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.