Enthusiasms: Designs for New Women

Chanel wool suit, Autumn-Winter 1969. V&A T.22-1979

At a time when the innovative designs of Coco Chanel are on display at the V&A Museum, it’s important to recognise the ways in which fashion design not only reflects but creates new social norms. Chanel has been feted for the way in which she freed up female dress codes, enshrining casual fabrics and pared down styles in the wardrobes of the fashionable elite. She is also seen as a role model for directing an international fashion house over decades when both fashionable garments and the fashion industry underwent seismic change.

Yet we also need to recognise the work of the generations of women designers who preceded Chanel, and who helped to create the conditions in which she flourished. There were of course many female couturiers in the period before 1914, notably Jeanne Paquin, recipient of the Legion d’Honneur for her work. Couture was generally a female-dominated industry, and employed thousands of women at every level from the apprentice seamstress to the highly skilled fitter and elegant showroom model. The same was true of the ready-to-wear fashion industry, or ‘confection’ in french, which by 1900 was well established in France, Britain, and North America. This covered a wide range of prices and working conditions, from sequinned evening gowns to mass-produced tailored jackets, and from exploited homeworkers to employees in well-ventilated workshops.

Ready-to-wear clothing ranges represented a big outlay on the part of manufacturers, who would have to pay for cloth, cutting out, making up, storage and distribution before a single item could be sold. So advertising and promotion were crucial – as was design input to ensure that each season’s range appealed to consumers. This created opportunities for women ‘fashion artists’ who were employed by manufacturers to create new styles, then to present them to the public in advertising images. Some fashion artists became well-known in their own right – like Adelaide Claxton, who in 1895 drew fashion pages for the catalogues of both Harrods’ of Brompton and John Noble of Manchester. Claxton had trained in fine art and exhibited at the Royal Academy, but a more typical path seems to have been from commercial art classes to employment by a manufacturer or an advertising agency. The fortunate few were promoted on magazine mastheads, while many more eked out a living as anonymous freelancers.

Women fashion artists working before 1914 had a pivotal place in the ready-t0-wear sector, designing and promoting clothes for women in new forms of employment (teachers, typists, civil service clerks) and also forging a new employment path within the industry. Their posters, catalogues, and newspaper images presented women with a vision of themselves as competent professionals, rational consumers, and seasoned travellers – a vision that could be achieved at a remarkably low price.

A tailored suit for country wear, drawn by Ellen Ashwell for the manufacturer Alfred Stedall, 1897. (c) The National Archives.

  • ‘Women’s Ready-to-Wear Multiples 1860–1914: H. J. Nicoll and Alfred Stedall’, Textile History 53/1 (2023) DOI: 10.1080/00404969.2023.2189446
  • ‘Advertising ready-Made style: The Evidence of the Stationers’ Hall Archive’, Textile History 40/2 (2009)
Posted in Fashion | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Enthusiasms: Romper suits for modern babies

A romper suit for a toddler with fashionable bucket pockets, c1925

Whar makes babies modern? Bringing up babies is a practice which has always been part of human societies, but is constantly being rethought and redefined, It can be a site of conflict between older generations who rely on tried and tested practices, and young parents who are looking for the most up-to-date methods based on the latest scientific advice. Clothing can be a particular battleground as it is a very public expression of the parents’ income and opinions.

Romper suits for toddlers were garments that marked a shift in attitudes to childrearing in the early 20th century. They originated in ‘crawlers’, simple overalls designed to help babies move around without getting tangled in the skirts of their dresses (dresses were OF COURSE worn by boy babies as well as girls – partly as they were more practical over bulky cloth nappies). The earliest ‘crawlers’ don’t survive, but were probably made at home by fastening the front and back hem of a dress together- they’re mentioned in diaries and letters from the 1880s.

Then in the 1890s, doctors started to recommend more exercise for young girls, with ‘gymnasium suits’ based on swimming outfits: baggy blouses and breeches, with a waist belt. Dressmaking pattern companies in the U.S.A. published patterns for these, recommending them as ‘rompers’ in which girls could play outdoors without fear of ruining their dresses. Rompers and playsuits for girls up to the age of 7 or 8 were sold in the U.S.A. but don’t seem to have caught on in Britain – perhaps because they would only be worn informally, with dresses needed for school.

Printed cotton rompers made by Mosco of Manchester in 1928

This attitude changed – as so many did – in the aftermath of World War I. After the huge loss of life and accompanying social upheavals there was a shift in attitudes towards home life and women’s roles. Women as wage earners, as mothers, and as voters, were keen to learn and to develop new skills. Women’s magazines, already important in the 1890s, competed to attract readers with recipes, dressmaking patterns, and advice columns. Women with enough time and energy could sign up for correspondence courses in dressmaking: one of the most popular was from the Women’s Institute of Domestic Science, based in Pennsylvania, but with a British office. Their booklets gave patterns, making up instructions, and detailed advice on how women, men, and children should dress. The 1919 version of their course was probably the document that introduced romper suits to British mothers.

Printed cotton rompers from Mosco of Manchester in 1928

Women’s clothes had been radically simplified during World War I, to allow for quicker and more economical dressmaking (fabric was rationed) and to do away with complex construction and fastenings. The loose shift dresses with dropped waists worn by adults in 1920 were not so different from the frocks worn by young girls in 1910. And as adults clothes got simpler, children’s did too.

A romper suit from Oxendale of Manchester, 1929

Therompers worn for outdoor play by girls became standard garments for toddlers, rather than dresses or shirt and shorts suits. Their loose cut made them easy to fit over nappies, and allowed for growth. They were also easy to mass produce as only one or two sizes were needed: as we see in a Mosco of Manchester catalogue from 1928. Their rivals Oxendales of Manchester offered a slightly more complex version in 1929,with a buttoned back and a belt. But it was still ‘so easy to slip on’ and available in a choice of four colours and four sizes.

In the 1930s, fashion for women had shifted back to be more complex, with fitted bodices, puffed sleeves, and long skirts with bias-cut panels. Then with the onset of World War II styles were simplified again, with the ingenuity of dressmakers focussed on squeezing the greatest number of garments out of the shortest lengths of cloth – and of remaking clothes to keep them going a bit longer. Everything that could be, from vests to hats, was made by hand knitting, which could be unravelled and recycled as necessary. This of course included babies’ dresses, pants and rompers. By the time fabric became more easily available again in the late 1940s, rompers were firmly established as a garment that every baby should have – and that every dressmaker should know how to make. The 1948 Pictorial Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft included this draft for a romper pattern – with suggestions on how to personalise what was now a very standard garment. The simplicity of the romper suit made it endlessly adaptable – fresh and modern for every new generation of mothers and babies. They’ve even been featured on the Great British Sewing Bee!

Romper draft with option for a decorative yoke, 1948
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Enthusiasms: Handbags and Modernity

Trunk, portmanteau, hatbox and handbag for the stylish traveller in 1915 (Vogue)

What is modern about the handbag? It’s a tricky question to answer, as both terms are so slippery. Is modernity a concept tied to the latest innovations of the 21st Century, with everything that went before past and dead? Or is it a state of mind that may appear at any time, with things defined as ‘modern’ in 1920 – which 100 years on look hopelessley dated. Fashion between 1915 and 1920 is a fertile ground for examining this inconsistency, with some aspects that seem fresh and forward-looking, but much that reflects a world that is unimaginably different from ours. Articles in American Vogue from 1915 are addressed to women who saw themselves as indubitably modern: keen to travel, to take part in society, even to work ….. and yet whose appearance was strictly regulated, with outfits and accessories for different times of day and different social settings, each of them following a seasonal fashion cycle. For fashionable middle-class women (and men), any trip would require numerous pieces of luggage to contain garments and accessories: and paid help from porters or servants to manage them all.

The multitude of fashionable accessories gave well-off women many opportunities to demonstrate their taste (or lack of it), Fashion magazines constantly promoted the latest designs in hats, shoes, gloves and bags – some of which showed more than a little influence from the past. Beaded purses used techniques 100 years old, and motifs borrowed from Persian carpets or Japanese silks, to create statement pieces to dangle from the wrist. There was more than a suspicion of the ‘reticules’ of the French Empire of 1815 in some of these bags – as there was in the high-waisted, narrow-skirted cut that had been fashionable in 1910.

Yet alongside the exquisite examples of beadwork are pieces that are radical in their simplicity: handbags in plain leather whose only decoration comes from the use of contrasting colours, or an unexpected angle on the flap. These seem like a rejection of the over-decorated, over-complicated world of pre-World War I dress codes. But in fact they are just as elitist in their implications as a matched set of steamer trunks. A bag barely large enough to hold a change purse and a doorkey proclaims the owner as someone whose material needs are supplied by deliveries – not by trudging round the grocery store. And the pose required by the clutch, with one arm held close to the side, implies that she doesn’t need her hands to hang on in the underground – or to push a pram. She can count on someone else to do this for her – or hopes she can….

A gentleman’s weekend luggage was jusst as complex as a lady’s – Vogue 1915
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Museums: The Art of the Purse at the Musée de la Monnaie, Paris

A group of late 19th Century metal purses from the Joannis-Deberne Collection

An exhibition of purses and wallets at the Musée de la Monnaie, Paris provides a detailed look at some unusual objects and techniques but leaves some wider questions unanswered. Based on a private collection, the emphasis is on pieces of technical or aesthetic interest. From this perspective the exhibition does not disappoint – there are purses in the form of tiny knitted gloves with clasps in the shape of knitting needles; purses made from mussel shells; purses imitating enamelled watches; and purses made from chased and engraved metal. Most of these are small enough to fit in the palm of the hand and some even smaller, miniature wallets made for fashion dolls.

The small scale of the selected pieces – while understandable in terms of collecting and exhibiting policy – also raised some issues. Cases smaller than a modern credit card would be limited in the number of coins they could contain. They might be interpreted as holding just enough for tips or transport on a day out – except that many were fitted out as ‘porte-louis’ with clips to hold gold coins and no room for lower denominations. Thus they functioned as high-value containers for even higher-value contents. Purses so small would normally be carried in a pocket and brought out with a flourish. Other examples in the exhibition were made with finger rings or wrist loops to be carried openly as a display of both financial and aesthetic capital. The most interesting section of the exhibition touches on this topic, and on the ways in which purses encoded social hierarchies and gender roles.

An 1860s wedding gift case with a matching prayer book and wallet in gold-stamped leather

This was strikingly evident in the ‘ecrins de mariage’, gift boxes presented by the upper-class bridegroom to his bride as part of the ‘corbeille de mariage’. On display to family members and friends, and even to the wider public through reports in women’s magazines, the ‘corbeille’ included items restricted to married women’s use, such as diamond jewellery, handmade lace, and furs or shawls. To contemporaries, it was a concrete demonstration of the regard in which the groom held his bride, and of his intention to provide everything suited to her new status. But from our viewpoint, the ‘corbeille’, and especially the ‘ecrin’, can be seen as metaphors for the bride herself. The tastefully decorated ‘ecrin’ had no function but to contain the gifts inside. These typically included a matching prayer book and wallet to assure the recipient’s spiritual and temporal welfare. In turn the wallet gained value from the coins it contained, just as the body of the bride, under all her lavish finery, was valued as the carrier of future heirs.

The social hierarchies encoded in the carrying of money – and especially in gifts of money – are left vague in the exhibition. There are several examples of purses commemorating the recipient’s first Holy Communion, but these are not linked to the practices of alms giving that often formed part of the ceremony. Instead, cross-class relations are displaced into the animal kingdom with purses that depict an encounter between an aristocratic hunting dog and a peasant sheepdog. The need for purses to securely hold working people’s scarce cash is implied in a section on late-nineteenth century innovations that included a seamless leather purse, advertised with posters of a lion tamer. If, as the exhibition catalogue states, there were nearly 600 patents for improvements to wallet clasps between 1850 and 1900, there was clearly an increasing need for purses and by implication an increasing monetarisation of French society. In a museum dedicated to the history of money, it would have been good to have more on this social framework, or on the social capital implied by the possession of even a single gold coin, let alone a purse designed to hold it.

1860s purse with wooden sides painted with a rich dog and a poor dog

The exhibition, ‘Chic et utile, l’art du porte-monnaie’ is at the  Musée de La Monnaie until November 3 2019 https://www.monnaiedeparis.fr/en/temporary-exhibitions/chic-and-practical-the-art-of-the-purse

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Enthusiasms: Natalia Goncharova

Design and realisation of costume for Le Coq d’Or, 1937

The exhibition of the work of Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962) at Tate Modern raises some key issues for the history – and the future – of art. Goncharova is presented here as a forgotten pioneer, key to the development of modern art in Russia. Her work challenges art-historical orthodoxies through its fusing of contemporary French experiments in Cubism with the subject matter and palette of Russian folk art. This was not a limitation in her modernity but a positive choice, since she saw in the intense colours and bold lines of traditional religious prints a way of bypassing the timid good taste of academic painting. Unlike French primitivists such as the School of Pont Aven, Goncharova and her colleagues were not so much throwing off a dominant style as refusing to adopt it. In this they presaged the cultural experiments of the Russian revolutionaries,

Goncharova’s output also challenges orthodoxies in its range of genres and materials, ranging across secular and religious paintings, textiles, fashion, theatrical design and performance art. She was not unusual in this – contemporaries from Dufy to Picasso to Matisse relied on design commissions to supplement income from sales of paintings. However it could be argued that Goncharova’s engagement with design was more fundamental to her art. Her set and costume design for Serge Diaghilev’s 1914 production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or were integral to the work’s presentation of Russian tradition as a topic for lavish stage productions. Leon Bakst, Diaghilev’s main designer, had drawn on Russian tradition for L’Oiseau de Feu and Petrushka– but in his case these were viewed through a lens of exoticism which found its full expression in the Orientalism of Scheherazade or the Greek sensuality of L’Apres-midi d’un Faune. Goncharova was able to see past the decorative surfaces to the pared down shapes of Russian traditional tunics and smocks that she used for Nijinska’s Les Noces (1923).

life-sized mockup of design for Myrbor dress, 1925

Like her compatriot Sonia Terk Delaunay, Goncharova designed garments to be worn off stage as well as on. In the 1920s she was commissioned by the Paris fashion house of Myrbor to design printed textiles – and collaged compositions to cover the surface of shift dresses. The exhibition includes a mockup of one of these, a riot of coloured and textured shapes that have nonetheless been carefully placed to enhance the shape of the garment. This collage is closely related to her high-impact stage costumes, with motifs that would be clearly legible as a distance, but Goncharova also understood the requirements of more conventional fashion. Some fashion designs for Myrbor included in the exhibition deploy the couture repertoire of luxurious textiles, glittering beads and body-conscious cut to create garments that are striking but still wearable.

Dress design for Myrbor, 1927

With so much talent, and such close relationships with the worlds of theatre, dance and fashion as well as art, it may seem surprising that Natalia Goncharova is not better known. That she is not may point to the reinstatement of the hierarchies of the genres which she hoped to overthrow. It is too tempting to see Goncharova’s straddling of genres a a limitation: modernist – BUT Russian rather than Parisian; artist BUT also a designer of costumes, fashion and textiles; and most pertinently avant-gardist BUT also female. Perhaps it is time to step forwards and assess her in her own terms, as the creator of ‘everythingism’ who refused to be limited by the definitions of others. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/natalia-goncharova

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: Christmas 1918

The Christmas 1918 issue of Les Modes seems like an appropriate point at which to end this four-year investigation of French fashion during World War I. This issue was one of the first produced since the Armistice, and included several articles reflecting on the changes brought by war – both to fashion and to women’s lives. These are all the more interesting for appearing in a magazine that was generally conservative in its tastes (as evidenced by its reluctance to recognize the designs of Paul Poiret). The feature on ‘La Mode et les modes’ starts with a lengthy account of the ways in which elite Frenchwomen’s capabilities have been proved by their war work, and a vehement rebuttal of the view of them as ‘dolls’.

as if they were only waiting for victory in order to return to their frippery and fashions,  tea parties and chats; as if the frightful things they had seen had left no trace, and as if they had no thought than to decorate themselves mindlessly, without worrying about the suffering and the wounds that even peace could not heal; they have all been transformed into conventional figures of doll-women,  dressmakers’ dummy-women. There was never a falser picture painted, and the worst thing is that most of these falsehoods come from female pens, giving them a personal viewpoint that enhances their apparent authenticity!   But this is not the case; all this is nothing but stereotyping and a literary construct. Of course, our admirable Frenchwomen would like to return to their previous elegance, they would like to re-affirm their rule over the realms of taste where no-one will ever dare to challenge them; but this will not be to the detriment of their serious and solemn obligations that continue to fill their lives. This contact with four frightful years will leave a veil of melancholy in the depths of their eyes, and even if they are among the privileged few who have not received an incurable wound from this war, their heart will share in the mourning of others, and in the midst of their renewed social life they will keep a space for reflection and for persisting in their post-war charitable duties. The doll-woman and the dummy-woman will have disappeared – but you will not find any criticism of that change here.

It is likely that the author is responding to arguments against  female suffrage in France – which was not achieved until 1944, partly because of concerns that women lacked the ability to make independent political decisions.

The clothing styles that suited this new view of women – simply cut tailoring, and chemise dresses that could be dressed up with floating over tunics – were contrasted with the ‘byzantine complexity and hunt for luxurious originality’ of the pre-war era. The new spirit in fashion is demonstrated by an image of five day and evening outfits from Martial et Armand which are all short and loosely cut. These features are emphasized by the poses of the models, perched on a table to show off their ankles or slouched to demonstrate the absence of restrictive corsetry.

Forward-looking ensembles from Martial et Armand

The new and the old approaches both to design and to women’s levels of activity are highlighted by two contrasting images of furs in this issue. The article is illustrated with a fur wrap by Revillon – an established firm which had been a major exhibitor at pre-war international exhibitions – which muffles the top of the body while leaving arms and legs exposed. In the picture it is styled with an evening gown that wraps tightly round the wearer’s legs and extends into a long train, a form that looks back to impractical pre-war fashions. In contrast, a full page advertisement by Burberry shows belted trench coats and hats available in a range of materials, from waterproof serge to Canadian otter fur.

The most surprising reflections in this issue, however, are found not in the fashion review but in a lengthy article on ‘Noel de victoire’ signed by ‘Nite’. The author reflects back on her childhood in  the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, when the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine had been lost to Prussia. She describes the politicization of Christmas gifts, with boys receiving toy soldiers, guns, and uniforms – and girls, dolls dressed in Alsatian costume with a distinctive black  bow head-dress. These were explained as representations of women ‘stolen’ by Prussians, presenting the transfer of sovereignty in terms of kidnapping. The solution to this outrage was presented as the responsibility of the children of the 1870s:

In the future, when were stronger and when all the little boys of France had grown up, they would put on smart uniforms, like the soldiers we had seen; they would have rifles, real ones; the drums would be beaten; the bugles would sound; and they would go and take the women of Alsace and Lorraine women back from the Prussians. The women would be so happy, they would clap their hands and hug their deliverers….

What a dream for children’s imaginations!…

The wicked Prussians! The beautiful Alsatian women holding out their arms to us, like our dolls which are never more attractive than when they hold out their arms!  What child could have resisted such a touching appeal? And we feel so strong, when we are little, looking ahead to when we are grown up!

We were going to have to fight … so be it! Go to war! We would do it! And we would be victorious! We didn’t doubt it, we swore to do it to the Alsatian dolls which we hugged while waiting to hug the real Alsatian women.

This article ends with exultation that the childhood dream of re-unification has finally come to pass after forty years. For a modern reader, however, it leaves a bitter taste. If the defeat of 1871 had entered so deeply into French culture as to shape even children’s games, how would the defeat of 1918 affect German families? Would it give rise to a generation brought up to seek revenge on the victors, as French children had been? As future developments were to show, this is a factor that should have been considered more carefully in the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.

Posted in Fashion, Fashion in World War I, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: December 1918

French 'munitionettes' eating a meal provided by the American YWCA

The December 1918 issues of Vogue carried an unsettling mixture of features. Several articles prepared before the Armistice reported on the lasting effects of the war effort on the bodies of both civilian war workers and servicemen. A piece promoting American YWCA – run hostels and rest centres for young women in France discussed the munitions factories staffed by women working sixteen-hour days in toxic and often lethal conditions:

Lucienne also died for France. She was just nineteen – so young to die. But when one is a refugee from the invaded country, one doesn’t care much about death. A shell slips from one’s fingers – one’s dress catches fire – pouf! It is all over but the hospital for an hour or so, and then the priest in his black robes, chanting. One is lucky to have a funeral.

In England, the YWCA had opened a hostel for the 600 young women per fortnight who were sent to join the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in the front line. The scale of women’s involvement in the war effort was unprecedented, and the damage to their health, though never officially reckoned, must have been enormous. A more visible outcome of the war was the large number of veterans who were returning with permanent injuries. Another article draws a stark contrast between the youthful vigour of army recruits playing football in Manhattan and those disembarking from a hospital ship on Ellis Island, which was received 800 injured veterans each week, with a total of over 50,000 so far. The article discusses the treatment of these men in specialist hospitals, including one for ‘mental cases’, an early acknowledgement of the prevalence of what we now call PTSD. It also warns that the recovery process can take years, and requires not only physical retraining but also mental adjustment to new bodily limitations – and, crucially, understanding employers. The difficulty of finding employment is obliquely implied by the establishment of workshops where toys and other products were made by injured veterans.

Perhaps surprisingly, the fashion features this month also have an air of disillusionment. The review of the latest trends in bridal wear notes that the smart set are finally leaving their wartime boltholes in Biarritz and Monaco to return to Paris, and that restaurant dinners and social events are resuming: but with additional charges imposed on American clients which made eating out unaffordable.

There are also several articles that discuss wartime changes in attitudes to beauty, and the new trends in hairstyles and makeup. The fashion for short or ‘bobbed’ hair is covered through a fictive debate, with the journalist relating it to the air raids and shortages of hot water that made hair care difficult. Her fictive interlocutor disagrees, saying that bobbed hair is a matter of fashion, with women copying each other in an attempt to look different but ending up all looking the same. This leads to an interesting reflection on the tension between conformity and individualism in fashion:

There is nothing so exhausting as people who are ‘different’; both the woman who scorns fashion, and the original thinker who always opposes the majority. She claims that if people were all entirely different from one another, we should have to give far too much attention to each of them, that we should have to make a great deal of every trifle.

Where both sides of the debate agree is in the unflattering nature of the new short haircut, particularly for older women, as it makes them look as if they are trying to imitate their daughters, and restricts the face-framing possibilities of longer hair. Vogue is also surprisingly negative about the new fashion for obvious make-up,warning that ‘Very charming was the effect as the lady dashed by in her car, but, oh, what a disillusion at close range!’ A lengthy article is devoted to advice on skin care products and application, including the need to choose an appropriate shade.  Different ranges are described and sketched in detail, but the writer is strangely coy about mentioning the brand names – perhaps because they had not paid for advertising. However it is likely that the ‘Russian whose reputation circles the world’ is a reference to the Polish-born Helena Rubinstein, who had set up a New York salon in 1915 after establishing herself in Australia, London and Paris. For readers who could not afford exclusive skin care treatments, the writer stresses the importance of rest, healthy food and exercise – and refers to the effects of weight loss on the skin.

There is also a brief feature on the garments prepared for the stage star Florence Walton by the House of Premet. This is refreshingly honest about the rationale behind the innovative embroidery that was such a feature of 1918 fashions: ‘To overcome the lack of figured materials, Paris embroiders,tassels or beads a plain fabric’. This gives close-up sketches that demonstrate how the decorative effects have been worked. They include  the use of fluffy wool tassels to imitate bands of fur, making a virtue of the lack of luxury materials. The article is frank about this rationale:

The making of these elaborate all-over embroidered materials has a double purpose: to produce variety in the midst of a monotony of plain materials (all that the looms have been able to turn out this season), and to give work to hundreds of otherwise idle little sewing girls.

Thus the links between war, economics, and fashion, too often elided in histories, is addressed directly in one of the main organs of the fashion trade.

Embroidered effects on plain fabrics

Posted in Fashion, Fashion in World War I | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: November 1918

Three ensembles by Chanel trimmed with angora wool embroidery, beads, and beaver fur

In early November 1918, French couture was in a state of limbo – looking forward to the imminent end of the war, but not sure when it would arrive, and still facing shortages and disruptions. New York Vogue reflected this uncertain mood in an article headed ‘Paris states her optimism in terms of clothes’, reporting  on a show of French couture designs held in Switzerland for fashion buyers from neutral nations. The writer pondered the likely reactions of a German woman who had been a couture client until the war intervened, torn between admiration for French expertise and a wish to boost their German designers:

She must have suffered severely at the fashion show, if she was there, for she loved French dresses and was well known to our couturiers.   Of course, all this is trifling in war time, but it would be a satisfaction, just the same, to know the real feelings of those who have tried so hard to assure themselves and others that French creative genius has been killed by the war. Patience, just a short time, and perhaps we shall know.

The Paris styles reported in this issue show a variety of cut, from the straight tunics of Chanel to the draped gowns of Lucile. But there is a consistency in their use of wartime materials, with fluffy angora embroidery substituting for fur, and beading for woven decoration. One of the Chanel suits is captioned ‘pride in her brown Charmeuse costume with keep her warm’ – wishful thinking when the diversion of coal to the war effort meant that even upper-class homes were practically unheated. Another article, ‘The defences of Paris against winter’ suggested a variety of ways of mitigating a temperature of 40′ F indoors, from foot muffs to rugs designed to wrap round the body.

At the opposite extreme from fur cocoons, Vogue also reported on new trends in lightweight lingerie. These had appeared in  Les Élégances parisiennes in December 1917,  linked to shortages in fine cotton and linen fabrics as French manufacturers were closed down by the war. The French repoter had approved of lingerie in black silk trimmed with ribbon bows and rosebuds, but stated firmly that ‘the garment that I would condemn outright is the chemise in black or bright blue tulle; these are impossible to wear by respectable women’. Vogue elided this distinction, presenting combinations and chemises of sheer tulle as the latest Paris fashion, and placing a defence of their frivolity in the mouth of an imagined French saleswoman:

It is not for the kind of woman who wears ugly lingerie that a man fights….the night gown? It is a little fragile, a little extravagant, perhaps? Mademoiselle forgets the alarms that occur so frequently at night – the trip to the cellar – the meetings with one’s friends, one’s neighbours. It is dark, to be sure, in the cellar, but there is always a little light and , under one’s wrap, one would not appear – what do you say? Frumpy, like an old-maid in a comic paper. And this nightgown,  is it not delightful! It is of chiffon the colour of wood violets with bands of tulle over the shoulders…it is as if all the daintiness, the femininity that we must repress in our dresses these days had been poured into the silk and the lace that make our lingerie…Mademoiselle does not think the Americans will approve of these models, so fragile and so charming? Perhaps not.

This passage is interesting for the way in which it constructs French fashions as more daring, and more sexualised, than those that would be acceptable in the USA – in order to sell them to American buyers. Read in tandem with the article in Les Élégances parisiennes it becomes clear that this construct is directly opposition to the actual views of French consumers. The invocation of the need to keep up appearances in front of neighbours during night-time air raids also subverts the evidence of French sources. It is not the tactful concealement of a ‘cape pour la cave’ featured in Les Modes that Vogue recommends, but an artful revelation of frivolous garments under the respectable wrap.

Draped and wrapped gowns by Lucile

Posted in Fashion, Fashion in World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: October 1918

A dress and jacket in black velvet and blue and gold brocade by Cheruit

By the end of September 1918 the German bombardment of Paris had ceased, as the allies had started to push the German army out of France. The changing mood in France as a victorious end to the war seemed in sight was noted in fashion reports in Vogue titled ‘Paris Openings are Keyed to Victory’ and ‘The New Note of Hope in Paris Fashions’. This new note was evident in a return to decorative trim and feminine detailing such as ruffles and wide sashes. A newly fashionable fabric was silk batik, introduced to Paris by a Madame Pangon, who was producing designs ‘coming from the Orient but improved by French taste’. Her work was seen by Vogue as a worthy heir of Fortuny’s ‘art fabrics’, capable of being personalized to suit individual clients. Best of all – Mme Pangon was employing wounded soldiers in her workshops.

Winter dresses made of cotton velvet and 'shoddy' wool

Other fabrics noted in Vogue were ones which had not normally been accepted in high-end fashion – cotton velvet and thick duvetyn to replace heavy wool, and net to replace bobbin lace. Substitutes for the wool fabric that had been requisitioned for army uniforms took several surprising forms. One was the use of angora rabbit yarn heavily embroidered onto a light fabric to create a fluffy textured surface. Another was the use of ‘shoddy’ – fabric made from recycled wool fibres that had long been a byword for poor quality.

Layered ensemble by Boue Soeurs

Scarcity of fashion fabrics could also be seen in some of the couture ensembles praised for their innovation. Louise Cheruit was one of several designers making outfits that fulfilled the functions of a dress  for indoor social events and a suit for street wear – either with a coat-dress, or as shown above, with a dress cut like a skirt and contrasting blouse worn under a short coat to make a suit. In this outfit decorative panels of gold brocade are restricted to the sides of the bodice section, contrasting with sober black velvet for the skirt and coat. An even more striking combination of fabrics is shown in an ‘all-day’ ensemble by the couture house of Boue Soeurs: a plain black satin sheath dress for wearing at home that could be topped by a full tunic of rust coloured net for entertaining; then a jacket of rust coloured wool could be added for street wear. The result harks back to Poiret’s ‘Minaret’ line of 1913, with the short buttoned jacket referencing both English schoolboys and Ottoman Zouave uniforms. There is a suspicion here, as there is in some of the knee-length dresses by Premet featured elsewhere in this issue, that a virtue is being made out of the absolute necessity to save fabric.
One article in this issue looks back over the changes made by wartime to the wardrobes of Vogue readers. This is illuminating, as the ideal reader was a leisured lady – one who employed a lady’s maid capable of  running up flattering accessories to update her mistress’ wardrobe, no less! Readers were advised not to allow wartime price increases to get the better of them, but to choose key wardrobe pieces carefully. A column on ‘Dressing on a war budget’ described a number of suits and dresses that were presented as good investments, costing between $100 and $125. This was a high price – in the 1920 census, 70% of US workers earned less than $3,000 a year, and for them $100 be the equivalent of two weeks’ wages. Even so, war restrictions had made some healthy changes in the landscape of fashion:
Probably for the first time in the history of dress the talented designers are giving their attention to the creating of women’s working clothes. Heretofore the woman who took part in any occupation dressed in imitation of her less industrious sister of leisure, and her clothes were seldom designed primarily for her occupation. To-day all women work. This means that many women who have been accustomed to dress the part they play with the utmost attention to appropriateness, charm, and chic, are now striving to dress the part of the woman who works. Some very successful clothes have been designed for the woman who is serving her country in a capacity that does not call for a uniform.
Business clothes for women were not a novelty in 1918 – the 1890s had seen a wave of ‘white blouse’ jobs created for women office workers, who in their turn created a demand for affordable business clothing. But the rhetoric of efficiency in elite women’s wardrobes was new  and would be taken even further in the shift dresses and cardigan suits of the 1920s.

A dress for the lady office worker

Posted in Fashion in World War I, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Fashion in World War I: September 1918

Irene Castle in mourning for her husband Vernon

The September 1918 issues of Vogue included a feature on the style icon Irene Castle, famous as a dance performer and teacher who had popularized the fox-trot, tango and many other dances. However the fashions she was modelling were for mourning, as her husband and dance partner Vernon had recently been killed in an accident on a US air base where he was helping to train pilots. The coverage of Castle, while respectful, gives a sense of the intense pressure she was under to remain elegant and poised even at a time of great personal loss. The garments she models confirm the trend noted in previous issues of Vogue for mourning made of softer fabrics rather than the stiff silk crape that was previously de rigeur.

These issues also highlighted some of the stark contradictions facing Paris fashion houses; many of their premises had been damaged by German bombardments, and clients were shown exquisite lingerie in shops with shattered windows. Now more than ever, branches in seaside or mountain resorts like Biarritz, Deauville or Vichy underpinned the profitability of  established fashion houses like Lanvin and Beer – and the newcomer Chanel. Chanel was well positioned to exploit the fashion trends of late 1918, with a narrow cut enforced by wartime fabric restrictions, and a preference for knit fabrics that were easy to wear. As Vogue commented:

This artist is particularly successful in keeping her creations practical and adapting them to the times we live in. She is equally successful with hats, gowns, or furniture, for she likes to see a woman in harmonious surroundings without any exaggerated modernities

The suggestion that Chanel was designing interiors is an interesting one – in this she was following the example of Paul Poiret whose Atelier Martine furnishing division (founded 1911) featured prominently in Les Modes account of life in Paris during air-raids. In this article there was also a tantalizing reference to the concept of a ‘national dress’ for France, standardized garments that could be cheaply mass-produced with state sponsored fabric: ‘for the refugees, the numerous families impoverished by the war, and for the soldiers themselves when they are forced to return to the present civilian dress which is much too expensive for them’. This scheme (which seems not to have been put into action) predates  the attempts by Soviet Russia to standardize and simplify clothing using  designs by Alexander Rodchenko.

Vogue for September 15th included two articles indicating how the social situation of American women had changed during the war. The first detailed the work being done by the Young Women’s Christian Association to support the tens of thousands of women war workers – 45,000 around Washington D.C. alone – many of them in sites attached to army camps and far from towns. The YWCA seems to have taken a holistic view of the needs of these (mostly young) women, providing not only hostel accommodation, canteens, and medical services, but also opportunities for recreation and personal development with the women running social clubs for themselves – and for soldiers in the adjacent camps. Even more striking is the article titled ‘School for Women Voters’, detailing the outreach and education programs being organised in American cities for newly enfranchised women. American women received the franchise through their relationship to a male American head of household, so that when non-native men became citizens their wives received the right to vote. This created an anomaly as some of these women had limited engagement with American society and limited opportunities to learn English. The League of Women Voter was addressing this issue by running outreach sessions in areas of American cities with high numbers of recently naturalized families, working with translators to advise women about their rights as voters and as American citizens – including their right to maintenance payments from absent husbands. The eager reception for these sessions vindicated the long-held argument of suffragists that women would be more responsible than their menfolk in using their votes.

Posted in Fashion, Fashion in World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment