Fashion in World War I: August 1915

Silk day dresses, Plate III, Le Style Parisien no 1

In August 1915, war had been raging for a year, and had created deep-seated economic and social changes even for non-combatants. In both Britain and France, the social season which had provided a rationale for fashion consumption by the elite was curtailed by restrictions on travel and by the closure of places of entertainment. Daytime events such as tea parties and matinee concerts had largely replaced dining out and evenings at the opera, removing some of the need for formal evening clothes. Daytime clothing had also been simplified to reflect the absence of servants – chaffeurs and maids – whose work had underpinned the elite lifestyle.

In these circumstances, the luxury trades, and especially Parisian couture, were severely challenged. But couture was too important both economically and symbolically to be allowed to fail. Accordingly, the Syndicat de Defense de la Grande Couture Française et des Industries s’y rattachant launched a new monthly publication called le Style Parisien in July 1915. This was aimed both at the couture client and at fashion retailers, and was available in an English edition sold in London and New York through Conde Nast, the publishers of Vogue. The first issue contained several rationales for the importance of fashionable clothing, even in wartime. One was economic, with multiple French businesses, from dye manufacturers and silk works to sewing workshops, linked to the fashion trade and suffering from wartime disruption to clothing exports. However this rationale could also be used to justify buying mass-produced clothing, which had become increasingly important since 1900, particularly for the tailored daywear that was a mainstay of wartime wardrobes.

The other rationale was more interesting, as it characterised the French couturier not as the head of a business enterprise but as a fine artist and an adept psychologist who helped his clients to present their individual selves. The couturier was described as an expert in world art, able to combine elements seen in his travels, his museum visits, and his reading, to create garments which were as different from the styles mass-produced by manufacturers as ‘the centuries-old chateau with the patina of age is from a little suburban villa’. The designs of great couturiers were seen as combining inventiveness with a refined understanding of aesthetic  standards that ensured their success.

Notwithstanding these claims of fashion as a form of art, le Style Parisien accepted that even the most dedicated clients were having to restrict their consumption of fashion. There was a stress on multifunctional designs, with couture garments that could be made up in different fabric combinations by retailers who had purchased a toile. Precise details of suitable fabrics by Bianchini-Ferier and other manufacturers were also given to encourage sales of French silks. For individuals not able to travel to Paris to place orders, there were cutting diagrams for the latest styles; the effect of these would depend on the skill of the dressmaker.

Striped silk fabrics recommended for making up dresses in Plate III, Le Style Parisien no 1

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