Fashion in World War I: August 1918

The August 1918 issues of Vogue were a little light on fashion news - there was a long article discussing the relationship between styles of dress and styles of interior decorating, and several features on juvenile fashions, illustrated with photographs of the children of the rich and famous. This is unsurprising given that the summer was not a season for new trends, and that society functions in both Paris and New York were still governed by war conditions. The report from Paris addresses this directly, with a description of a sunny afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne where:

One might almost have been tempted to forget the war, were it not for the distant dull sound of an exploding bomb, now and again, and the impossibility of getting anything other than saccharine to sweeten one’s demi-tasse.

The author also notes the social changes brought by the war:

the absence of the old-time orchestra was less felt, thanks to the virtuosity of a passing accordionist – a mere boy, blinded by a bullet at the Ypres affair. And the scarcity of the fashionable demi-mondaines of national repute was less noticeable because of the presence of the pretty mannequins who had come to enjoy the lovely sunny day and to try on the permissionaires the effect of their new summer finery

The implication that courtesans had previously mingled with the upper-class diners in the Bois underlines the gendered nature of public spaces at this time, with respectable women (and especially girls) restricted in the activities they could undertake while their fathers and brothers circulated more freely.

A Lanvin summer dress of silk and wool jersey

Chanel dress with metallic beading

The main fashion note in this issue is that silk and wool jersey fabrics are still the ‘fad of the moment – fashionable women have four or five dresses made the same but in different colours. Never, it must be admitted, have Parisiennes, and all Frenchwomen, for that matter, been in such need of simplicity’. The simplicity of the fabrics was underlined by a restrained palette, with neutral tones predominating, and preferably the whole ensemble, including shoes, stockings, hat and gloves, in the same colour. This sounds like a foretaste of 1920s chic and a far cry from the intense Fauvist hues of 1913.   However designers were providing variety by using contrast fabrics or adding bead embroidery – as in a Chanel chemise gown of fine silk marquisette with metal beads. An alternative trimming was monkey fur, applied round the hems of garments or covering hats – a reminder of very different attitudes to the natural world.

The August issues also offer reminders that war conditions were affecting American consumers and producers of fashion, with children’s clothes much more expensive than before, and fuel shortages making it hard to launder cotton or linen garments that would require copious hot water. This was an additional reason for the fashion for silk underwear among those wealthy enough to have personal maids who could hand wash garments too delicate to send out to a commercial laundry. Vogue itself was suffering from the war economy, and had to raise its cover price to 35c.

A war fundraising initiative by Vogue announced in this issue offers some curious resonances for today: bundles of magazine covers were available for pasting on to paper  totes to make decorative knitting bags to sell for war charities. Apparently this fad had started by tearing up back issues, but seeing the demand Vogue had printed additional copies of their covers (the only page of the magazine in colour) for this purpose. This was an adroit marketing ploy, associating the publication with charitable efforts for war relief, while reaching out to consumers who might not think of themselves as fashionistas – this was not a paradox, as Vogue included regular features on dressmaking and economical styling. The idea of making a cheap, low-cost bag desirable by associating it with a worthy cause seems to prefigure Anya Hindmarch’s ‘not a plastic’ bag.

A paper bag decorated with a Vogue cover

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