Fashion in World War I: November 1917

Tailored ensembles - the one on the right by Jenny - showing eighteenth century influences
Tailored ensembles – the one on the right by Jenny – with eighteenth century influences

The November 1917 issue of   Les Élégances Parisiennes opened with a strong defence of  the fashion industry in wartime. Fashion, and more especially couture, was crucial not only to the French economy but for national prestige. The recent order from Paris couturiers by the Queen of Spain was cited as an accolade; as Queen Victoria Eugenia,  daughter of Princess Beatrice of England, had been a client of Worth before the War this was only to be expected.

The reports on fashion trends show the wartime problems with materials were biting deeper. Many leading couturiers were cutting their dresses narrower than ever – Buloz as little as 1.2m (48″) wide – but as skirts were now shorter this would not have the hobbling effect of the narrow skirts of 1910. This narrow cut would economise on fabric, and allow garments to be exported to the USA under the regulations discussed in the previous issue. Another reported trend was the use of broad ribbons, not only as sashes or floating panels, but draped round the body as shrugs, or stitched to form bodices and sleeves. The most lavish of these ribbons, with coloured motifs on metallic lame grounds, were compared to the decorative cuirasses of enamelled metal worn by Renaissance knights. While these ribbons were no doubt a tribute to the workmanship of weaving houses in Lyon – or more likely St Etienne – they would also be significantly cheaper than equivalent dress silks because of their reduced width.

A multi-function scarf / wrap/ motoring hood by Jenny

Multi-functional accessories like the garment by Jenny which doubled as an unstructured wrap (with handwarmer pockets) and a motoring hood also served an economy agenda, as did the blurring of lines between tailored suits and dresses. Tailored jackets could be removed to show soft chiffon blouses, transforming the ensemble from outdoor to indoor wear. Other suits included oversized decorative waistcoats which lightened the look, while referencing the style of eighteenth century courtiers – or even clerics, in an episcopal purple suit with a black soutane like tunic .

News from within the French fashion trades included a worrying report on international competition both in silk textiles and in garments. The import duties on silk fabrics were criticised as ineffective and unequal; American silks were charged at 15F per kg, and Asian silks only at 3.25F. This was based on pre-war conditions, when Japanese and Chinese silks had been relatively low grade base fabrics. However, in recent years Asian manufacturers had upgraded their production to include dyed, printed and pattern woven textiles which were competing directly with French silk textiles. This competition was skewed by the huge differential in wage rates, which allowed Asian manufacturers to price their goods much more cheaply. French silk manufacturers were calling for a revision in import duties, applying a surcharge to goods from low-wage countries in order to protect French industry. There was further discontent among French high-end clothing manufacturers. A new law had fixed a sales tax of 5% on ready-to-wear garments, and 10% on made to measure. This was denounced as penalising self-employed tailors and dressmakers producing made to measure garments for private clients at the expense of large clothing manufacturers. After all, not all private clients were wealthy -some of them were forced to buy made to measure because mass produced clothes weren’t made in their size.

Day ensembles with long waistcoats - one of which looks like a sleeveless coat

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