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a classroom setting were not those that were needed in couture – the needlework syllabus in British schools was decades out of date, and focussed on mending household linen.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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2 Responses to Fashion in World War I: March 1917

  1. Erika says:

    Thank you for a beautiful and informative, well-written post. I love finding out more about this era, not least in fashion studies. These illustrations are so beautiful! I had the opportunity to work with a collection with pochoir prints from “Gazette du Bon Ton” as well as “Modes et Manieres…” – incredible quality art prints. I later bought some originals from “Gazette du Bon Ton”. I am now reluctant to keep them out for longer period of times due to fading – the colours are brilliant.

    So much happened pre-World War I. Many things were about to happened – and then was postponed until after the war.

    I am really pleased to have found your page and writing, thank you.

    • Clare says:

      Thank you Erika – good to hear from someone who has worked with 1910s fashion journals. You’re right to look after your original fashion plates – I have had the opportunity to see originals and the colours can be amazingly vibrant but only if they are not viewed too often. That’s why large libraries like the BnF are digitising their copies so they can be viewed online – to our advantage. I love the visuals too but there is so much more when you start to analyse the text as well.
      Best wishes

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