Fashion in World War I: August 1918

The August 1918 issues of Vogue were a little light on fashion news – there was a long article discussing the relationship between styles of dress and styles of interior decorating, and several features on juvenile fashions, illustrated with photographs of the children of the rich and famous. This is unsurprising given that the summer was not a season for new trends, and that society functions in both Paris and New York were still governed by war conditions. The report from Paris addresses this directly, with a description of a sunny afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne where:

One might almost have been tempted to forget the war, were it not for the distant dull sound of an exploding bomb, now and again, and the impossibility of getting anything other than saccharine to sweeten one’s demi-tasse.

The author also notes the social changes brought by the war:

the absence of the old-time orchestra was less felt, thanks to the virtuosity of a passing accordionist – a mere boy, blinded by a bullet at the Ypres affair. And the scarcity of the fashionable demi-mondaines of national repute was less noticeable because of the presence of the pretty mannequins who had come to enjoy the lovely sunny day and to try on the permissionaires the effect of their new summer finery

The implication that courtesans had previously mingled with the upper-class diners in the Bois underlines the gendered nature of public spaces at this time, with respectable women (and especially girls) restricted in the activities they could undertake while their fathers and brothers circulated more freely.

A Lanvin summer dress of silk and wool jersey

Chanel dress with metallic beading

The main fashion note in this issue is that silk and wool jersey fabrics are still the ‘fad of the moment – fashionable women have four or five dresses made the same but in different colours. Never, it must be admitted, have Parisiennes, and all Frenchwomen, for that matter, been in such need of simplicity’. The simplicity of the fabrics was underlined by a restrained palette, with neutral tones predominating, and preferably the whole ensemble, including shoes, stockings, hat and gloves, in the same colour. This sounds like a foretaste of 1920s chic and a far cry from the intense Fauvist hues of 1913.   However designers were providing variety by using contrast fabrics or adding bead embroidery – as in a Chanel chemise gown of fine silk marquisette with metal beads. An alternative trimming was monkey fur, applied round the hems of garments or covering hats – a reminder of very different attitudes to the natural world.

The August issues also offer reminders that war conditions were affecting American consumers and producers of fashion, with children’s clothes much more expensive than before, and fuel shortages making it hard to launder cotton or linen garments that would require copious hot water. This was an additional reason for the fashion for silk underwear among those wealthy enough to have personal maids who could hand wash garments too delicate to send out to a commercial laundry. Vogue itself was suffering from the war economy, and had to raise its cover price to 35c.

A war fundraising initiative by Vogue announced in this issue offers some curious resonances for today: bundles of magazine covers were available for pasting on to paper  totes to make decorative knitting bags to sell for war charities. Apparently this fad had started by tearing up back issues, but seeing the demand Vogue had printed additional copies of their covers (the only page of the magazine in colour) for this purpose. This was an adroit marketing ploy, associating the publication with charitable efforts for war relief, while reaching out to consumers who might not think of themselves as fashionistas – this was not a paradox, as Vogue included regular features on dressmaking and economical styling. The idea of making a cheap, low-cost bag desirable by associating it with a worthy cause seems to prefigure Anya Hindmarch’s ‘not a plastic’ bag.

A paper bag decorated with a Vogue cover

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Fashion in World War I: July 1918

Denim uniform for volunteer 'farmerettes' made by Abercrombie and Fitch

Coat by Chanel in tan wool jersey trimmed with brown rabbit fur

The July issue of New York Vogue reported a damaging rumour that Paris couture Houses had closed down due to the bombardments, and would not be showing new collections in the autumn. In order to disprove this, they published copies of statements from the leading Houses: Cheruit, Doeuillet, Jenny, Lanvin, Premet and Paquin. The letter from Paris stated that couture firms had adapted to attacks on Paris by setting up branches in Biarritz and Deauville, where their clients were spending increasing amounts of time. In these seaside resorts, the rules of dress were somewhat relaxed and jersey dresses or suits were acceptable for all but the most formal gatherings – these were available from Chanel and many other firms as well.

Now that the USA had been in the war for almost a year, the number of women actively involved in the war effort was increasing, as discussed in the article: ‘Woman’s Place is in a Uniform. How to Know the Uniforms of the Many Women Who Are Doing Various Kinds of War Work and Becoming Real Factors in Our Fighting Forces’. In Britain, women’s branches of the Army, Navy and even Air Force had been given official status, with formal uniforms, divisional insignia, and an officer hierarchy. In the USA the situation was more fluid, with some services (such as Army Nurses) fully recognised, but a plethora of small initiatives leading to ‘several dozen different species…some of those uniforms are so recent as to cause those who pass them on the street to wonder what they represent’. The outfits described for Vogue readers highlight the possibilities for self-display in uniforms worn by groups such as the ‘farmerettes’ (allied Land Girls):  ‘ a particularly attractive uniform is worn by the farmerettes working in devastated France…six inches of blue denim breeches showing above the tops of their high boots’. Uniforms also provided an opportunity for American firms to expand their market – this and several others featured in the article were made by  Abercrombie and Fitch.

For summer beach wear, Vogue showed some stylish ensembles made by Marthe Gauthier, originator of the ‘Cellar Cape’ published by Les Modes. She was combining striped and plain wool jersey to make swimsuits and dresses that conformed to current standards of modesty while drawing attention to the wearer’s bare legs and arms. As an alternative to bathing ensembles of tunics with matching shorts, the writer reported that: ‘Many women wear bathing suits of the same sort as those worn by men, covering them with bath-robes, as varied as coats’. Male bathing suits were made from wool jersey and would cling to the body when wet, so a cloak or robe would be needed once out of the water – some of these were smart enough to be worn away from the beach as well.

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Fashion in World War I: June 1918

Afternoon dress in silk, day dress in cotton jersey with toning embroidery, and evening dress in lace and silk crepe

In June 1918 Les Modes was not published, but Vogue reported from a Paris still subject to bread rationing – although the flight of elite families to their country estates meant that luxuries like taxis and cream were now easier to find. A letter from Phillipe Ortiz, dated April 14, gave a vivid picture of the vagaries of life under bombardment both from long-distance guns and from aircraft. The author notes members of the artistic world killed or injured – Graffin, a former secretary to Poiret, was mortally wounded in the street, while the fashion illustrator Marcel Lejeune was injured while dining in a fashionable restaurant. As the editor comments drily: ‘that, under such conditions, any work at all is done in Paris, except that necessary for life, is but another of the wonders that are France.’ This article was illustrated with some natty waistcoats made from panels of striped silk tricot by Marthe Guthier, the designer of the remarkable air-raid shelter garment featured in Les Modes. These would brighten up a plain dress or skirt and blouse, without requiring too much fabric.

Waistcoats in striped silk tricot by Marthe Gauthier

The main report on Paris fashion acknowledged the exceptional situation of Spring 1918 from its title onwards: ‘Paris Takes its summer Early – Bombardments in Paris Give a Sudden Charm to the Watering-places Which Generally Have Their Popularity in July’. The reported trends in daywear were for simple dresses or two-pieces enlivened by contrasting colours in different sections, or contrasting trimmings. There is a continuation of the complex interlaced cut, with sashes, scarves and even collars threaded through slots in the main garment to provide contrast and to tie down floating panels. For dinner and evening wear, even at fashionable resorts, there was some relaxation of dress codes, with Doucet proposing a silver sheaf covered by two panels of  beaded gauze draped diagonally from each shoulder; while Cheruit offered a ‘Gandourah’, an adaptation of a loose African tunic, for dining alone in one’s room.

The June 15 edition of Vogue addressed the serious topic of war mourning, acknowledging that practices were changing swiftly as a result of the war. once again, the article title sums up its key points: Whether American Women Will Abolish Mourning During the War, as Many Englishwomen Have, or, Like the Frenchwomen, Wear a Lighter Mourning Than Formerly, Is Still a Question. The author addresses the paradox that in France and Britain, where war casualties have been heavy, there are fewer visible signs of mourning than in the USA. This is not because bereaved women are shutting themselves away; they are resuming social functions and of course their voluntary work much earlier than was previously thought decent. This change is attributed to a recognition that personal loss must be subsumed into national effort, since ‘the wearing of mourning is a selfish thing, a gratification of personal sorrow. True mourning is of the heart not the garments’. Active engagement in war volunteering is recommended not only as therapy, but also as a way of memorializing the dead by carrying on their work. With this in mind, modern mourning clothes should avoid the ‘ theatrical…veils with becoming folds which set off their complexions and their profiles’ formerly worn by fashionable women, aiming instead for discreet sobriety. Some of the ensembles illustrated, by Madame Hayward and by Lucile, achieve this goal with fashionable shapes made up in soft dull-surfaced fabrics. Others, such as a dinner dress with sleeves of sheer ‘point d’esprit’ net, use the contrast between black fabrics and pale skin to draw attention to the wearer’s pale beauty.

Two mourning ensembles: black silk and net for afternoon wear, and silk crepe for a young girl

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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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Fashion in World War I: April 1918

Worth afternoon dress in greige garbardine with circles of soutache braid

During 1918 Les Modes appeared sporadically rather than at monthly intervals: issue 176 has no date on the front cover but its discussions of events in February date it to March. This issue offers slender pickings for readers seeking news of the latest fashions, with the front cover and introductory article devoted to reflections on the fashions of the past. It reproduces a number of nineteenth-century fashion plates which are uncredited, but possibly from the collection of the House of Worth (now in the V&A Museum in London). Rather than examining the ways in which past fashions have informed current styles (which had recently featured ‘medieval’ long sleeves and ‘romantic’ shirt collars) the tenor of the article is a lament for the decline in the importance given to fashionable dress and appearance in the lives of elite women. This lament is a response to two threats toFrench  fashion discussed in the following article: a proposal to bring couture garments within the scope of the wartime luxury tax and, even worse, a denunciation of contemporary fashion from the pulpit during Lent sermons. It is unclear whether the celerical criticism was based on the perceived indecency of current styles, or a condemnation of the attention given to a frivolous topic during a national crisis.

The fashion editor of Les Modes, Sybil de Lancy, defends Paris couture on both grounds. Firstly, she claims that the fashions for Spring 1918 are an accurate reflection of the current needs of French women, establishing a happy medium between the elaborately draped and narrow cut of 1913, and the practical but rather stereotyped wide skirts and military-style capes of 1915-16. She also rebuts the charge of indecency, claiming that the new long and narrow skirts are less coquettishly revealing than the short ankle-skimming shape that they are replacing. She claims that those who denounce new styles as too extreme only reveal their ignorance of the fashion cycle: each new season’s lines are deliberately exaggerated in order to distinguish them from the previous year’s, and to gain attention for their creators. Besides, the outfits presented at fashion shows are modelled by young, slim mannequins who can get away with their daring. The versions made up for respectable society ladies will be substantially modified, with necklines raised, slits in skirts backed with chiffon linings, and sleeves lengthened to give a more decorous appearance. The distance between eye-catching catwalk styles and garments intended for wear can be seen in the outfits illustrated in the magazine; a lounging outfit with harem pants of metallic lame modelled by  a young actress contrasts with masculine-styled pyjamas made up in floral silks. The afternoon dress by Marthida, with its exaggerated diamond silhouette, short skirt, contrasting fabrics, and bead trim, seems designed to be viewed on stage, or to leap off the page of a magazine, while the Worth example, in soft greige wool with self coloured trim,  has a quiet charm that would not pall when worn daily.

Sybil de Lancy’s final argument for the validity of fashion in wartime reiterates the defence, frequetly used since 1914, of its role as a morale-booster, but with a new emphasis. Since France’s ultimate victory is growing nearer every day, it’s only right for Frenchwomen to be exquisitely dressed to welcome their returning heroes! This hope turned out to be premature, as the events of the following weeks would show….

Afternoon dress in black and white satin with bead trim, by Marthilda

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Fashion in World War I: March 1918

Two evening dresses by Doeuillet - one in silver lace for export

IN March 1918 Les Modes was not publicshed, so we have to turn to New York Vogue for news of Paris couture. Their reports can be summed up in the title of one of their articels: ‘The world and Paris grow simpler’. This simplification is related to changing modes of life, both in Paris and New York, with couture clients spending their days on relief committees or volunteering at canteens and hospitals. One fashionable Parisienne is quoted as saying:  ‘I buy only two gowns a season, since the war. I am doing so much war work that I really have no more time to devote to chiffons. And the two frocks that I do buy are only to show my good-will and to give work to those who need it’. Shortages of petrol (and chauffeurs) for private cars meant that fashionable women were taking public transport, and going from daytime obligations straight to evening engagements, and fashionable clothing reflected these changes with a trend towards simplicity and a blurring of dress codes. Elaborately draped and trimmed evening dresses like those shown above were still being made, but it was generally understood that they were intended ‘for some other city than Paris’.

An overblouse in satin with silver fringe

The conundrum faced by Paris designers was how to create new looks within the limits of wartime restrictions on fabric, with dresses and two-pieces cut from four yards of wool jersey. To add fullness they made floating panels or over tunics, or spiral draperies wound round the skirt. They added contrast linings or under layers, visible through slits or under hanging panels. They also used contrast fabrics in removable collars, waistcoats or false fronts; these could be made up from the previous season’s garments for added economy. For afternoon entertaining, there were loose tabards or kimono style blouses of silk or embroidered fabric that could be slipped over the day dress, accessorised with scarves or turbans to cover messy hair that there was no time to restyle

The jersey fabric that Chanel had used for her debut fashion collections three years earlier was now an accepted fashion staple, in wool, silk or artificial silk. Chanel herself was expanding her range, dressing the actress Cecile Sorel in the play LAbbe Constantin ‘with charming and simple elegance, quite in accord with the ideas of the moment’. Vogue also noted a girl’s coat by Chanel, in brown wool jersey embroidered in gold and green: ‘no coat could be more unpretentious in line than this one of brown wool jersey, but Chanel, who designed it, felt that her duty to simplicity ended there and embroidered it to her heart’s content’. Another name noted in this issue was Burberry – not for their serviceable overcoats, but for a fashionablecape trimmed with fur and embroidery.

Burberry cape with contrast embroidery and fur trim

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Fashion in World War I: February 1918

Wedding ensemble by Agnes with 'zouave' trousers

The  French fashion press was clearly facing exceptional difficulties in 1918  Les Élégances Parisiennes had ceased to publish (apart from special issues on blouses or millinery) , and even the older established Les Modes only appeared five times instead of the usual twelve per year. The first issue of 1918 includes an editorial apology for its late appearance, with a hope that if it is too late for Winter 1917-18 styles in France, it may be helpful for readers in South America whose winter season is yet to come. The content has a rather second-hand feeling, with a long article on a Red Cross fundraising fete on Long Island that had been reported in Vogue in November 1917. As the photographs used were the same in the two publications, the same international press agency must have been involved in both.

The fashion reports in Les Modes have a strangely detached quality compared to the detailed analysis of cut and trimming given in Les Élégances Parisiennes. There are some descriptions of specific ensembles: plain satin sheath dresses set off with contrasting waistcoats in richer fabrics are noted as a prevailing trend. There are also photographs of couture styles, modelled by actresses or being worn by fashionable women in the Bois de Boulogne. A brief description of each image is given at the end of the issue – but they are not discussed in the text. This is especially frustrating for the featured bridal ensemble by Agnes with avant-garde ‘zouave’ pantaloons; one longs to know more about the circumstances in which it was commissioned. It is interesting to see a Poiret coat with a distinctive quilted hem worn by Madame Cleews in this issue, as it had been sketched in Les Élégances Parisiennes in October 1917.

The tone of the discourse in Les Modes is agressively patriotic – a discussion of turbans as evening wear refers to Madame de Stael, the famous writer who wore a turban in a much-reproduced portrait – before rejecting her as a role model on the grounds of her praise of German national character, which had proved so misleading.

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Fashion in World War I: January 1918

Lingerie from Lanvin and others, with beading and coloured embroidery

From 1918 onwards Les Elégances Parisiennes ceased to appear in its monthly format; instead, there were twice-yearly volumes devoted to blouses and fine lingerie. No explanation for this sudden closure was given, but it is likely that it was linked to the financial struggles of the fashion and accessories houses who had supported the magazine through their trade bodies, exacerbated by shortages of the trained staff needed to write and produce a luxury publication. Its rival, Les Modes (founded in 1901) was able to continue – after a hiatus in 1916 it produced eight issues during 1917 and five in 1918, which we will look at in future months.

American Vogue reflected some of the same tensions. On the one hand its writers claimed to give exclusive reports on current trends for both fashion (lingerie in particular in the January 1918 issue) and interior decor from Paris. But the readers were less likely than before 1914 to be in a position to verify these reports for themselves – instead the magazine offered  a purchasing and packing service for Paris stores. Vogue was actively selecting and promoting particular styles and retailers: this issue had a special feature on lingerie from New York stores which could be purchased directly from the magazine. Paris lingerie was also described, in an article which sketched in some of the changes in wartime lifestyles in the capital. Apparently some  elite women had closed their town houses to economise both on fuel and on servants, and had rented hotel rooms for the duration of the war. Luxurious fur rugs and decorative cushions were being sold to make these rooms more homelike – with attractive fur-trimmed lounging robes to match. In spite of fuel shortages, new styles in underwear were skimpier than ever, made in delicate silks and lace, often with bold colour contrasts. Some of the trimmings were designed to be visible through the top layer of clothing, providing a sexual frisson. Others details, such as the beaded flowers on the Lanvin chemise, would have required careful hand washing to preserve them.

The fashions presented in this issue were very similar to those covered by Les Elégances Parisiennes, but with less detail given of the fabrics and trimmings involved. The new restrictions on the use of wool cloth are flagged up in an article headed ‘Save Wool and Serve the Soldier’:

It looks as though our national silhouette were about to become patriotically slim; it is a little previous, of course, to state definitely any new fashion, but the early collections of the designers undoubtedly show an interesting slimness and length of line. Of course, you know the reason for this – we are Hooverizing on wool. Every yard of wool that your new frock doesn’t use, some heavy blizzard-defying army coat does

The accompanying plates show outfits with short jackets and narrow, draped skirts cut from the four and a half  yards of wool cloth that were the new national standard. There were also substitutions, with  heavy silk proposed for spring suiting. The new artificial silks made from rayon were flagged up  as a novelty: ‘A new sports material called Royalty suiting is a combination of artificial silk and wool; it has a highly glazed surface and comes in many interesting two toned effects such as purple and silver’. The impracticality of silk, natural or artificial, for winter wear is jarring, especially when juxtaposed with an article on heavy duty waterproofs for women serving on the front line in France.

Spring ensembles substituting heavy silk for wool

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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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Fashion in World War I: November 1917

Tailored ensembles - the one on the right by Jenny - showing eighteenth century influences
Tailored ensembles – the one on the right by Jenny – with eighteenth century influences

The November 1917 issue of   Les Élégances Parisiennes opened with a strong defence of  the fashion industry in wartime. Fashion, and more especially couture, was crucial not only to the French economy but for national prestige. The recent order from Paris couturiers by the Queen of Spain was cited as an accolade; as Queen Victoria Eugenia,  daughter of Princess Beatrice of England, had been a client of Worth before the War this was only to be expected.

The reports on fashion trends show the wartime problems with materials were biting deeper. Many leading couturiers were cutting their dresses narrower than ever – Buloz as little as 1.2m (48″) wide – but as skirts were now shorter this would not have the hobbling effect of the narrow skirts of 1910. This narrow cut would economise on fabric, and allow garments to be exported to the USA under the regulations discussed in the previous issue. Another reported trend was the use of broad ribbons, not only as sashes or floating panels, but draped round the body as shrugs, or stitched to form bodices and sleeves. The most lavish of these ribbons, with coloured motifs on metallic lame grounds, were compared to the decorative cuirasses of enamelled metal worn by Renaissance knights. While these ribbons were no doubt a tribute to the workmanship of weaving houses in Lyon – or more likely St Etienne – they would also be significantly cheaper than equivalent dress silks because of their reduced width.

A multi-function scarf / wrap/ motoring hood by Jenny

Multi-functional accessories like the garment by Jenny which doubled as an unstructured wrap (with handwarmer pockets) and a motoring hood also served an economy agenda, as did the blurring of lines between tailored suits and dresses. Tailored jackets could be removed to show soft chiffon blouses, transforming the ensemble from outdoor to indoor wear. Other suits included oversized decorative waistcoats which lightened the look, while referencing the style of eighteenth century courtiers – or even clerics, in an episcopal purple suit with a black soutane like tunic .

News from within the French fashion trades included a worrying report on international competition both in silk textiles and in garments. The import duties on silk fabrics were criticised as ineffective and unequal; American silks were charged at 15F per kg, and Asian silks only at 3.25F. This was based on pre-war conditions, when Japanese and Chinese silks had been relatively low grade base fabrics. However, in recent years Asian manufacturers had upgraded their production to include dyed, printed and pattern woven textiles which were competing directly with French silk textiles. This competition was skewed by the huge differential in wage rates, which allowed Asian manufacturers to price their goods much more cheaply. French silk manufacturers were calling for a revision in import duties, applying a surcharge to goods from low-wage countries in order to protect French industry. There was further discontent among French high-end clothing manufacturers. A new law had fixed a sales tax of 5% on ready-to-wear garments, and 10% on made to measure. This was denounced as penalising self-employed tailors and dressmakers producing made to measure garments for private clients at the expense of large clothing manufacturers. After all, not all private clients were wealthy -some of them were forced to buy made to measure because mass produced clothes weren’t made in their size.

Day ensembles with long waistcoats - one of which looks like a sleeveless coat

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