Fashion in World War I: April 1918

Worth afternoon dress in greige garbardine with circles of soutache braid

During 1918 Les Modes appeared sporadically rather than at monthly intervals: issue 176 has no date on the front cover but its discussions of events in February date it to March. This issue offers slender pickings for readers seeking news of the latest fashions, with the front cover and introductory article devoted to reflections on the fashions of the past. It reproduces a number of nineteenth-century fashion plates which are uncredited, but possibly from the collection of the House of Worth (now in the V&A Museum in London). Rather than examining the ways in which past fashions have informed current styles (which had recently featured ‘medieval’ long sleeves and ‘romantic’ shirt collars) the tenor of the article is a lament for the decline in the importance given to fashionable dress and appearance in the lives of elite women. This lament is a response to two threats toFrench  fashion discussed in the following article: a proposal to bring couture garments within the scope of the wartime luxury tax and, even worse, a denunciation of contemporary fashion from the pulpit during Lent sermons. It is unclear whether the celerical criticism was based on the perceived indecency of current styles, or a condemnation of the attention given to a frivolous topic during a national crisis.

The fashion editor of Les Modes, Sybil de Lancy, defends Paris couture on both grounds. Firstly, she claims that the fashions for Spring 1918 are an accurate reflection of the current needs of French women, establishing a happy medium between the elaborately draped and narrow cut of 1913, and the practical but rather stereotyped wide skirts and military-style capes of 1915-16. She also rebuts the charge of indecency, claiming that the new long and narrow skirts are less coquettishly revealing than the short ankle-skimming shape that they are replacing. She claims that those who denounce new styles as too extreme only reveal their ignorance of the fashion cycle: each new season’s lines are deliberately exaggerated in order to distinguish them from the previous year’s, and to gain attention for their creators. Besides, the outfits presented at fashion shows are modelled by young, slim mannequins who can get away with their daring. The versions made up for respectable society ladies will be substantially modified, with necklines raised, slits in skirts backed with chiffon linings, and sleeves lengthened to give a more decorous appearance. The distance between eye-catching catwalk styles and garments intended for wear can be seen in the outfits illustrated in the magazine; a lounging outfit with harem pants of metallic lame modelled by  a young actress contrasts with masculine-styled pyjamas made up in floral silks. The afternoon dress by Marthida, with its exaggerated diamond silhouette, short skirt, contrasting fabrics, and bead trim, seems designed to be viewed on stage, or to leap off the page of a magazine, while the Worth example, in soft greige wool with self coloured trim,  has a quiet charm that would not pall when worn daily.

Sybil de Lancy’s final argument for the validity of fashion in wartime reiterates the defence, frequetly used since 1914, of its role as a morale-booster, but with a new emphasis. Since France’s ultimate victory is growing nearer every day, it’s only right for Frenchwomen to be exquisitely dressed to welcome their returning heroes! This hope turned out to be premature, as the events of the following weeks would show….

Afternoon dress in black and white satin with bead trim, by Marthilda

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