Fashion in World War I: September 1918

Irene Castle in mourning for her husband Vernon

The September 1918 issues of Vogue included a feature on the style icon Irene Castle, famous as a dance performer and teacher who had popularized the fox-trot, tango and many other dances. However the fashions she was modelling were for mourning, as her husband and dance partner Vernon had recently been killed in an accident on a US air base where he was helping to train pilots. The coverage of Castle, while respectful, gives a sense of the intense pressure she was under to remain elegant and poised even at a time of great personal loss. The garments she models confirm the trend noted in previous issues of Vogue for mourning made of softer fabrics rather than the stiff silk crape that was previously de rigeur.

These issues also highlighted some of the stark contradictions facing Paris fashion houses; many of their premises had been damaged by German bombardments, and clients were shown exquisite lingerie in shops with shattered windows. Now more than ever, branches in seaside or mountain resorts like Biarritz, Deauville or Vichy underpinned the profitability of  established fashion houses like Lanvin and Beer – and the newcomer Chanel. Chanel was well positioned to exploit the fashion trends of late 1918, with a narrow cut enforced by wartime fabric restrictions, and a preference for knit fabrics that were easy to wear. As Vogue commented:

This artist is particularly successful in keeping her creations practical and adapting them to the times we live in. She is equally successful with hats, gowns, or furniture, for she likes to see a woman in harmonious surroundings without any exaggerated modernities

The suggestion that Chanel was designing interiors is an interesting one – in this she was following the example of Paul Poiret whose Atelier Martine furnishing division (founded 1911) featured prominently in Les Modes account of life in Paris during air-raids. In this article there was also a tantalizing reference to the concept of a ‘national dress’ for France, standardized garments that could be cheaply mass-produced with state sponsored fabric: ‘for the refugees, the numerous families impoverished by the war, and for the soldiers themselves when they are forced to return to the present civilian dress which is much too expensive for them’. This scheme (which seems not to have been put into action) predates  the attempts by Soviet Russia to standardize and simplify clothing using  designs by Alexander Rodchenko.

Vogue for September 15th included two articles indicating how the social situation of American women had changed during the war. The first detailed the work being done by the Young Women’s Christian Association to support the tens of thousands of women war workers – 45,000 around Washington D.C. alone – many of them in sites attached to army camps and far from towns. The YWCA seems to have taken a holistic view of the needs of these (mostly young) women, providing not only hostel accommodation, canteens, and medical services, but also opportunities for recreation and personal development with the women running social clubs for themselves – and for soldiers in the adjacent camps. Even more striking is the article titled ‘School for Women Voters’, detailing the outreach and education programs being organised in American cities for newly enfranchised women. American women received the franchise through their relationship to a male American head of household, so that when non-native men became citizens their wives received the right to vote. This created an anomaly as some of these women had limited engagement with American society and limited opportunities to learn English. The League of Women Voter was addressing this issue by running outreach sessions in areas of American cities with high numbers of recently naturalized families, working with translators to advise women about their rights as voters and as American citizens – including their right to maintenance payments from absent husbands. The eager reception for these sessions vindicated the long-held argument of suffragists that women would be more responsible than their menfolk in using their votes.

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