Fashion in World War I: Christmas 1918

The Christmas 1918 issue of Les Modes seems like an appropriate point at which to end this four-year investigation of French fashion during World War I. This issue was one of the first produced since the Armistice, and included several articles reflecting on the changes brought by war – both to fashion and to women’s lives. These are all the more interesting for appearing in a magazine that was generally conservative in its tastes (as evidenced by its reluctance to recognize the designs of Paul Poiret). The feature on ‘La Mode et les modes’ starts with a lengthy account of the ways in which elite Frenchwomen’s capabilities have been proved by their war work, and a vehement rebuttal of the view of them as ‘dolls’.

as if they were only waiting for victory in order to return to their frippery and fashions,  tea parties and chats; as if the frightful things they had seen had left no trace, and as if they had no thought than to decorate themselves mindlessly, without worrying about the suffering and the wounds that even peace could not heal; they have all been transformed into conventional figures of doll-women,  dressmakers’ dummy-women. There was never a falser picture painted, and the worst thing is that most of these falsehoods come from female pens, giving them a personal viewpoint that enhances their apparent authenticity!   But this is not the case; all this is nothing but stereotyping and a literary construct. Of course, our admirable Frenchwomen would like to return to their previous elegance, they would like to re-affirm their rule over the realms of taste where no-one will ever dare to challenge them; but this will not be to the detriment of their serious and solemn obligations that continue to fill their lives. This contact with four frightful years will leave a veil of melancholy in the depths of their eyes, and even if they are among the privileged few who have not received an incurable wound from this war, their heart will share in the mourning of others, and in the midst of their renewed social life they will keep a space for reflection and for persisting in their post-war charitable duties. The doll-woman and the dummy-woman will have disappeared – but you will not find any criticism of that change here.

It is likely that the author is responding to arguments against  female suffrage in France – which was not achieved until 1944, partly because of concerns that women lacked the ability to make independent political decisions.

The clothing styles that suited this new view of women – simply cut tailoring, and chemise dresses that could be dressed up with floating over tunics – were contrasted with the ‘byzantine complexity and hunt for luxurious originality’ of the pre-war era. The new spirit in fashion is demonstrated by an image of five day and evening outfits from Martial et Armand which are all short and loosely cut. These features are emphasized by the poses of the models, perched on a table to show off their ankles or slouched to demonstrate the absence of restrictive corsetry.

Forward-looking ensembles from Martial et Armand

The new and the old approaches both to design and to women’s levels of activity are highlighted by two contrasting images of furs in this issue. The article is illustrated with a fur wrap by Revillon – an established firm which had been a major exhibitor at pre-war international exhibitions – which muffles the top of the body while leaving arms and legs exposed. In the picture it is styled with an evening gown that wraps tightly round the wearer’s legs and extends into a long train, a form that looks back to impractical pre-war fashions. In contrast, a full page advertisement by Burberry shows belted trench coats and hats available in a range of materials, from waterproof serge to Canadian otter fur.

The most surprising reflections in this issue, however, are found not in the fashion review but in a lengthy article on ‘Noel de victoire’ signed by ‘Nite’. The author reflects back on her childhood in  the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, when the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine had been lost to Prussia. She describes the politicization of Christmas gifts, with boys receiving toy soldiers, guns, and uniforms – and girls, dolls dressed in Alsatian costume with a distinctive black  bow head-dress. These were explained as representations of women ‘stolen’ by Prussians, presenting the transfer of sovereignty in terms of kidnapping. The solution to this outrage was presented as the responsibility of the children of the 1870s:

In the future, when were stronger and when all the little boys of France had grown up, they would put on smart uniforms, like the soldiers we had seen; they would have rifles, real ones; the drums would be beaten; the bugles would sound; and they would go and take the women of Alsace and Lorraine women back from the Prussians. The women would be so happy, they would clap their hands and hug their deliverers….

What a dream for children’s imaginations!…

The wicked Prussians! The beautiful Alsatian women holding out their arms to us, like our dolls which are never more attractive than when they hold out their arms!  What child could have resisted such a touching appeal? And we feel so strong, when we are little, looking ahead to when we are grown up!

We were going to have to fight … so be it! Go to war! We would do it! And we would be victorious! We didn’t doubt it, we swore to do it to the Alsatian dolls which we hugged while waiting to hug the real Alsatian women.

This article ends with exultation that the childhood dream of re-unification has finally come to pass after forty years. For a modern reader, however, it leaves a bitter taste. If the defeat of 1871 had entered so deeply into French culture as to shape even children’s games, how would the defeat of 1918 affect German families? Would it give rise to a generation brought up to seek revenge on the victors, as French children had been? As future developments were to show, this is a factor that should have been considered more carefully in the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.

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