Fashion in World War I: November 1918

Three ensembles by Chanel trimmed with angora wool embroidery, beads, and beaver fur

In early November 1918, French couture was in a state of limbo – looking forward to the imminent end of the war, but not sure when it would arrive, and still facing shortages and disruptions. New York Vogue reflected this uncertain mood in an article headed ‘Paris states her optimism in terms of clothes’, reporting  on a show of French couture designs held in Switzerland for fashion buyers from neutral nations. The writer pondered the likely reactions of a German woman who had been a couture client until the war intervened, torn between admiration for French expertise and a wish to boost their German designers:

She must have suffered severely at the fashion show, if she was there, for she loved French dresses and was well known to our couturiers.   Of course, all this is trifling in war time, but it would be a satisfaction, just the same, to know the real feelings of those who have tried so hard to assure themselves and others that French creative genius has been killed by the war. Patience, just a short time, and perhaps we shall know.

The Paris styles reported in this issue show a variety of cut, from the straight tunics of Chanel to the draped gowns of Lucile. But there is a consistency in their use of wartime materials, with fluffy angora embroidery substituting for fur, and beading for woven decoration. One of the Chanel suits is captioned ‘pride in her brown Charmeuse costume with keep her warm’ – wishful thinking when the diversion of coal to the war effort meant that even upper-class homes were practically unheated. Another article, ‘The defences of Paris against winter’ suggested a variety of ways of mitigating a temperature of 40′ F indoors, from foot muffs to rugs designed to wrap round the body.

At the opposite extreme from fur cocoons, Vogue also reported on new trends in lightweight lingerie. These had appeared in  Les Élégances parisiennes in December 1917,  linked to shortages in fine cotton and linen fabrics as French manufacturers were closed down by the war. The French repoter had approved of lingerie in black silk trimmed with ribbon bows and rosebuds, but stated firmly that ‘the garment that I would condemn outright is the chemise in black or bright blue tulle; these are impossible to wear by respectable women’. Vogue elided this distinction, presenting combinations and chemises of sheer tulle as the latest Paris fashion, and placing a defence of their frivolity in the mouth of an imagined French saleswoman:

It is not for the kind of woman who wears ugly lingerie that a man fights….the night gown? It is a little fragile, a little extravagant, perhaps? Mademoiselle forgets the alarms that occur so frequently at night – the trip to the cellar – the meetings with one’s friends, one’s neighbours. It is dark, to be sure, in the cellar, but there is always a little light and , under one’s wrap, one would not appear – what do you say? Frumpy, like an old-maid in a comic paper. And this nightgown,  is it not delightful! It is of chiffon the colour of wood violets with bands of tulle over the shoulders…it is as if all the daintiness, the femininity that we must repress in our dresses these days had been poured into the silk and the lace that make our lingerie…Mademoiselle does not think the Americans will approve of these models, so fragile and so charming? Perhaps not.

This passage is interesting for the way in which it constructs French fashions as more daring, and more sexualised, than those that would be acceptable in the USA – in order to sell them to American buyers. Read in tandem with the article in Les Élégances parisiennes it becomes clear that this construct is directly opposition to the actual views of French consumers. The invocation of the need to keep up appearances in front of neighbours during night-time air raids also subverts the evidence of French sources. It is not the tactful concealement of a ‘cape pour la cave’ featured in Les Modes that Vogue recommends, but an artful revelation of frivolous garments under the respectable wrap.

Draped and wrapped gowns by Lucile

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