Fashion in World War I: June 1917

Dinner dresses with contrast embroidery

The June 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes highlighted some of the paradoxes of fashion production in war conditions. This issue showed a foretaste of styles for the coming autumn -  in recognition of the increased lead time required to produce, and ship, garments for export when every parcel needed a permit from the customs authorities of both countries. Many of the next season’s styles were trimmed with embroidery – tone on tone for wool coats, and contrasting for dinner dresses. However in the same issue an article on the state of the fashion trades industry pointed out that French firms producing embroidered yardage were in dire straits. Originally centred around Saint-Quentin, in the Aisne district, their factories had been destroyed by German bombardments, their equipment seized, and their workforce scattered. In order to keep their businesses afloat, proprietors had become middlemen for embroidered goods imported from Switzerland. This trade was now threatened by new legislation limiting imports in order to protect French production – even though in this case French production had ceased. The author went on to argue that the textile and clothing industries were ill served by legislation drawn up by civil servants with little understanding of the complexity of the fashion trade, and of the importance of seasonal events such as textile fairs.

Another article reported on a controversy which had split the American fashion press. Edith Rosenbaum had written in the Dry Goods Economist praising French designs, only to be harshly criticized in the rival publication Frocks and Frills, which only published American fashions. Miss Rosenbaum had responded with an account of her recent trip to Paris, on which she had taken some samples of American fabrics that had been presented to her by manufacturers as new and unique designs. However when she showed them in Paris they were identified as copies from Bianchini-Ferier and other French firms from two years previously. Rosenbaum went on to point out that all of the fabrics currently popular in America, lightweight silks such as crepe georgette, had first been introduced in France. She charged American manufacturers with being too preoccupied with keeping costs down to invest in design development.

Japanese-influenced fashion by Premet

This issue also reported on a show by leading couture houses in the centre for French design in Madrid. Several of the styles illustrated had a strong Orientalist flavour, with a diagonal Chinese neck in a Paquin dress, and kimono sleeves from Premet.  The how-to-sew pages in this issue featured some highly inventive sleeves, with dress sleeves inserted with puffs of contrast fabrics, and mantles draped around the arms like 1880s ‘visites’. There were also complex waist treatments, with sashes threaded through skirts, or growing out of bodice panels.

A refreshing contrast were the simple styles recommended for sportswear – like a tennis outfit in green and white wool jersey by Beer.

Tennis outfit by Beer

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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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fashion in World War I: April 1917

Coats and costumes by Premet

The April 1917 issue of  Les Élégances Parisiennes showed designs that followed the dual trends featured in March: on the one hand, simple smocks or shift dresses, and on the other garments featuring flying panels, interlaced strips, and draped effects. There was also a continued reference to historic garments – like the Premet ensemble above, with a waistcoat copied from menswear of the 1720s. Historicism was also a trend in fashion textiles, with motifs borrowed from the 1830s, or from ‘peasant’ cultures.

For the French fashion industry, one of the main news stories was the establishment of a ‘Maison de France’ in Madrid, promoting fashion, decorative arts and perfumes. The garments were shown on on live mannequins; this was not new, as Lucile and other couturiers had held fashion parades before 1914 – but it was still felt to be a noteworthy innovation. Meanwhile Paul Poiret had gone further afield, opening Poiret, Inc. in New York to sell clothing, furnishings and even glass ware to his designs. This enterprise had an American director and legal advisor. The latter would be needed to deal with the numerous and flagrant breaches of copyright that Poiret had suffered from US manufacturers and retailers.

Coats and dresses by Poiret

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Fashion in World War I: March 1917

The March 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes showed spring fashions for day and evening; evening gowns in lace and fragile chiffons, and practical suits for day. The leading fabric for day was jersey, in wool, silk and mixtures which gave a soft, flowing drape. Not surprisingly, Chanel’s name was mentioned as one of the designers working in jersey. Her simple two-pieces in plain colours or checks look refreshingly simple compared to the intricate cut proposed by other designers.

Chanel suit in checked wool and jersey

In this issue, the article on the state of the French garment industry was refreshingly frank about the problems of finding skilled workers during wartime. Some workers had been tempted away by well-paid jobs in war industries; others had been forced by wartime disruption to move to areas where there were no clothing workshops; additionally, some workshops had been forced to relocate to areas where there were few skilled workers. Moreover, too many applicants for jobs in couture workshops proved to be badly trained, after an ‘apprenticeship’ spent running errands for their employers. One solution was to provide more training schemes for young girls – there were already six Trade Schools in Paris, and all of their graduates found employment. In order to increase the numbers of trained garment workers, the author proposed that a 1911 scheme should be implemented: girls would spend the final year of Elementary School learning needlework and household skills. This proposal is illuminating in its categorisation of working-class girls as clay to be moulded into forms that suit the state. It is also misguided, since the skills that could be taught in a classroom setting were not those that were needed in couture – the needlework syllabus in British schools was decades out of date, and focussed on mending household linen. Then, as now, it is hard for the fashion industry, with its emphasis on seasonal change to mesh with educational policy, which plans decades in advance.

Evening wraps in kimono and medieval shapes

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Fashion in World War I: February 1917

New hat shapes for February 1917

The February 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes continued to discuss the two key issues for all branches of the French fashion industry: how to maintain export sales in the short term, and how to counter challenges from German rivals in the long term. This was focussed, somewhat unexpectedly,  on a consideration of millinery fashions. A full-page article headed ‘Le réveil de la mode Parisienne’ (The Re-awakening of Paris fashion) welcomed the greater variety of hat shapes and fabrics being shown for Spring 1917. The author warned that the monotony of millinery fashions for the past few seasons – black toques, black tricornes, black boaters – had led to a sharp drop in sales to the all-important American trade buyers. He foresaw even more serious consequences might follow from French milliners’ distaste for aigrettes, pins, bird wings and other hat trimmings. Prior to 1914, these trimmings had often been imported from Germany – so not using them in wartime could be seen as not only practical but also patriotic. However if French designers were to give up using items that were the speciality of their enemies it would look as if they were unable to make their own versions without German help. Instead, they should be pushing themselves to invent new hat shapes and new combinations of fabrics that would assert French primacy in fashion. The author appealed to French fashion consumers to play their part, since foreign buyers would want to see that new styles were being worn in the salons of Paris before they promoted them in America or Britain. Each item sold to a Parisienne might result in dozens more  sold for export. The difficulty for French consumers, even the Parisian elite, lay in reconciling their role as the avant-garde of fashion with the reality of life in wartime. This is hinted at by a full plate of mourning ensembles, including one with a widow’s veil of black silk crape, captioned ‘the simiplicity required in mourning clothes is in tune with current fashions’.

Smaller reminders of changes in the way of life are present throughout this issue: there is a half page on fancy aprons, for ladies who had to host their own tea parties without the assistance of a maid. Smart hats were being sold with matching umbrellas, for women who were walking to appointments in spite of the weather. Women wearing Paquin dresses are shown on the telephone, or plugging in an electric light -  both forms of new(ish) technology.  In spite of this modernity, there was still a strong medievalist trend, with slashed necks and jewelled girdles

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Fashion in World War I: a Christmas present

Christmas in wartime - according to Eve

One of the disconcerting things about day to day life in World War I is the ease with which servicemen (and women) kept in touch with home, with postal services allowing parcels from home to reach even the furthest-flung theatres of war. In 1916 Sergeant James Kenny, an instructor at the Imperial School of Artillery, received ‘The Eve Book’ as a Christmas gift from a friend in London. Not so surprising – except that the School was in Zeitoun, outside Cairo (part of the British Mandate established on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire). The cartoon character Eve was a fashion-obssessed, flirtatious airhead – the dresses she is shown in would have looked extreme in London, but in Cairo, where most women wore face veils and ankle-length gowns, they must have seemed surreal.  The dedication of this volume is written as a letter from Eve, who says ‘I have – notwithstanding Aunt Matilda’s and Uncle Fred’s disapprovel – kept gay and frivolous to please you and not becasue I didn’t understand and appreciate what you were doing for me’. The Eve cartoons, appearing weekly in the Tatler, were extremely popular and were published in several volumes and adapted for both stage and cinema. Their artist, Anne Harriet Fish, built her career on these cartoons, going on to draw covers for Vogue and Vanity Fair and to illustrate a volume of texts by Dorothy Parker and others.

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Fashion in World War I: January 1917

Three dresses by Poiret, including 'Cartouche' (right)

The January 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes revealed that the French fashion industry was being threatened not only by German competitors, but by the actions of British allies. This threat came not so much through British products as through newly imposed trade tariffs. These imposed restrictions on non-essential goods imported to Britain, in addition to high customs fees. The British intention was to ensure that the limited space on incoming ships was devoted to the raw materials needed for the war effort and for civilian subsistence. If this meant that British businesses producing fashionable garments had to close down due to a shortage of imported materials, never mind – their workshops could be taken over for military supplies. The representatives of Paris couture pointed out that this policy was extremely short-sighted, and highly damaging to an industry that was central to the French economy. Moreover, as couture garments were very light in weight, banning their import would have a negligeable effect on the space available in British cargo ships. The article in Les Élégances Parisiennes detailed the quantities involved: a total of 24,000,000 kg of French textiles and clothing had been exported to Britain in the previous year, with a net value of 371 Million FF. Approximately ten percent of these goods, by weight, were feathers prepared for millinery – given how light these are, they probably accounted for more than 10 per cent of the total volume. These impressively large quantities give impetus to the French claims of the economic importance of fashion, and remind us that commercial life was continuing in wartime, in spite of all obstacles.

The developments of fashion discussed in this issue seem to have taken a step backwards; while the ‘barrel’ line of the previous issue is still prominent, it is rivalled by a range of complex cuts, with over-drapes, flying panels, straps and gathers. There is a trend for mixtures of fabrics, even in daywear, such as wool serge and silk crepe de chine, and for contrasting colours and textures in visible linings. The overall effect is somewhat fussy, with looped up over-drapes and oversized pockets producing bulging silhouettes reminiscent of 1880. These skirts would require great care in cutting and construction, and may represent a fightback from the fashion trade against the chemise-like smocks shown by couturiers such as Poiret and Jenny, which were alll too easy for amateurs to copy at home. To our eyes, they make the simplicity of Poiret even more desirable.

skirt designs with multiple layers and panels

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Fashion in World War I: December 1916

Couture dresses in silk and fur trim in the 'barrel' line

The December 1916 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes, in the section on the fashion industry, gave some figures which revealed the scale of the problem facing French fashion. In 1913, German textile and clothing manufacturers had exported goods worth £60,142,000 to England, and 652 million rubles of goods to Russia. The sums for French manufacturers were £46,533,000 and 57 million rubles – 77% and 9% of the German exports. The committee for the French fashion industries was hoping to close the gap by establishing trade fairs in Paris and in Lyon, and by clamping down on sales to middlemen. There was an assumption that German products were being passed off as ‘Paris fashions’, which was what the customers wanted. But it seems likely that these large sales were gained by providing ready-to-wear garments for the mass market, rather than the one-off creations of Paris couture.

Too often, the fashion press in this period writes as if couture houses were the only source of fashionable clothing, ignoring the competition from independent dressmakers, department stores, and mail-order companies. This is addressed by an article in this issue which discusses trends in millinery through an imagined dialogue between a Parisian woman and an American fashion buyer. The American complains that she has found no hats in Paris that would sell in the USA – to which the Frenchwoman replies that it’s difficult for milliners to be inventive when the main headgear requested by their clients is a mourning veil. Only foreigners and the vulgar nouveaux riches are  buying fashionable hats. The American’s response is sharp: foreigners and nouveaux riches are exactly the clients that Paris fashion should be courting! Milliners need to come up with new shapes and new materials and trimmings – otherwise women will buy a plain hat from a department store and trim it themselves, and the fashionable trade will collapse. If there was little new in Paris millinery the same could not be said about shoes; another article in this issue describes day and evening shoes from Hellstern (below) made in a new shape, buttoning down both sides of the vamp, and decorated with cutwork and contrasting embroidery. It is likely that these impractical items were aimed at the export trade rather than at Frenchwomen living in war conditions.

The article on fashion trends in this issue confirms the dominance of the wide, ‘barrel’ line – in spite of its unflattering silhouette, narrowing from hips to knees. This is illustrated in couture gowns in rich silk brocades, trimmed with lace and fur. The cut of these gowns, with wide necklines, long straight sleeves, and loose waistlines, was so simple as to be well within the reach of amateur dressmakers. The unfitted bodices, often covered by hanging tabards of contrast fabric, also made this shape eminently suitable for mass production in stock sizes. In images such as the one above we can see the origins not only of 1920s styles, but of ready-to-wear clothing as a leading force in the fashion industry.;2

Shoes by Hellstern, with cutwork and embroidery to show off coloured stockings

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Fashion in World War I: November 1916

Evening dresses by Jenny and by Martial et Armand referencing 1820s style

The November 1916 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes gives some interesting insights into the ways that fashion uses and reworks the past. As  Ulrich Lehmann’s Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity pointed out, uses of the past in fashion are not neutral but are ways of commenting on or reframing contemporary culture. From 1910 onwards, the prevailing shape in women’s dresses had been high-waisted and narrow, recalling the cut of the Napoleonic Empire from 1805-15. Since 1915, as skirts became shorter and wider, there had been references to dresses of the following decade – particularly the puffed sleeves and sloping shoulders in fashion around 1830. In this issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes there are several ensembles described as in the style of the ‘Premier Empire’ or of the 1830s, but with important modifications. This image shows an afternoon ensemble by Jenny of dark blue wool and white organdie, described as a ‘robe 1830′. It has the sloping shoulders and sleeve fullness of the earlier period, emphasized by a wide pelerine collar of organdie. But the buttoned front opening and prominent gathers at the raised waist are very much of 1916, as is the diagonally tilted hat. The merging of styles is most evident in the shoes shown with the dress: sandal uppers with crossed ties from the 1820s, on top of high 1916 heels. To the right is a dress by Martial et Armand called ‘Tallien’, in tribute to Madame Tallien, a participant in the politics of the French Revolution who was notorious for her beauty, her adoption of extreme Neoclassical dress, and her complex love life. This gown has the high-waisted silhouette of c1800, but the bodice is skimpier even than neoclassical styles, sleeveless and with narrow shoulder straps. The soft fabric of the bodice allows the shape of the breasts to be seen – validating the need for the supportive bust bodices described in the previous issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes. The neat hairstyle and discreet makeup worn by the model add to the sense of modernity.

Sleeveless shift dress by Beer

Other dresses illustrated in the November issue are even more striking, and prefigure the lines of the 1920s to a disconcerting extent. One such is a sleeveless shift dress by Beer with loose, flowing lines, a dropped waist marked by a loose sash, made in panels of fabric with stark colour contrasts. This is accessorised with quintessentially 1920s jewellery: a bangle and a long string of beads with a tassel. Although many of the other dresses shown were more conventionally constructed, these avant-garde styles remind us that the apparent rupture between the styles of 1914 and 1925 was in fact a gradual evolution, and one that was sanctioned by refernces back to the past.

These shift dresses embody the ethos of ‘sober originality’ highlighted indiscussions in the accompanying articles. They may also epitomise the ways in which French fashion, under the pressure of wartime, was diverging from the expectations of its international customers. The all-important American trade buyers who braved the dangerous Atalantic crossing to come to Paris couture shows were apparently complaining that the garments were not elaborate or decorative enough for their clients – when they were not complaining about new regulations limiting access to the collections in order to deter illegal copying. Les Élégances Parisiennes noted that one American fashion wholesaler had set up a Paris showroom where they presented the latest fashions in advance of the couture shows, so that copies could be available in the USA as soon as the new season’s styles were launched.  This could not have functioned without some degree of industrial espionage – unless the advance models were based on guesswork. Even more sinister, to French commentators, was the existence in Paris of fashion middlemen funded by German manufacturers. These apparently ‘interpreted’ French fashions using German fabrics and trimmings, which were then ordered in bulk by US manufacturers to reproduce what they thought was the latest Paris model. These middlemen had a double-blind system of record-keeping, with designers, fabric suppliers, and purchasers all referred to by code numbers, making it very difficult to identify their nationalities or to prove illegal trade activity.

The tension between the desire to promote French fashion primacy with seasonal collections that were visually distinctive (and hence copiable for the mass market) and the need to maintain exclusivity for individual clients is visible in these discussions – and is still an issue today. One solution was to emphasize fine handwork or luxurious materials, which was the route taken by the couture House of Boue Soeurs, known for their elaborate lace and ribbon trimmings.   In November 1916 they were applying ribbon flowers to the underneath of the hem; in the 1920s this decoration was expanded to cover whole dresses with lavish ribbon bouquets. Ribbon flowers,  while far from the streamlined modernist aesthetic that domainated the 1920s, were the foundation of the Boue Soeurs success over a period of forty years. This reminds us that the development of fashion is not linear or consistent, operating both through forward ‘Tigersprings’ and backward turns.

A dance dress by Boue Soeurs, with ribbon flowers under the hem

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Fashion in World War I: October 1916

Dinner and evening gowns with strapless effects, worn with a slouch

The October 1916 of Les Élégances Parisiennes included an article on the somewhat surprising topic of lace – surprising in that sheer lace insertions are normally associated with light summer dresses rather than winter ensembles. The focus was, in fact, not so much on the ways that lace would be used in the coming season, and more on the economics of the hand lace trade. The author acknowledged that hand lace production by outworkers had been especially hard hit by the war, as lacemakers had been displaced, or had been forced to take up occupations that did not allow time for lace work. She also claimed that traditional lacemakers had combined work in the fields during the day with work with lacemaking at night – if true, this speaks less of the devotion to craft claimed in the article and more of the need to bring extra income into impoverished households. There is an acknowledgement that under these conditions the quality of lace design had suffered, driven down by an emphasis on price over quality. The author calls for design-led lace schools like the one that had been set up in Vienna around 1900, with close links to the fashion trade, and a budget underwritten by the state. A contrast is drawn with the small lace revival projects led by ‘nobles dames’ – who were too often well-intentioned but unbusinesslike. It was perhaps these lace schools, copying rather than innovating, which were responsible for the large number of modern forgeries of antique lace that had recently been identified – including a piece which had been exhibited in an international exhibition as eighteenth-century! The unwillingness of consumers to pay for the hand skills and time required to produce high quality lace unless the product carried the apparent cachet of age was probably at the root of these forgeries – and of the incursion of quicker techniques such as crochet and embroidery on net into traditional lace production.

New styles in chemises, with 'soutien gorge' bodices

One new use for lace discussed in Les Élégances Parisiennes was in the shoulder and neck areas of chemises and corset-covers. Apparently both evening bodices and afternoon blouses were being made so sheer that the undergarments could be seen through them. This meant that the necklines and shoulder straps of different layers needed to be aligned in order to create unsightly clashes – unless one layer was made of transparent net or lace. This article notes another innovation in lingerie, the chemises worn under the corset were now being made with a shaped ‘soutien gorge’ bodice. Supportive bust bodices had been introduced around 1908 when the corset was redesigned to cover the area from ribs to thighs, rather than from breasts to hips, but were often boned or padded. The bodices illustrated in this article were much lighter, closer to the innovative support garments designed by the iconoclastic Paul Poiret for his wife Denise in 1913. The corsets to be worn over the new chemises had also been redesigned to follow the natural lines of the body more closely, and were being made with elasticated laces to allow more movement.

Interestingly, this issue also includes several designs by Poiret, one of them a flowing gown shaped like a peasant smock adorned with a panel of embroidery based on Breton traditions. Both this and two other Poiret designs illustrated were credited to Max Grab, New York – presumably licenced for the US market. The other gowns had a dropped waist, long narrow sleeves and a fur-trimmed over bodice creating a medieval silhouette. This silhouette, and the supple curves of the wearer’s body, had been iconoclastic when first introduced by Poiret in 1912, but by 1916 were in tune with mainstream trends. The slouched posture of the couture-clad young women illustrated in the large plate of evening dresses in this October issue would have been unthinkable – not to mention impractical – only a few years previously. There could be no return to pre-war rigidity from this point.;0

'Bretonne' by Poiret, licenced to Max Grab, New York

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