Fashion in World War I: September 1916

Three day ensembles of soft wool trimmed with Chinese embroidery

The September 1916 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes contained some articles that laid bare the very real economic and political rivalry between the French and German fashion industries. It reported with approval on an initiative to mark all goods produced in France (not just garments, but automobiles and household items) with a ‘Unis-France’ label supported by a union of French manufacturers. The Ministry of Commerce intended to back up this initiative with legislation imposing severe penalties for infringement – fines and even imprisonment for manufacturers or wholesalers who claimed French status for imported goods. There was a clear economic rationale for the Unis-France label, as another article in the magazine revealed. Under the heading ‘Keep our Gold in France’ the writer explained that the French luxury trades, even in the midst of war, were still highly dependent on imports. In 1915, eight MILLION francs had been spent on imported silk fabrics, even though Lyon was recognised as the centre of the European silk industry. Exotic trimmings, such as the Chine embroideries in the plate above, were not the problem: the main concern was the import of goods produced in enemy states such as Germany.

The interrelated nature of the European fashion industries was highlighted by two other features in this issue of the magazine. One gave a sarcastic account of a meeting of German and Austrian fashion designers congratulating themselves on the extent to which the Paris fashion magazines were following German designs. This was ridiculed – of course German fashion was completely dependent on the pirating of French ideas. The author reassured his readers that French fashion could only be worn effectively by French women: Germans were too plain, and Americans too lacking in restraint, to be really tasteful. The complexity of the international fashion trade was shown by another article reporting on a court case where the fashion house Drecoll sued the director of Aine-Montaillé, a rival couturier, for slander. Aine-Montaillé had claimed Drecoll were an Austrian-German enterprise which did not have the right to trade in France, and had encouraged a French senator to denounce Drecoll in public. An investigation showed that Drecoll had originally been founded in Vienna, then taken over by two Germans (one naturalised French), and one Swiss backer, who had registered the company in England and set up a Paris house. Since 1915 the German backer and German employees of Drecoll had had their bank accounts sequestered, and the firm had been been denounced in the newspapers. The judgement in the case was harsh: Aine-Montaillé had only reported the truth, so the claims of slander were dismissed. As a result, Drecoll could be liable for prosecution under the ‘Unis-France’ legislation, in addition to losing access to funding from their backers – and presumably losing the goodwill of their clients as well. This court case reveals the real damage caused by attempts to ‘purify’ or ‘nationalise’ international enterprises, whether in Germany in 1935 or in France in 1915.

A playful detail: male braces imitated in ribbon on female underwear

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Fashion in World War I: August 1916

'France' day ensemble with patch pockets, by Jenny

The August edition of Les Elégances Parisiennes was deeply concerned with the shifting relationship between Paris couturiers and American fashion houses and retailers. There was a lengthy report on a new initiative to control and monetise the reproduction of French designs in America, which had been an issue even before 1913. Apparently there were five different levels of businesses involved in copying French couture models – from designers making one-off copies for individual clients, through manufacturers churning out reproductions for the mass market, to textile firms lending Paris originals to manufacturers who agreed to buy the fabric to make them up. Interestingly, the main objection to mass copying was framed in terms of undercutting prices, rather than cheapening the quality of the originals. There was a proposal that American manufacturers could be licenced to copy French fashions, with a special label to reassure the client that they were getting an accurate version. This would be enforced by an elaborate system of certificates and receipts, adding to the cost of the American copies – and lessening the extent to which they were undercutting French originals. However the means of enforcing this detailed system, and of punishing any infringements (given the ambiguous legal status of fashion designs in the US law) was not clarified.

Looking ahead, another article predicted that American capital would be needed to rebuild French industry after the end of the war. It reassured French readers that American investors would be happy to support French business practices and employ French professionals – unlike German financiers, who were accused of economic imperialism, staffing French firms with German technicians. Again, this sounds more like wishful thinking than a viable economic model. In reality, French fashion industries were already being underwritten by American funds, not least in the many charitable collections made for fashion worker. In one example the American fund for subsidising fashion workers’ rents had collected 115,000 FF.

The fashion designs in this issue fall into two categories, those for summer wear (beach and sports outfits) and those for the coming winter (heavy coats in checked wool). The sportswear is interesting as it shows a continuation of the trend for fluid, wearable garments so successfully fulfilled by Chanel. There are unstructured dresses held at the waist with loose belts or sashes, and mix and match ensembles of skirts with Russian-style blouses or knitted jackets (seee below). The main stylistic features in this issue were belts – in leather or plaited braid – and pockets. Most of the day dresses and suits (like the one by Jenny above) incorporated large pockets, some highlighted with tabbed fastenings or contrast trimming, others hidden in skirt gather, but all large enough to substitute for a handbag. These pockets speak of the changes in elite women’s lives since 1914, travelling and working independently – and no longer able to rely on a maid to fetch and carry for them.

Tennis outfits: a jacket with Ottoman style sleeves, and a pinafore with vents showing a silk under dress

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Fashion in World War I – July 1916

Jersey outfits trimmed with embroidery by Chanel, July 1916

In July 1917, the contradictions underpinning Paris haute couture were more apparent than ever. On July 1 the Allied armies embarked on the assault that was to become known as the Battle of the Somme, costing an unprecedented 1 million lives by the time it finally ended 180 days later. French life was more constrained than ever by the war; even the wealthy elite were unable to travel and were planning summer holidays in French resorts. Manufacturing industry continued, but with shortages of both materials and manpower causing difficulties. As Les Elégances Parisiennes explained, some factories had been moved out of German-occupied zones, but faced problems recruiting skilled workers. Two effective solutions were to train women or to adapt manufacturing processes to the capabilities of war wounded men. There was also some switching of production, with the silk looms of Lyon adapted to produce cotton cloth for military uniforms. By doing this French textile manufacturers managed to maintain or even increase on pre-1914 exports.
One increasingly important export market was South America, and there were various initiatives to improve sales of French couture there. One was a theatrical tour by popular French actors and actresses, with on-stage and off-stage wardrobes provided by leading couturiers. Theatrical performances (and the new moving pictures) were one of the ways of showcasing new styles, which would be viewed by hundreds, and read about by thousands in illustrated reviews. Les Elégances Parisiennes for July 1916 describes gowns for the theatre covered with metallic lace or bold embroidery that would show up well on stage. In cut and materials, many couture gowns were referencing styles from past centuries: Victorian crinolines, Romantic sleeves, Rococo silks and Renaissance lace were combined in ensembles like the ones below. There was a tendency towards excess, driven by couturiers’ need to justify their high prices and manufacturers’ wish to promote costly materials. Les Elégances Parisiennes warned against this, tactfully blaming excessive decoration on the demands of  uneducated clients, rather than on designers. Wherever it came from, this tendency was to be resisted as it threatened to undermine the global reputation of French good taste.
Opposing the  elaborate confections of lace, embroidery and fine silks were some simpler styles which could be worn for practical activities such as seaside walks. For these, wool or cotton jersey fabric was now a firm favourite, as it allowed the body to move and did not need careful maintenance. The difficulty for designers lay in persuading elite clients to pay couture prices for garments made from such commonplace materials. Gabrielle Chanel was at the forefront of the designers working in jersey, varying her styles with unusual details such as the double belt in the image above, or by adding trimmings like embroidery. One of her rivals took the stretch properties of jersey to their logical conclusion, in a shift dress with a wide neck and elasticated waist. In dresses like these we can see the origins of the radical simplicity of the 1920s.

Day dresses with historical references in silk and lace for July 1916

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Fashion in World War I: June 1916

Fashionable outfits - including mourning - for a wedding, Les Elegances Parisiennes

The June 1916 issue of Les Elégances Parisiennes had a slightly different format from the first two numbers. The tension between information relevant to fashion professionals and articles advising couture clients what to buy was resolved by cutting the section for consumers. Instead, there was a fact-filled account of the state of French fashion exports in 1916. This is extremely interesting as it gives a precise value to exports of different types of garments and to specific markets. Apparently lingerie exports had been especially badly affected, falling from 56.5 million francs pre-war to 39 million in 1915, and again to 24 million in 1915. This may have been because 30% of French lingerie exports pre-war went to Britain, now struggling under war conditions. The British Board of Trade had recently introduced a stringent ban on imports of cotton and wool clothing in order to protect their own manufactures. Belgium, another important market for French lingerie, was currently under German occupation and closed to imports from France. Another factor that had severely affected the French clothing trade was the geography of production, as war-torn north of the country had previously been the base for the production of wool and cotton clothing. Some manufacturers had managed to move their factories to a safer location, pushing exports back to 75% of their pre-war value.

Other sectors of French fashion were less badly hit; exports of silk clothing had actually increased since 1913, even for Britain. There were also new markets opening up in South America, notably Brazil, where exports of French silk garments had increased fivefold since 1913, and Argentina. Even so, the overall value of French fashion exports for the first two months of 1916 showed a 40% drop from 1914. The total value of fashion exports, 16 million francs for two months, clarifies why the health of the fashion trade was such a vital concern, and why French products were so zealously promoted against foreign competitors.

MOURNING: One of the interesting points of the couture fashion press is the interaction with the realities of consumers’ lives. There are some acid remarks in the June 1916 Les Elégances Parisiennes about the couture clients who ask for ‘special wartime prices’ because their incomes have been affected by the war – failing to recognise that manufacturers’ costs have risen, and any reduction would have to come out of the wages of hard-pressed workers. While this was undoubtedly true, it was also the case that many clients’ incomes had been hit by the economic disruption of war, to say nothing of the death of husbands, sons and fathers in the ongoing slaughter. When we look closely at the fashion plates in Les Elégances Parisiennes the evidence for these losses is plain: the June bride is flanked by two young women in black dresses. They could well be in mourning (though not new widows, whose clothing would be covered in matt black crape). Another plate shows fashionable ensembles for the second stage of mourning, in black and white checks with soft lilac trim. Prior to 1914 the different stages of mourning had extended over two or even three years for a close relative (husband, father or son). However the growing toll of losses meant that some families would never be out of mourning clothes, making them less of a sign of a specific loss.

Fashionable 'half mourning' in black and white for June 1916

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Fashion in World War I: May 1916

Three suits by Chanel in silk and wool jersey

The second issue of Les Elégances Parisiennes opened with a revealing discussion of the difficulties facing the French fashion industry in wartime. The Lyon trade fair for fashion trades the previous month had been a huge success, with large orders placed by Allied buyers for goods ranging from decorative hair combs to silk fabrics. But the execution of these orders might prove problematic with materials in short supply. A corset manufacturer had received enough orders to keep them busy for three years – IF the government allocated them enough steel to make stiffenings and fastenings. There was a lengthy article criticising the actions of the Société Suisse de Surveillance Economique;  French manufacturers were sending goods to neutral Switzerland only to find that they were re-exported to hostile Germany and Austria. Underlying the paranoia in accounts of German salesmen being allowed home from the war in order to carry out industrial espionage was a justifiable anxiety about the shortcomings of French business practices. How was it that German firms had been able to undersell French producers, even in the French colonies?

After the closely-printed pages of industry news came an illustrated account of the latest fashions, apparently adressed to couture clients. It is not clear how the different sections of the publication were intended to be used, but it is noteworthy that the coloured plates and illustrated articles could be detached for separate distribution. The fashion trends discussed continued to follow two divergent paths. One of them consisted of lavish formal gowns with wide skirts made wider by frills and draperies. These were ideal for displaying the rich fabrics and embroideries and delicate laces produced by French firms, and the plate captions give precise ordering details for the textiles used. These styles would also require the latest underpinnings, including corsets with rounded hips and petticoats stiffened with hoops, and matching accessories such as shoes and mantles. The thoroughness of seasonal changes was what made the fashion industry so important in driving consumption, even in wartime.

Opposed to the high fashion of the established couture houses like Worth, Paquin and Chéruit were the more informal clothes being offered by smaller firms. Gabrielle Chanel was gaining recognition for her casual ensembles made from wool and silk jersey, described as ‘ideal for cruises or for the countryside’. The three illustrated here show that she was expanding her range, offering a version in khaki wool with a patch-pocketed jacket based on military uniform, and a more feminine ensemble in violet silk trimmed with bands of velvet. It was this ability to vary a successful formula that would prove crucial to her success.

Three evening wraps showcasing French silk brocades and embroideries

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Fashion in World War I: April 1916

Dresses by Lanvin with 'peasant' blouses, Elegances Parisiennes

In April 1916, the first issue of Les Elegances Parisiennes appeared, incorporating some of the journalists and features from Le Style Parisien, but with stronger links to French couture and luxury textile trades. The contents were an uneasy mixture of fashion reportage, in illustrated articles aimed at couture clients, advertorial, with fashion plates detailing the latest cuts and textiles, and trade news. A lengthy article by M. Kempf, President of the Délégation des Industries Créatrices de la Mode spelled out what he saw as the main threats facing the French fashion trade during wartime. He did not mention the loss of overseas clients owing to travel restrictions, which the New York ‘Fete Parisienne’ had been at pains to address a few months earlier. Nor did he mention the difficulties of accessing raw materials and skilled labour when French industry had been placed on a war footing. Instead, he identified areas in which he felt French trade had been undermined by German initiatives, claiming that :

Before the war, most of the shipping agencies for the international market and especially Russia were German. I will not suprise anyone if I add that these agencies were involved in organised industrial espionnage, sending back information about our most successful exports.

He highlighted the need for French organisations to step in and replace German-sponsored events like the Leipzig textile trade fair, and called for the French postal service to improve its international shipping rates. Leaving aside the element of paranoia, this passage is interesting for the picture it presents of a pan-European fashion trade connecting manufacturers, middlemen and consumers from Paris to St Petersburg.

The styles in this issue of Elegances Parisiennes showed the prevailing trend was an 1830s revival, with sloping shoulders, balloon sleeves, fitted waists, and wide ankle-length skirts.  This was sometimes varied with references to the seventeenth-century Spanish styles seen in the paintings of Velaquez, such as wide lace collars and hooped skirts.  In this atmosphere of Romantic revivalism, the simple shift dresses of Paul Poiret looked anomalous – they were illustrated but not commented on. Within this consensus, there were styles aimed at very different markets. There were evening dresses lavished with silver lace and beaded embellishment from established couture houses like Worth and Beer; these would be of limited use in Paris, where formal evening events were now rare. But there were also simpler or multi-functional ensembles, such as wool suits with fancy silk blouses that could be worn both for shopping and at daytime socials, designed by younger firms like Jenny and Lanvin. The fashion columnist Martine Renier summed up these differences as:

‘Fashion for Allied countries – subdued tailoring and simple little dresses – and fashion for Neutral countries – rich, elegant, and refined – which we send out around the world, shining as brightly as our hopes.’

Poiret shift dress, Elegances Parisiennes

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Fashion in World War I: March 1916

Trying out fashionable fabrics for the new 'Marie Antoinette' styles

For March 1916, we return to American Vogue, where the war was seen as having a broadly positive effect on the fashion industry. An article with the long-winded title  ‘The Warp and Woof of Spring: France is producing some of the most Interesting Fabrics Which Ever Came from Her Looms, and America Comes Forward with Some Prodigies of Her Infant industry’ highlighted recent advances in American textile manufacturing. The anonymous author begun with a picture of the relationship between textiles and culture to delight a textile historian like myself:

From bits of the materials woven in the various countries during the different ages, even those uninitiated in the study of textiles can read an intelligible story….The materials which to-day are scattered over the counters in the shops of Fifth Avenue or which hang on the little brass hooks in the pretty salons of the dressmakers, are all part of this great story in textiles and they, like the materials of long ago, speak of things more important than their own beauty or charm. This gay silk which a vivacious matron has just chosen for an evening frock will, a thousand years from now…give mute testimony to the fortitude of France under the stress of a great war; that soft stuff which a brown-haired debutante has just decided upon for a new skating costume may prove to some bespectacled student in the future that in the year 1916 there was at least one mill in America which wove wool materials as fine as any in the world

This emphasis on fashionable fabrics, reminds us that in 1916 Vogue readers might be having garments made by small dressmakers, or even at home. This early March issue of presented the new season’s range of dressmaking patterns, a major aspect of the magazine’s success; they might be used by professionals as well as amateurs for information on the latest cut.

Alongside the rich silk brocades and metallic laces recommended for evening gowns, and light foulards and taffetas for summer frocks, Vogue also noted the continued importance of wool jersey. This had first been mentioned in February 1915, as a novel fabric for casual jackets worn at the seaside resorts of Deauville and Monte Carlo. By March 1916 jersey was being made into dresses and suits – as Le Style Parisien had noted – and one designer in particular was specialising in these chic but comfortable garments:

One see modest tailored frocks of more or less familiar shape, muslin gowns under fur-trimmed coats of jersey, and smart suits of jersey combined with cloth or silk; and each one, to the knowing eye, is labelled large, ‘Chanel’.

A Chanel suit in white jersey trimmed in green for Spring 1916

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Fashion in World War I: February 1916

Dresses with separate jackets and blouses, February 1916

In February 1916, Le Style Parisien issued its final number. In a statement to its subscribers, it clarified that this was for moral reasons as much as for economic ones. It had aimed to create a publication that would speak for French couture houses, and defend them against Austrian and German competitors, but were not alone in this field:

Hachette publishing house has this same aim and a similar ambition and we therefore thought that we it was right for the two organisations to unite. Therefore, Le Style Parisien will merge with Les Elegances Parisiennes, the official organ of the ‘Delegation of the creative industries of fashion’.

This elision between economic and nationalistic motivations can be seen throughout the journal, and helps to explain some of the odd discrepancies in tone between and even within editorial articles. In this final issue, the ‘Lettre d’une Parisienne’ opens by welcoming the new trend for ‘pelerine’ capelets and bolero jackets, which can be made in different materials to match or contrast with a dress, creating several outfits at a minimal price.  The implication is that these unfitted over-garments could be made by a less skilled dressmaker, bypassing the professionals. The latest trends in trimmings include fancy ribbons, recommended for sashes and neckties to freshen up the wardrobe at little expense.

Yet elsewhere in the same article there is an interview with a specialist boot-maker, M. Genera, who worked for Jenny and other couture houses. He describes his new season’s range of fancy boots in satin and patent leather for wear with indoor dresses, rather than the more usual pumps. It is clear that the trend for shorter skirts, and wartime restrictions on the use of carriages and motor cars, would make boots more practical. But M. Genera is careful to distance himself from mass-market trends, claiming that:

Boots are harder to make well, and the cheap imitations are awful. Anyone can make a good pair of shoes but not everyone can make a smart pair of boots. Really fashionable women know this, and will only give up boots when long narrow skirts return.

This tension between the need of the consumers for affordable and wearable wardrobe solutions, and the desire of couturiers to maintain their exclusivity and high standards of workmanship, was central to the fashion industry in 1916 – and remains so today.

Ribbon sashes to update dresses, February 1916

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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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