Fashion in World War I: May 1918

A cellar fitted out as an air-raid shelter by Poiret's Maison Martine

Issue 177 of Les Modes, published in May 1918, revealed both the difficulties of life in wartime Paris, and the ways that some entrepreneurs found new business opportunities. It is also remarkable frank about the social divisions between the classses, and even between neighbours, always present but heightened by war conditions. A lengthy article, ‘LES PARISIENNES SOUS LES BOMBARDEMENTS EN 1918’, detailed the effects of bombardment from both ‘Gotha’ planes and the German super-long range cannon, firing from up to 100km away. This new weapon (called ‘Big Bertha’) created a tactical advantage, as it could bypass Parisian air-raid defences. It was also a form of psychological warfare, as the shells arrived without warning out of an empty sky. The initial effect of the bombing campaigns was a mass exodus from Paris, with up to 20% of the population leaving the city in March. However as the bombardment continued, city life resumed, at least until the clear moonlit nights favourable for air raids. The basements under Parisian apartment buildings were turned into air-raid shelters, and wealthy women who had maintained a lofty ignorance of these utilitarian spaces started boasting about them:

Why, my dear, our cellar isn’t the horrible little hole that I always thought it was! It’s a darling little cellar…the construction is modern, there’s electric lighting in all the corridors, and there’s enough space for me to have a little two-room flatlet. I’ve furnished it so that it looks charming, with a couple of rugs,  easy chairs, a chaise-longue, and a table – it’s lovely, I assure you!

Design firms such as Poiret’s Maison Martine saw a new opportunity, and offered decorative schemes for cellars, with fashionable but small-scale daybeds, chairs and tables, plus electric lamps so the occupants could distract themselves by reading or playing cards.

To be fully prepared for air-raids, it was not enough to have a furnished room to go to – there was also the weighty matter of what to put on when the sirens sounded. As the writer ‘Nite’ pointed out, ‘A thick dressing-gown … would do in front of your husband! But down below there are other women; nothing escapes their sharp eyes, which sum you up from head to toe – and after the all-clear sounds, their even sharper tongues’.  Moreover:

There are few women lucky enough to have fine golden locks that fall naturally to frame a naturally pink complexion  Most heads of hair, and most complexions, are not seen at their best in such circumstances. Once their natural bloom has faded, it takes time to get it back. But the air-raid sirens are chasing you underground … How can you spend time on your make-up in such conditions?

Fortunately, a solution to both these problems was at hand – the ‘Cape pour la cave’, invented by Marthe Gautier. This was a loose garment with a hood covering the neck and hair, framing the face with a flattering white band, and loose sleeves to show off dainty wrists. The interest of this article lies not so much in the proposed solution as in the problem itself, that of looking good without the help of elaborate skincare and hair styling rituals.

The fashion article in this number of Les Modes gave an update on the luxury tax discussed in the previous issue. Their fashion writer, Sybil de Lancy, complained bitterly at the depressing effect of this tax on the fashion trades, coming just when fashionable women were trying to update their wardrobes for summer. Some of her points read like a foretaste of current arguments for luxury consumption as a form of sustainable practice:

… the length of time that items last changes their value to the consumer. Imagine a woman who was rational enough to wear the same tailored costume for two or three seasons, sacrificing her engagement with fashion. For this to work  the outfit is made of good quality fabric and well cut, and therefore a luxury item, and taxed as such, even though it was more economical than one that only lasts a single season

However her main conclusion is one that reveals the hollowness of French government rhetoric about the ‘Union parfaite’ of citizens from all levels of society pulling together to fight a common enemy. In de Lancy’s view, upper-class women have already given up many of their privileges to the war effort, and anything that threatens to erode them further should be strongly resisted. Instead of taxing couture clothes as luxuries, the state should recognise them as necessary accoutrements of elite status:

Items that are luxuries for a lower middle-class woman are not for a titled lady, whose  social position requires a higher level of expenditure. Therefore, if both women need something and buy the same version of it, for the less well-off the purchase will be a ‘luxury item’ and will be subject to tax. For the rich woman, the same item will be more economical than those she normally buys – yet it will be taxed as a ‘luxury’ since the price is the same. Is this a fair application of taxation?

Evidently the ‘Union parfaite’ of French society under wartime conditions had its limits…

A garment for air raids, the 'Cape pour la cave' by Marthe Gautier

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