Fashion in World War I: May 1917

Evening dresses by Callot showcasing Lyon silk brocades

The May 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes reported on some encouraging signs for the French fashion industries. The textile trade fair in Lyons had been better attended than in its first year, and with over 2,300 stands including 380 from overseas firms. This is remarkable for wartime, and testimony to the extent to which France was still seen as the fashion leader of the world. The commercial success of the event is harder to evaluate; some of the exhibitors were not able to take new orders as their output had been cut by wartime shortages of materials and of trained workers. Overseas exhibitors might find it hard to deliver any orders placed by French clients, as there was a new law proposing a total ban on imported goods. While intended to support French industry and to cut off funds to German firms, this threatened to undermine fashion houses with their constant need for new and varied materials and trimmings. Previously fashion manufacturing had been highly fragmented, with different firms and different areas specialising in different types of cloth and different garments or accessories – hats, gloves, shoes, hosiery, bags, corsetry, lingerie, lace, dresses, tailoring, furs….. When the wool-producing areas of France were occupied by Germany it was not easy for silk weavers to make up the shortfall, although they were trying their hardest.

The report on the Lyon trade fair also noted some encouraging signs in ready-to-wear clothing manufacture. Some factories had been reorganised along American and German lines to give improved efficiency and quality, while retaining French stylishness in their products. There is an admission that German factory-made clothes had often been superior in quality to French and that this is an area that needed attention. This acknowledgement of the importance of ready-to-wear is important, but it is strange that Britaish manufacturers are not mentioned, since they had been pioneers in this area.

Ensembles by Worth with diaphanous sik jackets

The reports from Lyon clarify the way in which fashion design at this time was driven by high-end textile production. The trade fair included a show of garments designed to showcase luxurious French silks; the evening dresses by Callot shown above were seen as particularly successful. Daytime ensembles in transparent silk voile were less obviously showy, but their novelty and impracticality would make them clear indicators of the wealth and privilege of the wearer. As always, deep pockets were needed to dress in couture – and helpfully, the latest trend in daywear was for jackets with handbag-sized pockets that hung below the hem!

Ideas for pockets

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