Fashion in World War I: September 1915

Ensembles by Martial and Armand, Le Style Parisien, September 1915

In September 2015, Le Style Parisien showcased styles for the coming winter season by leading Paris couturiers, with detailed description of gowns and accessories. More interesting than these were the accompanying meditations  on the current state of the French fashion industry. The main fashion feature was cast as a letter from ‘Francine’, an imagined Parisienne, writing to a friend in New York. Her wish to give ‘the greatest number possible of pretty outfits so that people there can see clearly that French fashion is continuing as usual’ is a clear statement of the key purpose of Le Style Parisien.

Another article in this issue, ostensibly reporting on trends in millinery, instead focusses on the sorry state of the French trade, ‘a kind of anarchy which will ruin a part of the most important branch of French industry’. It expresses outrage that established specialists in design, construction and trimming are being undermined by upstart stylists who produce their designs in-house in order to cut costs. Consumers are also blamed for this cheapening of French design, as they are now wearing the same cheap hats summer and winter rather than shopping for new styles to complement each season’s fashions. This situation is exacerbated by the predatory behaviour of

our neighbours and allies, the English. Their incredible understanding of trade and of how it should be conducted, gave them a needle-sharp view of this point which was weakening in us. Even in wartime, and to Paris, they sent negotiators authorised to make huge deals, in order to transfer the power that was so recently ours to London.

Against this triple threat the writer has no practical defences, only the vain hope of:

A decision to decree Fashion in a co-ordinated way, and not to submit to the constantly changing music-hall fantasies of a style which derives only from the more or less outrageous taste of the woman who wears it.

This view of fashion as the preserve of a privileged elite, directed by French tastemakers, underlies an interview with Jean Worth, director of the House of Worth, quoted in the article by ‘Francine’.  He is asked about his decision to promote a silhouette with a nipped-in waist that would require a new style of corset, gives the rationale that:

Fashion has taken on a too relaxed form in recent times; all women, from duchesses to shopgirls, walk around muffled up in an English officer’s raincoat, even in the afternoon; that this will be the death of the industry and of couture; that everything must be done to avoid this kind of vulgarisation and that the first step is to design fitted dresses, since they are much more difficult to make than other kinds, and are much more attractive and distinguished

This passage is refreshing in its frankness about the economic motivation for introducing a style that would be hard for mass manufacturers to copy, and hard for non-elite consumers to wear. But it is also revealing of the disdain of couturiers for the priorities of consumers, an attitude which posed more of a threat to their trade than any number of British rivals.

Dark coloured fashion fabrics in Le Style Parisien, September 1915

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