Fashion in World War I: November 1916

Evening dresses by Jenny and by Martial et Armand referencing 1820s style

The November 1916 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes gives some interesting insights into the ways that fashion uses and reworks the past. As  Ulrich Lehmann’s Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity pointed out, uses of the past in fashion are not neutral but are ways of commenting on or reframing contemporary culture. From 1910 onwards, the prevailing shape in women’s dresses had been high-waisted and narrow, recalling the cut of the Napoleonic Empire from 1805-15. Since 1915, as skirts became shorter and wider, there had been references to dresses of the following decade – particularly the puffed sleeves and sloping shoulders in fashion around 1830. In this issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes there are several ensembles described as in the style of the ‘Premier Empire’ or of the 1830s, but with important modifications. This image shows an afternoon ensemble by Jenny of dark blue wool and white organdie, described as a ‘robe 1830’. It has the sloping shoulders and sleeve fullness of the earlier period, emphasized by a wide pelerine collar of organdie. But the buttoned front opening and prominent gathers at the raised waist are very much of 1916, as is the diagonally tilted hat. The merging of styles is most evident in the shoes shown with the dress: sandal uppers with crossed ties from the 1820s, on top of high 1916 heels. To the right is a dress by Martial et Armand called ‘Tallien’, in tribute to Madame Tallien, a participant in the politics of the French Revolution who was notorious for her beauty, her adoption of extreme Neoclassical dress, and her complex love life. This gown has the high-waisted silhouette of c1800, but the bodice is skimpier even than neoclassical styles, sleeveless and with narrow shoulder straps. The soft fabric of the bodice allows the shape of the breasts to be seen – validating the need for the supportive bust bodices described in the previous issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes. The neat hairstyle and discreet makeup worn by the model add to the sense of modernity.

Sleeveless shift dress by Beer

Other dresses illustrated in the November issue are even more striking, and prefigure the lines of the 1920s to a disconcerting extent. One such is a sleeveless shift dress by Beer with loose, flowing lines, a dropped waist marked by a loose sash, made in panels of fabric with stark colour contrasts. This is accessorised with quintessentially 1920s jewellery: a bangle and a long string of beads with a tassel. Although many of the other dresses shown were more conventionally constructed, these avant-garde styles remind us that the apparent rupture between the styles of 1914 and 1925 was in fact a gradual evolution, and one that was sanctioned by refernces back to the past.

These shift dresses embody the ethos of ‘sober originality’ highlighted indiscussions in the accompanying articles. They may also epitomise the ways in which French fashion, under the pressure of wartime, was diverging from the expectations of its international customers. The all-important American trade buyers who braved the dangerous Atalantic crossing to come to Paris couture shows were apparently complaining that the garments were not elaborate or decorative enough for their clients – when they were not complaining about new regulations limiting access to the collections in order to deter illegal copying. Les Élégances Parisiennes noted that one American fashion wholesaler had set up a Paris showroom where they presented the latest fashions in advance of the couture shows, so that copies could be available in the USA as soon as the new season’s styles were launched.  This could not have functioned without some degree of industrial espionage – unless the advance models were based on guesswork. Even more sinister, to French commentators, was the existence in Paris of fashion middlemen funded by German manufacturers. These apparently ‘interpreted’ French fashions using German fabrics and trimmings, which were then ordered in bulk by US manufacturers to reproduce what they thought was the latest Paris model. These middlemen had a double-blind system of record-keeping, with designers, fabric suppliers, and purchasers all referred to by code numbers, making it very difficult to identify their nationalities or to prove illegal trade activity.

The tension between the desire to promote French fashion primacy with seasonal collections that were visually distinctive (and hence copiable for the mass market) and the need to maintain exclusivity for individual clients is visible in these discussions – and is still an issue today. One solution was to emphasize fine handwork or luxurious materials, which was the route taken by the couture House of Boue Soeurs, known for their elaborate lace and ribbon trimmings.   In November 1916 they were applying ribbon flowers to the underneath of the hem; in the 1920s this decoration was expanded to cover whole dresses with lavish ribbon bouquets. Ribbon flowers,  while far from the streamlined modernist aesthetic that domainated the 1920s, were the foundation of the Boue Soeurs success over a period of forty years. This reminds us that the development of fashion is not linear or consistent, operating both through forward ‘Tigersprings’ and backward turns.

A dance dress by Boue Soeurs, with ribbon flowers under the hem

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