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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