Fashion in World War I: October 1917

Three ensembles by Poiret showing the new trends for Winter 1917

The fashion articles in the November 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes flagged up some radical new trends in cut – and its articles on the state of the fashion industry explained the economic rationale behind them. The new styles were being made with hems under 1.8m (6ft) wide, taking only 4.2 or 4.5m fabric for a dress. The narrow silhouette was given variety by panels of contrast fabric – inserts of gathered tulle at the side, or apron panels of heavy silk down the front, wide ribbon sashes with trailing ends, or even strings of beads hanging from the bodice. Sometimes narrow skirts were topped with wide tunics, with pointed hems falling below the waist or panels extending down over the skirt. These tunics were being made with wide open necklines which meant they could slip over the head without fastenings. The writer pointed out that heavy fabric jackets made pullover style might be comfortable but were awkward to put on and off in public. This cut can be seen in the jacket by Poiret on the left of the plate above, which has a neckline with a deep centre slash held together by a high buttoned collar. The jacket front panel is buttoned to the back panels at the hip, with what appears to be open side seams – but the garment is described in the caption as being ‘without fastenings’. The buttoned motif is repeated on the skirt, which has back panels buttoned on to the front at the hem to give a tulip shape. This ensemble, with its wide dropped waist and straight skirt, makes the the Poiret coat in the centre of the plate look slightly old fashioned, with its high waistline and full skirt stiffened with a deep band of quilting.

In this issue the reports from the Syndicat de la Couture clarify the stark economic framework for the French clothing trades. Legislation governing imports had just been revised, and some raw materials were only allowed in with special permission, while others were limited by quotas. Imports of silk and cotton fibres were to be cut by 75%, dealing a savage blow to French textile firms who were already struggling. All Allied nations were drawing up similar restrictions, cutting down the French export market. French firms wishing to send fine lingerie to England, or English manufacturers selling umbrellas to France, needed to obtain special permits from the English customs office in Paris, or the French customs bureau in London. Countries less affected by war, like Brazil and Argentina, were becoming important markets, with the value of clothing and lingerie exported to Brazil increased 400% (to 14 million Francs) since 1914. This in spite of the distances involved, and the danger of attack from enemy shipping.

Trade in fashion items between France and the USA was subject to some very complex variables. French textile manufacturers depended on American cotton to stock their textile mills, and were importing the same amount as in 1914, without any quotas being imposed. In return, France  had increased sales of some fashion products to the USA. Sales of French fine lingerie and ready to wear dresses had gone up from 17 million F in 1914 to 25 million in 1916, a 50% rise. However the export of wool clothing to the USA had hit an obstacle in the shape of new American legislation restricting the amount of wool available to manufacturers of civilian clothing. This was done to prioritise wool supplies for army uniforms and blankets. American clothing manufacturers responded by slimming down the cut of their women’s clothes so as to make the best possible use of scarce yardage – only 4.5m would be allowed for a dress or suit. The American government had then set this yardage as the standard for all dresses imported into the country, so as not to disadvantage their home manufacturers. The result was that French firms, if they wanted to export to the USA, had to comply with American war economy standards. Hence the new cut announced in the fashion pages was not a purely aesthetic decision – but one enforced by harsh legislative and economic realities.

Ensembles by Jean Lanvin showing apron panels and a raglan-shouldered waistcoat

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