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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