Fashion in World War I: April 1916

Dresses by Lanvin with 'peasant' blouses, Elegances Parisiennes

In April 1916, the first issue of Les Elegances Parisiennes appeared, incorporating some of the journalists and features from Le Style Parisien, but with stronger links to French couture and luxury textile trades. The contents were an uneasy mixture of fashion reportage, in illustrated articles aimed at couture clients, advertorial, with fashion plates detailing the latest cuts and textiles, and trade news. A lengthy article by M. Kempf, President of the Délégation des Industries Créatrices de la Mode spelled out what he saw as the main threats facing the French fashion trade during wartime. He did not mention the loss of overseas clients owing to travel restrictions, which the New York ‘Fete Parisienne’ had been at pains to address a few months earlier. Nor did he mention the difficulties of accessing raw materials and skilled labour when French industry had been placed on a war footing. Instead, he identified areas in which he felt French trade had been undermined by German initiatives, claiming that :

Before the war, most of the shipping agencies for the international market and especially Russia were German. I will not suprise anyone if I add that these agencies were involved in organised industrial espionnage, sending back information about our most successful exports.

He highlighted the need for French organisations to step in and replace German-sponsored events like the Leipzig textile trade fair, and called for the French postal service to improve its international shipping rates. Leaving aside the element of paranoia, this passage is interesting for the picture it presents of a pan-European fashion trade connecting manufacturers, middlemen and consumers from Paris to St Petersburg.

The styles in this issue of Elegances Parisiennes showed the prevailing trend was an 1830s revival, with sloping shoulders, balloon sleeves, fitted waists, and wide ankle-length skirts.  This was sometimes varied with references to the seventeenth-century Spanish styles seen in the paintings of Velaquez, such as wide lace collars and hooped skirts.  In this atmosphere of Romantic revivalism, the simple shift dresses of Paul Poiret looked anomalous – they were illustrated but not commented on. Within this consensus, there were styles aimed at very different markets. There were evening dresses lavished with silver lace and beaded embellishment from established couture houses like Worth and Beer; these would be of limited use in Paris, where formal evening events were now rare. But there were also simpler or multi-functional ensembles, such as wool suits with fancy silk blouses that could be worn both for shopping and at daytime socials, designed by younger firms like Jenny and Lanvin. The fashion columnist Martine Renier summed up these differences as:

‘Fashion for Allied countries – subdued tailoring and simple little dresses – and fashion for Neutral countries – rich, elegant, and refined – which we send out around the world, shining as brightly as our hopes.’

Poiret shift dress, Elegances Parisiennes

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