Fashion in World War I: May 1916

Three suits by Chanel in silk and wool jersey

The second issue of Les Elégances Parisiennes opened with a revealing discussion of the difficulties facing the French fashion industry in wartime. The Lyon trade fair for fashion trades the previous month had been a huge success, with large orders placed by Allied buyers for goods ranging from decorative hair combs to silk fabrics. But the execution of these orders might prove problematic with materials in short supply. A corset manufacturer had received enough orders to keep them busy for three years – IF the government allocated them enough steel to make stiffenings and fastenings. There was a lengthy article criticising the actions of the Société Suisse de Surveillance Economique;  French manufacturers were sending goods to neutral Switzerland only to find that they were re-exported to hostile Germany and Austria. Underlying the paranoia in accounts of German salesmen being allowed home from the war in order to carry out industrial espionage was a justifiable anxiety about the shortcomings of French business practices. How was it that German firms had been able to undersell French producers, even in the French colonies?

After the closely-printed pages of industry news came an illustrated account of the latest fashions, apparently adressed to couture clients. It is not clear how the different sections of the publication were intended to be used, but it is noteworthy that the coloured plates and illustrated articles could be detached for separate distribution. The fashion trends discussed continued to follow two divergent paths. One of them consisted of lavish formal gowns with wide skirts made wider by frills and draperies. These were ideal for displaying the rich fabrics and embroideries and delicate laces produced by French firms, and the plate captions give precise ordering details for the textiles used. These styles would also require the latest underpinnings, including corsets with rounded hips and petticoats stiffened with hoops, and matching accessories such as shoes and mantles. The thoroughness of seasonal changes was what made the fashion industry so important in driving consumption, even in wartime.

Opposed to the high fashion of the established couture houses like Worth, Paquin and Chéruit were the more informal clothes being offered by smaller firms. Gabrielle Chanel was gaining recognition for her casual ensembles made from wool and silk jersey, described as ‘ideal for cruises or for the countryside’. The three illustrated here show that she was expanding her range, offering a version in khaki wool with a patch-pocketed jacket based on military uniform, and a more feminine ensemble in violet silk trimmed with bands of velvet. It was this ability to vary a successful formula that would prove crucial to her success.

Three evening wraps showcasing French silk brocades and embroideries

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