Fashion in World War I – September 1917

Blouses decorated and constructed with fancy ribbons

In the September 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes the emphasis was on textile houses rather than Maisons de Couture as innovators of the new season’s fashions. The leading article on ‘Les Dernières Créations de la Mode’ discussed lace and hand embroidered textiles which rendered designs from Byzantine, Japanese and Chinese art on a large scale for use in panels to trim dresses in plain fabrics. There were also new types of fabrics in a combination of techniques for added richness – velvets with brocaded designs, or metallic lamés with  motifs printed in ikat or woven in different metallic yarns. Some of these lavish textiles were featured in the fashion plates of this issue – but there were also many designs made up in plain fabrics trimmed with bands of stitching or of decorative ribbon. There were several fashion plates showing ideas for using ribbon, in narrow widths to create a striped effect, or in wide breadths to construct a simple bodice. These ideas would support the French ribbon weaving firms based around St Étienne, and would also provide an economical alternative to expensive fashion fabrics. A similar spirit lay behind the trend for contrast linings which added variety to scarves and sashes – and extra warmth as well.

Following on from previous discussions about the future of the French fashion trades, there was an article about post-war competition from German textile and clothing manufacturers, following a report in the American press on the highly organized state of German industry. The German government was apparently subsidising promotional ventures such as a forthcoming showcase of German fashions in neutral Switzerland. Apparently there was not only a German Ministry of War Production, but a separate Commission for Post-war Trade, which was providing manufacturers with materials and information to develop new products. Wartime shortages of imported materials had led German industrial chemists to innovate in producing substitutes – including fibres such as ‘artificial silk’ (viscose) which had been praised as in previous issues of Les Élégances Parisiennes. These were not only novel but also cheap enough that it would be hard for buyers to resist them, no matter how distasteful it was to purchase from a former aggressor. This article claimed that German factories were keeping down costs by drafting in prisoners and civilian women, and paying them below the peace time rates. French manufacturers, in contrast, had been forced by strikes to raise their wages, as detailed in the previous issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes.

The page of ‘Nouvelles Syndicales’ reported on a different type of labour substitution – the retraining of war-mutilated soldiers for work in the fashion trades. Apparently this was not an unmixed success – workshops in tailoring and cutting had been abandoned as too arduous for injured men. Workshops in fur work and shoe making (the latter a traditional resort for workers invalided out of other trades) were proving more successful, with 50 residential places and a plan to double that number. Importantly, the workshops were sponsored by the leather workers’ trade organization, which guaranteed trainees a job on a wage scale with scope for improvement.

Ideas for reversible scarves and sashes which double as hoods and shoulder wraps

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Fashion in World War I: August 1917

Evening dresses referencing ‘Ancien Regime’ and ‘Empire’ styles

The August 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes looked resolutely ahead to the future, both immediate and long-term. For the immediate future, couturiers and fabric manufacturers were preparing their new ranges for the coming winter. These showed some recognition of the worsening conditions of civilian life in Paris, with full-length coats of heavy furs such as beaver, and day ensembles in thick wool. The accessories pages highlighted useful inventions such as foot muffs, indoor mittens, and fancy shawls to make up for the lack of coal to heat houses.

Cozy accessories for cold houses

The fashionable cut was still very varied, with some dresses and blouses showing intricate arrangements of ties that slotted through belts, zigzag armholes, and draped panels. The waist was usually high, though wide sashes brought the level down somewhat. There were historical references to the court of the Emperor Napoleon in evening gowns with high waists and lace trains, and to Revolutionary ‘incroyables’ in tailored suits with wide lapels and high-necked cravats. These styles were closer to those of 1914 than to the loose chemises that would prevail after 1919. However the fabrics in vogue were more forward-looking, with much use of knit jersey in a variety of fibres and finishes.  Artificial silk (rayon) jersey was recommended not as a substitute but for its increased brilliance and weight compared to natural silk. Rather than fancy weaves, fabrics were plain but trimmed with machine or hand embroidery in contrast shades. This could add an exotic note with designs taken from Berber textiles, or emphasize construction with lines of top stitching at seams and hems.

Looking further ahead, editorials in Les Élégances Parisiennes reflected on the likely role of American investors after the war. Citing a new study by Victor Cambon, they warned that outside investment would be needed in order to win the peace – as it had been before the war. They claimed that this would not be to the detriment of local investors, since American industrialists were happy to take a chance on new areas while French bankers hung back until they could see a certain return. However, they saw a limit to American collaboration in French fashion industries, claiming that attempts to co-produce fashion lines had failed as American manufacturers did not understand the French mentality. French textile producers, fashion designers and seamstresses were in such perfect harmony that none of them could work effectively if transplanted to American firms. This is an early example of the argument used to combat German attempts to co-opt French fashion during the 1940s occupation.

Embroidery inspired by Berber designs adds an exotic note

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Fashion in World War I: July 1917

Blouses and tunics for fall 1917

The July 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes revealed that Paris fashion houses were threatened not only by international competitors, but by internal problems. A series of strikes by workers in different branches of fashion production, from buttons, to ready-to-wear, to couture, had forced employers to agree concessions with workers’ councils. The summaries of these agreements make sobering reading. The first clause was for wage levels to return to what they had been in 1914 – clearly they had been cut during the war. The second clause was for additional payments to cover increases in the cost of living – rising costs, plus wage cuts, would have hit workers doubly hard. A hard-won concession was for a half-day on Saturday (with no loss of pay), and for working days to be limited to nine hours. There were special provisions to cover overtime during the busy seasons, and for workers paid by the piece (normally in ready-to-wear). The final clause in all the agreements: ‘ no dismissals following strikes’ indicates that workers seen as troublemakers had been victimised. These agreements are sobering, as they reveal the conditions in which the garments described in the fashion columns were produced. They also suggest that the tendency towards simplification in fashion may have been motivated by changes in the economics of clothing production, as much as by changes in the lives of fashionable women.

The fashion coverage in this issue is slightly disconcerting, as it predicts a return to the ‘Empire’ cut of 1910, with high waistlines and jackets based on 1810 spencers. This goes against the low waistlines and loose cuts discussed in previous issues – a factor addressed by the fashion columnist, who admits that loose ‘chemise’ dresses had sold well in the USA, but that a change in cut was necessary to drive sales. However the ‘Empire’ line was being promoted mostly in tailored suits and coats – other garments were looser and less fitted. The fashion columns acknowledge that sales of evening dresses have plummeted in France, as upper-class gatherings are taking place in the afternoon or at tea (with guests bringing their own sugar ration in embroidered pouches). For these, smart tunics or blouses or lacy ‘tea gowns’, would be suitable. These garments, even when beautifully decorated, were unfitted and hence easier to make and to wear than formal dresses. They could also be purchased as separates and combined with a variety of skirts, or plain under-dresses, to give added value to the wearer’s wardrobe.

Pleated silk slips with ribbon straps by Jenny

While fashionable women were able to economise on evening gowns, there were new temptations in lingerie. The latest undergarments were not made from white linen, but from fine silks in pastel shades, trimmed with ribbons, lace, decorative ties, and even ceramic beads. These materials would require careful laundering , probably by the wearer’s maid, as commercial laundries would be set up for boiling and starching linen petticoats, not for hand washing silk slips. Underwear had always constituted an essential, but hidden, part of women’s wardrobes – and an expensive one, with multiple sets of chemises, drawers, petticoats, corset covers needed for every season and for every change in fashionable shape. The gradual simplification in the cut of dresses towards 1920, and the narrowing of skirts, meant that fewer layers were needed – but not necessarily cheaper ones.

New styles of underwear by Jenny, in silk and ribbon

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Fashion in World War I: June 1917

Dinner dresses with contrast embroidery

The June 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes highlighted some of the paradoxes of fashion production in war conditions. This issue showed a foretaste of styles for the coming autumn –  in recognition of the increased lead time required to produce, and ship, garments for export when every parcel needed a permit from the customs authorities of both countries. Many of the next season’s styles were trimmed with embroidery – tone on tone for wool coats, and contrasting for dinner dresses. However in the same issue an article on the state of the fashion trades industry pointed out that French firms producing embroidered yardage were in dire straits. Originally centred around Saint-Quentin, in the Aisne district, their factories had been destroyed by German bombardments, their equipment seized, and their workforce scattered. In order to keep their businesses afloat, proprietors had become middlemen for embroidered goods imported from Switzerland. This trade was now threatened by new legislation limiting imports in order to protect French production – even though in this case French production had ceased. The author went on to argue that the textile and clothing industries were ill served by legislation drawn up by civil servants with little understanding of the complexity of the fashion trade, and of the importance of seasonal events such as textile fairs.

Another article reported on a controversy which had split the American fashion press. Edith Rosenbaum had written in the Dry Goods Economist praising French designs, only to be harshly criticized in the rival publication Frocks and Frills, which only published American fashions. Miss Rosenbaum had responded with an account of her recent trip to Paris, on which she had taken some samples of American fabrics that had been presented to her by manufacturers as new and unique designs. However when she showed them in Paris they were identified as copies from Bianchini-Ferier and other French firms from two years previously. Rosenbaum went on to point out that all of the fabrics currently popular in America, lightweight silks such as crepe georgette, had first been introduced in France. She charged American manufacturers with being too preoccupied with keeping costs down to invest in design development.

Japanese-influenced fashion by Premet

This issue also reported on a show by leading couture houses in the centre for French design in Madrid. Several of the styles illustrated had a strong Orientalist flavour, with a diagonal Chinese neck in a Paquin dress, and kimono sleeves from Premet.  The how-to-sew pages in this issue featured some highly inventive sleeves, with dress sleeves inserted with puffs of contrast fabrics, and mantles draped around the arms like 1880s ‘visites’. There were also complex waist treatments, with sashes threaded through skirts, or growing out of bodice panels.

A refreshing contrast were the simple styles recommended for sportswear – like a tennis outfit in green and white wool jersey by Beer.

Tennis outfit by Beer

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Fashion in World War I: May 1917

Evening dresses by Callot showcasing Lyon silk brocades

The May 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes reported on some encouraging signs for the French fashion industries. The textile trade fair in Lyons had been better attended than in its first year, and with over 2,300 stands including 380 from overseas firms. This is remarkable for wartime, and testimony to the extent to which France was still seen as the fashion leader of the world. The commercial success of the event is harder to evaluate; some of the exhibitors were not able to take new orders as their output had been cut by wartime shortages of materials and of trained workers. Overseas exhibitors might find it hard to deliver any orders placed by French clients, as there was a new law proposing a total ban on imported goods. While intended to support French industry and to cut off funds to German firms, this threatened to undermine fashion houses with their constant need for new and varied materials and trimmings. Previously fashion manufacturing had been highly fragmented, with different firms and different areas specialising in different types of cloth and different garments or accessories – hats, gloves, shoes, hosiery, bags, corsetry, lingerie, lace, dresses, tailoring, furs….. When the wool-producing areas of France were occupied by Germany it was not easy for silk weavers to make up the shortfall, although they were trying their hardest.

The report on the Lyon trade fair also noted some encouraging signs in ready-to-wear clothing manufacture. Some factories had been reorganised along American and German lines to give improved efficiency and quality, while retaining French stylishness in their products. There is an admission that German factory-made clothes had often been superior in quality to French and that this is an area that needed attention. This acknowledgement of the importance of ready-to-wear is important, but it is strange that Britaish manufacturers are not mentioned, since they had been pioneers in this area.

Ensembles by Worth with diaphanous sik jackets

The reports from Lyon clarify the way in which fashion design at this time was driven by high-end textile production. The trade fair included a show of garments designed to showcase luxurious French silks; the evening dresses by Callot shown above were seen as particularly successful. Daytime ensembles in transparent silk voile were less obviously showy, but their novelty and impracticality would make them clear indicators of the wealth and privilege of the wearer. As always, deep pockets were needed to dress in couture – and helpfully, the latest trend in daywear was for jackets with handbag-sized pockets that hung below the hem!

Ideas for pockets

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fashion in World War I: April 1917

Coats and costumes by Premet

The April 1917 issue of  Les Élégances Parisiennes showed designs that followed the dual trends featured in March: on the one hand, simple smocks or shift dresses, and on the other garments featuring flying panels, interlaced strips, and draped effects. There was also a continued reference to historic garments – like the Premet ensemble above, with a waistcoat copied from menswear of the 1720s. Historicism was also a trend in fashion textiles, with motifs borrowed from the 1830s, or from ‘peasant’ cultures.

For the French fashion industry, one of the main news stories was the establishment of a ‘Maison de France’ in Madrid, promoting fashion, decorative arts and perfumes. The garments were shown on on live mannequins; this was not new, as Lucile and other couturiers had held fashion parades before 1914 – but it was still felt to be a noteworthy innovation. Meanwhile Paul Poiret had gone further afield, opening Poiret, Inc. in New York to sell clothing, furnishings and even glass ware to his designs. This enterprise had an American director and legal advisor. The latter would be needed to deal with the numerous and flagrant breaches of copyright that Poiret had suffered from US manufacturers and retailers.

Coats and dresses by Poiret

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Fashion in World War I: March 1917

The March 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes showed spring fashions for day and evening; evening gowns in lace and fragile chiffons, and practical suits for day. The leading fabric for day was jersey, in wool, silk and mixtures which gave a soft, flowing drape. Not surprisingly, Chanel’s name was mentioned as one of the designers working in jersey. Her simple two-pieces in plain colours or checks look refreshingly simple compared to the intricate cut proposed by other designers.

Chanel suit in checked wool and jersey

In this issue, the article on the state of the French garment industry was refreshingly frank about the problems of finding skilled workers during wartime. Some workers had been tempted away by well-paid jobs in war industries; others had been forced by wartime disruption to move to areas where there were no clothing workshops; additionally, some workshops had been forced to relocate to areas where there were few skilled workers. Moreover, too many applicants for jobs in couture workshops proved to be badly trained, after an ‘apprenticeship’ spent running errands for their employers. One solution was to provide more training schemes for young girls – there were already six Trade Schools in Paris, and all of their graduates found employment. In order to increase the numbers of trained garment workers, the author proposed that a 1911 scheme should be implemented: girls would spend the final year of Elementary School learning needlework and household skills. This proposal is illuminating in its categorisation of working-class girls as clay to be moulded into forms that suit the state. It is also misguided, since the skills that could be taught in a classroom setting were not those that were needed in couture – the needlework syllabus in British schools was decades out of date, and focussed on mending household linen. Then, as now, it is hard for the fashion industry, with its emphasis on seasonal change to mesh with educational policy, which plans decades in advance.

Evening wraps in kimono and medieval shapes

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Fashion in World War I: February 1917

New hat shapes for February 1917

The February 1917 issue of Les Élégances Parisiennes continued to discuss the two key issues for all branches of the French fashion industry: how to maintain export sales in the short term, and how to counter challenges from German rivals in the long term. This was focussed, somewhat unexpectedly,  on a consideration of millinery fashions. A full-page article headed ‘Le réveil de la mode Parisienne’ (The Re-awakening of Paris fashion) welcomed the greater variety of hat shapes and fabrics being shown for Spring 1917. The author warned that the monotony of millinery fashions for the past few seasons – black toques, black tricornes, black boaters – had led to a sharp drop in sales to the all-important American trade buyers. He foresaw even more serious consequences might follow from French milliners’ distaste for aigrettes, pins, bird wings and other hat trimmings. Prior to 1914, these trimmings had often been imported from Germany – so not using them in wartime could be seen as not only practical but also patriotic. However if French designers were to give up using items that were the speciality of their enemies it would look as if they were unable to make their own versions without German help. Instead, they should be pushing themselves to invent new hat shapes and new combinations of fabrics that would assert French primacy in fashion. The author appealed to French fashion consumers to play their part, since foreign buyers would want to see that new styles were being worn in the salons of Paris before they promoted them in America or Britain. Each item sold to a Parisienne might result in dozens more  sold for export. The difficulty for French consumers, even the Parisian elite, lay in reconciling their role as the avant-garde of fashion with the reality of life in wartime. This is hinted at by a full plate of mourning ensembles, including one with a widow’s veil of black silk crape, captioned ‘the simiplicity required in mourning clothes is in tune with current fashions’.

Smaller reminders of changes in the way of life are present throughout this issue: there is a half page on fancy aprons, for ladies who had to host their own tea parties without the assistance of a maid. Smart hats were being sold with matching umbrellas, for women who were walking to appointments in spite of the weather. Women wearing Paquin dresses are shown on the telephone, or plugging in an electric light –  both forms of new(ish) technology.  In spite of this modernity, there was still a strong medievalist trend, with slashed necks and jewelled girdles

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Fashion in World War I: a Christmas present

Christmas in wartime - according to Eve

One of the disconcerting things about day to day life in World War I is the ease with which servicemen (and women) kept in touch with home, with postal services allowing parcels from home to reach even the furthest-flung theatres of war. In 1916 Sergeant James Kenny, an instructor at the Imperial School of Artillery, received ‘The Eve Book’ as a Christmas gift from a friend in London. Not so surprising – except that the School was in Zeitoun, outside Cairo (part of the British Mandate established on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire). The cartoon character Eve was a fashion-obssessed, flirtatious airhead – the dresses she is shown in would have looked extreme in London, but in Cairo, where most women wore face veils and ankle-length gowns, they must have seemed surreal.  The dedication of this volume is written as a letter from Eve, who says ‘I have – notwithstanding Aunt Matilda’s and Uncle Fred’s disapprovel – kept gay and frivolous to please you and not becasue I didn’t understand and appreciate what you were doing for me’. The Eve cartoons, appearing weekly in the Tatler, were extremely popular and were published in several volumes and adapted for both stage and cinema. Their artist, Anne Harriet Fish, built her career on these cartoons, going on to draw covers for Vogue and Vanity Fair and to illustrate a volume of texts by Dorothy Parker and others.

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Fashion in World War I: January 1917

Three dresses by Poiret, including 'Cartouche' (right)

The January 1917 edition of Les Élégances Parisiennes revealed that the French fashion industry was being threatened not only by German competitors, but by the actions of British allies. This threat came not so much through British products as through newly imposed trade tariffs. These imposed restrictions on non-essential goods imported to Britain, in addition to high customs fees. The British intention was to ensure that the limited space on incoming ships was devoted to the raw materials needed for the war effort and for civilian subsistence. If this meant that British businesses producing fashionable garments had to close down due to a shortage of imported materials, never mind – their workshops could be taken over for military supplies. The representatives of Paris couture pointed out that this policy was extremely short-sighted, and highly damaging to an industry that was central to the French economy. Moreover, as couture garments were very light in weight, banning their import would have a negligeable effect on the space available in British cargo ships. The article in Les Élégances Parisiennes detailed the quantities involved: a total of 24,000,000 kg of French textiles and clothing had been exported to Britain in the previous year, with a net value of 371 Million FF. Approximately ten percent of these goods, by weight, were feathers prepared for millinery – given how light these are, they probably accounted for more than 10 per cent of the total volume. These impressively large quantities give impetus to the French claims of the economic importance of fashion, and remind us that commercial life was continuing in wartime, in spite of all obstacles.

The developments of fashion discussed in this issue seem to have taken a step backwards; while the ‘barrel’ line of the previous issue is still prominent, it is rivalled by a range of complex cuts, with over-drapes, flying panels, straps and gathers. There is a trend for mixtures of fabrics, even in daywear, such as wool serge and silk crepe de chine, and for contrasting colours and textures in visible linings. The overall effect is somewhat fussy, with looped up over-drapes and oversized pockets producing bulging silhouettes reminiscent of 1880. These skirts would require great care in cutting and construction, and may represent a fightback from the fashion trade against the chemise-like smocks shown by couturiers such as Poiret and Jenny, which were alll too easy for amateurs to copy at home. To our eyes, they make the simplicity of Poiret even more desirable.

skirt designs with multiple layers and panels

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