Fashion in World War I: October 1916

Dinner and evening gowns with strapless effects, worn with a slouch

The October 1916 of Les Élégances Parisiennes included an article on the somewhat surprising topic of lace – surprising in that sheer lace insertions are normally associated with light summer dresses rather than winter ensembles. The focus was, in fact, not so much on the ways that lace would be used in the coming season, and more on the economics of the hand lace trade. The author acknowledged that hand lace production by outworkers had been especially hard hit by the war, as lacemakers had been displaced, or had been forced to take up occupations that did not allow time for lace work. She also claimed that traditional lacemakers had combined work in the fields during the day with work with lacemaking at night – if true, this speaks less of the devotion to craft claimed in the article and more of the need to bring extra income into impoverished households. There is an acknowledgement that under these conditions the quality of lace design had suffered, driven down by an emphasis on price over quality. The author calls for design-led lace schools like the one that had been set up in Vienna around 1900, with close links to the fashion trade, and a budget underwritten by the state. A contrast is drawn with the small lace revival projects led by ‘nobles dames’ – who were too often well-intentioned but unbusinesslike. It was perhaps these lace schools, copying rather than innovating, which were responsible for the large number of modern forgeries of antique lace that had recently been identified – including a piece which had been exhibited in an international exhibition as eighteenth-century! The unwillingness of consumers to pay for the hand skills and time required to produce high quality lace unless the product carried the apparent cachet of age was probably at the root of these forgeries – and of the incursion of quicker techniques such as crochet and embroidery on net into traditional lace production.

New styles in chemises, with 'soutien gorge' bodices

One new use for lace discussed in Les Élégances Parisiennes was in the shoulder and neck areas of chemises and corset-covers. Apparently both evening bodices and afternoon blouses were being made so sheer that the undergarments could be seen through them. This meant that the necklines and shoulder straps of different layers needed to be aligned in order to create unsightly clashes – unless one layer was made of transparent net or lace. This article notes another innovation in lingerie, the chemises worn under the corset were now being made with a shaped ‘soutien gorge’ bodice. Supportive bust bodices had been introduced around 1908 when the corset was redesigned to cover the area from ribs to thighs, rather than from breasts to hips, but were often boned or padded. The bodices illustrated in this article were much lighter, closer to the innovative support garments designed by the iconoclastic Paul Poiret for his wife Denise in 1913. The corsets to be worn over the new chemises had also been redesigned to follow the natural lines of the body more closely, and were being made with elasticated laces to allow more movement.

Interestingly, this issue also includes several designs by Poiret, one of them a flowing gown shaped like a peasant smock adorned with a panel of embroidery based on Breton traditions. Both this and two other Poiret designs illustrated were credited to Max Grab, New York – presumably licenced for the US market. The other gowns had a dropped waist, long narrow sleeves and a fur-trimmed over bodice creating a medieval silhouette. This silhouette, and the supple curves of the wearer’s body, had been iconoclastic when first introduced by Poiret in 1912, but by 1916 were in tune with mainstream trends. The slouched posture of the couture-clad young women illustrated in the large plate of evening dresses in this October issue would have been unthinkable – not to mention impractical – only a few years previously. There could be no return to pre-war rigidity from this point.;0

'Bretonne' by Poiret, licenced to Max Grab, New York

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