Fashion in World War I: January 1917

Three dresses by Poiret, including 'Cartouche' (right)

The January 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes revealed that the French fashion industry was being threatened not only by German competitors, but by the actions of British allies. This threat came not so much through British products as through newly imposed trade tariffs. These imposed restrictions on non-essential goods imported to Britain, in addition to high customs fees. The British intention was to ensure that the limited space on incoming ships was devoted to the raw materials needed for the war effort and for civilian subsistence. If this meant that British businesses producing fashionable garments had to close down due to a shortage of imported materials, never mind – their workshops could be taken over for military supplies. The representatives of Paris couture pointed out that this policy was extremely short-sighted, and highly damaging to an industry that was central to the French economy. Moreover, as couture garments were very light in weight, banning their import would have a negligeable effect on the space available in British cargo ships. The article in Les Élégances Parisiennes detailed the quantities involved: a total of 24,000,000 kg of French textiles and clothing had been exported to Britain in the previous year, with a net value of 371 Million FF. Approximately ten percent of these goods, by weight, were feathers prepared for millinery – given how light these are, they probably accounted for more than 10 per cent of the total volume. These impressively large quantities give impetus to the French claims of the economic importance of fashion, and remind us that commercial life was continuing in wartime, in spite of all obstacles.

The developments of fashion discussed in this issue seem to have taken a step backwards; while the ‘barrel’ line of the previous issue is still prominent, it is rivalled by a range of complex cuts, with over-drapes, flying panels, straps and gathers. There is a trend for mixtures of fabrics, even in daywear, such as wool serge and silk crepe de chine, and for contrasting colours and textures in visible linings. The overall effect is somewhat fussy, with looped up over-drapes and oversized pockets producing bulging silhouettes reminiscent of 1880. These skirts would require great care in cutting and construction, and may represent a fightback from the fashion trade against the chemise-like smocks shown by couturiers such as Poiret and Jenny, which were alll too easy for amateurs to copy at home. To our eyes, they make the simplicity of Poiret even more desirable.

skirt designs with multiple layers and panels

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