Fashion in World War I: December 1917

Afternoon dresses in rich fabrics, showing a variety of influences

The December 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes devoted several pages to a detailed discussion of the latest trends in lingerie, and linked this to the large number of society weddings for which trousseaux were being ordered.  Apparently the shortage of high quality linen and cotton fabrics (produced in areas of France at risk from German invasion) had led to an increased use of silk for underwear. Silk crepe, transparent mousseline de soie, and even silk tulle net in colours or in black were favoured for the new underwear. These were trimmed with rows of tiny ribbon flowers (a hallmark of the house of Callot Soeurs) and with straps and ties in contrasting ribbon. The cut was also becoming simpler and shorter, with knee-length drawers replaced by briefs the size of a baby’s nappy. These allowed the shape of the legs to be glimpsed through lightweight summer skirts. Of course the scantiness of the garments could be excused as war economy of fabric.

Latest styles in underwear in silk crepe and tulle

Another trend which turned wartime shortages to good account was the introduction of cloth shoes by Jenny, a couture house specialising in young women. These were made of black satin, with leather (required for army boots) restricted to trimmings. The soft fabric uppers would be useless for serious walking, showed off dainty feet and ankles better than the finest leather. Trends in hosiery were even more impractical: the finest grades of silk stockings were being worn for fashionable day events, even though scarce taxis had replaced chauffeured cars. Coloured stockings were no longer high fashion as they had become too common; instead fashionable women were wearing sheer silk decorated with lace or embroidery. There is a suggestion in the article that it is only the nouveau riche families of war profiteers who would go in for such extravagances.

Wartime economies were affecting the trade of milliners; apparently couture clients were jibbing at the prices requested for fashionable hats. Women who would pay for a couture dress or suit without blinking were trying to bargain down the prices for the matching headgear, and choosing to do without if the milliner refused. This added to the problems faced by milliners who were facing shortages in materials – not only exotic feathers but also the fancy plaits and braids needed to make hat structures. Worst of all, the skilled male workers who could mould felt ‘hoods’ into fashionable shapes were being called up by the army, either as soldiers or to work on army headgear.

The article on the state of the fashion trades discussed an area in which French firms were at risk from German competitors: commercial training for their workers. Since 1880, every German town with over 1000 inhabitants had been obliged by law to proved evening classes in business practices, with a network linking schools, business colleges and universities. This was seen as one of the reasons for the boom in German exports, which had apparently increased by a factor of 2,000 from 1890 to 1910 (French exports grew by a measly 50% over the same period). In contrast, the French state had concentrated business training on the elite, funding the École des Hautes Études commerciales in Paris and fourteen regional business colleges. This left the vast majority of shop assistants and sales representatives lacking the training that would help them to serve both their employers and the national economy. Two solutions were proposed: one was to set up evening or morning classes for apprentices, and make attendance a compulsory part of their training, as was done in Germany. German employers could be fined or even imprisoned for obstructing the training of their apprentices; to replicate this in France would require not only new legislation but also a change in attitude.

A more workable solution was the initiative recently launched by the Chamber of Commerce of Lyon: two new trade schools for women of any age, one with a commercial syllabus (commercial and employment law; accountancy; international trade regulations; shorthand and typing) and the other covering technical subjects (technical drafting; preparation of blueprints; machine maintenance; geometry, physics and materials science; shorthand and typing). These were intended for women of any age, from school leavers to war widows trying to carry on the family business. The fees were to be 75F per term for business classes, 150F for the technical courses, over a total of six terms (part time), with scholarships for hardship cases. To put this in context, a year’s subscription to Les Élégances Parisiennes cost 64F, almost as much as a term’s teaching.

An afternoon dress by Lucile in silk trimmed with fur

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