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.