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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