Fashion in World War I: September 1916

Three day ensembles of soft wool trimmed with Chinese embroidery

The September 1916 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes contained some articles that laid bare the very real economic and political rivalry between the French and German fashion industries. It reported with approval on an initiative to mark all goods produced in France (not just garments, but automobiles and household items) with a ‘Unis-France’ label supported by a union of French manufacturers. The Ministry of Commerce intended to back up this initiative with legislation imposing severe penalties for infringement – fines and even imprisonment for manufacturers or wholesalers who claimed French status for imported goods. There was a clear economic rationale for the Unis-France label, as another article in the magazine revealed. Under the heading ‘Keep our Gold in France’ the writer explained that the French luxury trades, even in the midst of war, were still highly dependent on imports. In 1915, eight MILLION francs had been spent on imported silk fabrics, even though Lyon was recognised as the centre of the European silk industry. Exotic trimmings, such as the Chine embroideries in the plate above, were not the problem: the main concern was the import of goods produced in enemy states such as Germany.

The interrelated nature of the European fashion industries was highlighted by two other features in this issue of the magazine. One gave a sarcastic account of a meeting of German and Austrian fashion designers congratulating themselves on the extent to which the Paris fashion magazines were following German designs. This was ridiculed – of course German fashion was completely dependent on the pirating of French ideas. The author reassured his readers that French fashion could only be worn effectively by French women: Germans were too plain, and Americans too lacking in restraint, to be really tasteful. The complexity of the international fashion trade was shown by another article reporting on a court case where the fashion house Drecoll sued the director of Aine-Montaillé, a rival couturier, for slander. Aine-Montaillé had claimed Drecoll were an Austrian-German enterprise which did not have the right to trade in France, and had encouraged a French senator to denounce Drecoll in public. An investigation showed that Drecoll had originally been founded in Vienna, then taken over by two Germans (one naturalised French), and one Swiss backer, who had registered the company in England and set up a Paris house. Since 1915 the German backer and German employees of Drecoll had had their bank accounts sequestered, and the firm had been been denounced in the newspapers. The judgement in the case was harsh: Aine-Montaillé had only reported the truth, so the claims of slander were dismissed. As a result, Drecoll could be liable for prosecution under the ‘Unis-France’ legislation, in addition to losing access to funding from their backers – and presumably losing the goodwill of their clients as well. This court case reveals the real damage caused by attempts to ‘purify’ or ‘nationalise’ international enterprises, whether in Germany in 1935 or in France in 1915.

A playful detail: male braces imitated in ribbon on female underwear

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