine sketching, snipping of fabric samples, and bribing couture workshop staff to obtain information, there were some larger-scale abuses. Some middlemen purchased couture garments (after beating down the price) only to copy or adapt them for the mass market. Some allowed American manufacturers to adapt Paris originals in return for the purchase of trimmings sold by the middlemen.

Most damaging to the reputation of French couture was the way in which middlemen were setting themselves up as arbiters of fashion, daring to dictate to couture houses about the length of skirts, or the degree of decoration. Worst of all, they were presenting their copies, rip-offs, and misinterpretations of French styles as Paris originals to unsuspecting American consumers:

‘We didn’t bring back anything from Lanvin, there’s nothing new there. We’ve found something much better from a little house with some amazing ideas’ – a house which they have set up to reproduce their own fakes.

These deep undercurrents in the couture trade also created surface ripples; an article in ‘Le Style Parisien’ addressed to consumers of fashion admitted that the current trend was to simplify the wardrobe: ‘The woman who is not able, for reasons of health or unsuitability, to volunteer as a nurse, can make many savings in her dress budget while remaining elegant, as she will have no need for evening gowns or wraps’. The new simplicity in dress was given a modern edge by a greater use of cosmetics, with Duvelleroy, manufacturer of luxury bags and accessories, bringing out a make-up purse that could be shown off in public.

Another type of accessory fashionable in France was jewellery made as miniatures  of military equipment: not only regimental cap badges, but airplanes, cannons, and bullets, reproduced by Cartier in gold and diamonds. This was explained by American Vogue as:  ‘Symbols, to stand as the visible and outward expression of what the heart feels so keenly, have become essential, symbols of such intrinsic value as themselves to be worthy  of what they represent.’ And if jeweled cannons seemed to trivialise the conflict, there was the option of a bangle made from polished sections of shell casing, sold in aid of a war charity.

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Fashion in World War I: November 1915

Couture textiles by Bianchini Ferier of Lyon (Le Style Parisien)

The big fashion story of November 1915 was the ‘Fete Parisienne’ organised in New York by the ‘Syndicat de Defense de la Couture Parisienne’. Its centrepiece was a short play by Roger Boutet de Monvel with a scenario that explicitly addressed French couturiers’ dependence on American clients to pay their workers, the ‘midinettes’. The hundred couture ensembles presented in the play and in related other events were carefully chosen to follow the fashionable lines established the previous season – this was to avoid both clients and wholesalers rejecting them. Immediately after the opening of the ’Fete’ on 23 November Women’s Wear Daily, the newspaper of the American garment industry, announced ‘Ritz-Carlton Fashion Fete A Success As An Exhibition And Advertising Coup: Showing Regarded As The First Move By New Syndicate —Draws Good Crowd—Display Shows Nothing Radically New In Line, But Much In Detail — Many Beautiful Models And Materials In Exhibit’.

However WWD also reported on actions of the Syndicat which were designed to make life difficult for American retailers and manufacturers: buyers would have to be vetted before attending couture shows, and would be prosecuted for unauthorised sketching, or even for taking notes that could be turned into sketches later! Le Style Parisien explained that the Syndicat had three aims :  ‘a fight to the death’ against the infiltration of the French fashion industry by foreign firms; a fight against the incursion of foreign workers; and a fight against copying or counterfeiting of their members’ designs, and ‘disloyal competition.’ The aggressive language of the Syndicat helps to explain the ambivalent reaction to the ‘Fete Parisienne’ from the American fashion industry.

A shooting outfit by Abercrombie and Fitch (Vogue, November 1915)

New York Vogue seems to have hedged its bets, giving detailed accounts of the French styles but also reporting on a theatre show promoting American fashion – including sportswear by Abercrombie and Fitch!  They also advised their readers on how to cut corners by getting local dressmakers to run up  simple garments like evening wraps in striking fabrics that gave the effect of Paris fashions for a much lower cost.

A home-made evening wrap imitating Poiret (Vogue, November 1911)

Evening dress and coat by Poiret shown in 'La Fete Parisienne' (Le Style Parisien)

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Fashion in World War I: October 1915

Breton styled dresses by Beer, Jenny and Paquin, October 1915, Pl.VII:

In the October issue of ‘Le Style Parisien’, a columnist philosophized on the political resonances of the new season’s fashions. She made a contrast with the styles of 1815, which drew freely from the uniforms of opposing armies – Hussars, Uhlans, and even the perfidious English. She admitted that the beginning of the current war had seen the widespread adoption of garments such as ‘military-style tailored suits, with khaki or army blue overcoats’ – but that these have ‘completely disappeared from the winter collections’. She attributed this change in approach to a greater awareness both of the grim reality of war, and of the political allegiances that supported France:

Now war is too horrible, thanks to those who wished it on us, for us to use it as a source for subversive demonstrations of the kind that happened under Napoleon: then, the style leaders and their followers were anglophiles who wore ‘riding coats’ and top hats even as their Emperor was dreaming up ways to invade Britain. Now, our loyalty and our alliances inspire our couturiers; the researcher of a century from now, leafing through today’s fashion journals, will find nothing but styles called ‘Victory’, ‘Tipperary’, ‘Serbia’ or ‘Moujik’.[p20; my translation]

French couturiers were looking to local traditions rather than to exotic warriors for inspiration, with dresses based on the costumes of Breton or Alsatian peasants.

The columnist also noted a shift in female deportment: some couturiers had tired of the loose-waisted, sacklike silhouette of recent months and had tried to revive the curvy, small-waisted figure fashionable in 1905. However this had not been a success, as the hourglass figure now looked ‘hideous, unhealthy and out-dated’. The current ideal of beauty was feminine but neat and ready for action, a striking contrast from the slinky vamps of prewar years:

mannequin ne s’envolent sous nos yeux ahuris. in the days – which seem so long ago now –  when skirts were narrow, models swayed along, very slowly, one foot dragged reluctantly after the other; they had a langourous, feline gait, with swaying shoulders and hooded gaze like tango dancers. Nowadays things have completely changed : a spruce, coquettish little woman bounds along the catwalk, then suddenly stops, spinning like a top to right and left so that her skirt swings like a bell from side to side, revealing each ankle in turn. Her skirts are so full and so light that that they look as if they might float away like a balloon, carrying off the mannequin in front of our astonished gaze.[p.17 , my translation]

This fast-moving gait was best served by fluid dresses in soft fabrics such as wool jersey – the material selected by Gabrielle Chanel for her debut collections of sportswear.

Fashion fabrics, October 1915

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Fashion in World War I: September 1915

Ensembles by Martial and Armand, Le Style Parisien, September 1915

In September 2015, Le Style Parisien showcased styles for the coming winter season by leading Paris couturiers, with detailed description of gowns and accessories. More interesting than these were the accompanying meditations  on the current state of the French fashion industry. The main fashion feature was cast as a letter from ‘Francine’, an imagined Parisienne, writing to a friend in New York. Her wish to give ‘the greatest number possible of pretty outfits so that people there can see clearly that French fashion is continuing as usual’ is a clear statement of the key purpose of Le Style Parisien.

Another article in this issue, ostensibly reporting on trends in millinery, instead focusses on the sorry state of the French trade, ‘a kind of anarchy which will ruin a part of the most important branch of French industry’. It expresses outrage that established specialists in design, construction and trimming are being undermined by upstart stylists who produce their designs in-house in order to cut costs. Consumers are also blamed for this cheapening of French design, as they are now wearing the same cheap hats summer and winter rather than shopping for new styles to complement each season’s fashions. This situation is exacerbated by the predatory behaviour of

our neighbours and allies, the English. Their incredible understanding of trade and of how it should be conducted, gave them a needle-sharp view of this point which was weakening in us. Even in wartime, and to Paris, they sent negotiators authorised to make huge deals, in order to transfer the power that was so recently ours to London.

Against this triple threat the writer has no practical defences, only the vain hope of:

A decision to decree Fashion in a co-ordinated way, and not to submit to the constantly changing music-hall fantasies of a style which derives only from the more or less outrageous taste of the woman who wears it.

This view of fashion as the preserve of a privileged elite, directed by French tastemakers, underlies an interview with Jean Worth, director of the House of Worth, quoted in the article by ‘Francine’.  He is asked about his decision to promote a silhouette with a nipped-in waist that would require a new style of corset, gives the rationale that:

Fashion has taken on a too relaxed form in recent times; all women, from duchesses to shopgirls, walk around muffled up in an English officer’s raincoat, even in the afternoon; that this will be the death of the industry and of couture; that everything must be done to avoid this kind of vulgarisation and that the first step is to design fitted dresses, since they are much more difficult to make than other kinds, and are much more attractive and distinguished

This passage is refreshing in its frankness about the economic motivation for introducing a style that would be hard for mass manufacturers to copy, and hard for non-elite consumers to wear. But it is also revealing of the disdain of couturiers for the priorities of consumers, an attitude which posed more of a threat to their trade than any number of British rivals.

Dark coloured fashion fabrics in Le Style Parisien, September 1915

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Fashion in World War I: August 1915

Silk day dresses, Plate III, Le Style Parisien no 1

In August 1915, war had been raging for a year, and had created deep-seated economic and social changes even for non-combatants. In both Britain and France, the social season which had provided a rationale for fashion consumption by the elite was curtailed by restrictions on travel and by the closure of places of entertainment. Daytime events such as tea parties and matinee concerts had largely replaced dining out and evenings at the opera, removing some of the need for formal evening clothes. Daytime clothing had also been simplified to reflect the absence of servants – chaffeurs and maids – whose work had underpinned the elite lifestyle.

In these circumstances, the luxury trades, and especially Parisian couture, were severely challenged. But couture was too important both economically and symbolically to be allowed to fail. Accordingly, the Syndicat de Defense de la Grande Couture Française et des Industries s’y rattachant launched a new monthly publication called le Style Parisien in July 1915. This was aimed both at the couture client and at fashion retailers, and was available in an English edition sold in London and New York through Conde Nast, the publishers of Vogue. The first issue contained several rationales for the importance of fashionable clothing, even in wartime. One was economic, with multiple French businesses, from dye manufacturers and silk works to sewing workshops, linked to the fashion trade and suffering from wartime disruption to clothing exports. However this rationale could also be used to justify buying mass-produced clothing, which had become increasingly important since 1900, particularly for the tailored daywear that was a mainstay of wartime wardrobes.

The other rationale was more interesting, as it characterised the French couturier not as the head of a business enterprise but as a fine artist and an adept psychologist who helped his clients to present their individual selves. The couturier was described as an expert in world art, able to combine elements seen in his travels, his museum visits, and his reading, to create garments which were as different from the styles mass-produced by manufacturers as ‘the centuries-old chateau with the patina of age is from a little suburban villa’. The designs of great couturiers were seen as combining inventiveness with a refined understanding of aesthetic  standards that ensured their success.

Notwithstanding these claims of fashion as a form of art, le Style Parisien accepted that even the most dedicated clients were having to restrict their consumption of fashion. There was a stress on multifunctional designs, with couture garments that could be made up in different fabric combinations by retailers who had purchased a toile. Precise details of suitable fabrics by Bianchini-Ferier and other manufacturers were also given to encourage sales of French silks. For individuals not able to travel to Paris to place orders, there were cutting diagrams for the latest styles; the effect of these would depend on the skill of the dressmaker.

Striped silk fabrics recommended for making up dresses in Plate III, Le Style Parisien no 1

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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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