Fashion in World War I: July 1917

Blouses and tunics for fall 1917

The July 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes revealed that Paris fashion houses were threatened not only by international competitors, but by internal problems. A series of strikes by workers in different branches of fashion production, from buttons, to ready-to-wear, to couture, had forced employers to agree concessions with workers’ councils. The summaries of these agreements make sobering reading. The first clause was for wage levels to return to what they had been in 1914 – clearly they had been cut during the war. The second clause was for additional payments to cover increases in the cost of living – rising costs, plus wage cuts, would have hit workers doubly hard. A hard-won concession was for a half-day on Saturday (with no loss of pay), and for working days to be limited to nine hours. There were special provisions to cover overtime during the busy seasons, and for workers paid by the piece (normally in ready-to-wear). The final clause in all the agreements: ‘ no dismissals following strikes’ indicates that workers seen as troublemakers had been victimised. These agreements are sobering, as they reveal the conditions in which the garments described in the fashion columns were produced. They also suggest that the tendency towards simplification in fashion may have been motivated by changes in the economics of clothing production, as much as by changes in the lives of fashionable women.

The fashion coverage in this issue is slightly disconcerting, as it predicts a return to the ‘Empire’ cut of 1910, with high waistlines and jackets based on 1810 spencers. This goes against the low waistlines and loose cuts discussed in previous issues – a factor addressed by the fashion columnist, who admits that loose ‘chemise’ dresses had sold well in the USA, but that a change in cut was necessary to drive sales. However the ‘Empire’ line was being promoted mostly in tailored suits and coats – other garments were looser and less fitted. The fashion columns acknowledge that sales of evening dresses have plummeted in France, as upper-class gatherings are taking place in the afternoon or at tea (with guests bringing their own sugar ration in embroidered pouches). For these, smart tunics or blouses or lacy ‘tea gowns’, would be suitable. These garments, even when beautifully decorated, were unfitted and hence easier to make and to wear than formal dresses. They could also be purchased as separates and combined with a variety of skirts, or plain under-dresses, to give added value to the wearer’s wardrobe.

Pleated silk slips with ribbon straps by Jenny

While fashionable women were able to economise on evening gowns, there were new temptations in lingerie. The latest undergarments were not made from white linen, but from fine silks in pastel shades, trimmed with ribbons, lace, decorative ties, and even ceramic beads. These materials would require careful laundering , probably by the wearer’s maid, as commercial laundries would be set up for boiling and starching linen petticoats, not for hand washing silk slips. Underwear had always constituted an essential, but hidden, part of women’s wardrobes – and an expensive one, with multiple sets of chemises, drawers, petticoats, corset covers needed for every season and for every change in fashionable shape. The gradual simplification in the cut of dresses towards 1920, and the narrowing of skirts, meant that fewer layers were needed – but not necessarily cheaper ones.

New styles of underwear by Jenny, in silk and ribbon

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