La Baionnette magazine, France, 1916
In this post Fashionarchaeology wants to pay its own (thematic) tribute to the memory of World War I.
“A century on, the events of 1914-18 are still difficult to comprehend. The first truly global conflict, the war’s toll in human terms resulted in over 9 million soldiers and 6 million civilians killed and 21 million wounded”
These are the opening lines of the catalogue to a very interesting exhibition currently on in London, “The Great War as recorded through the fine and popular arts”
In her opening text, historian and art specialist Sacha Llewellyn immediately brings home the ultimate reality, the sheer number of lives involved. Reading this was, well, shocking. A term which came to mind was ‘discomfort’ and this set me off thinking about the dichotomy comfort/discomfort that was actually very much alive in the fashion discourse during those years.
1914 Paris: Fashion had been living a true revolution for a few years, since the debut of designer Paul Poiret who, in 1907, decreed a change in silhouette and abolished the S-shaped corset of the previous era. He took The word ‘comfort’ and made it fashionable, whereas up until then it had been synonymous with lower class practicality.
Les Modes, Paris, May 1914
As we can see in the fashion magazine photo above, both day wear and evening wear were softly draped and not too binding of torso and hips. Heels were moderately high, hats reasonably sized. Both outfits seem quite comfortable.
But then war broke out and began to affect everybody’s lives in one way or another. Women found themselves in a new predicament: working class women were called to work in those jobs that had been left vacant by men. Manly jobs that required them to wear trousers for the first time ever (see the blue overalls bellow : a little belt added for fashion’s sake). These women were to feel the effects of this new lifestyle deeply well beyond the war.
Paul Iribe, woman factory worker, 1917
At the other end of the social spectrum, upper class women were not expected to work (although some did, as nurses), they were used to defining their role in society through their use of the latest fashion from famous designers but now they began to feel some ‘discomfort’ regarding fashion. Was it right to spend time and money on clothes when one’s husband or son was at war? The moral dilemma was strongly felt. The effect of this and of war in general on the fashion world – in France first of all and subsequently everywhere else – was disastrous. Sales dropped and the industry nearly collapsed.
The problem was faced head on. A committee was set up (led by Paul Poiret) by the French government and an ingenious solution found: totally new fashions were launched for winter 2015. The new war ‘style’ was characterized by a natural waistline, a short skirt and very high heels. The new proportions required women to buy a whole new wardrobe.
Umberto Brunelleschi, La Bersagliere, 1917
Magazine illustrations tended to exaggerate these new elements, especially the length of the skirt which in reality does not seem to have been worn as short as the above images.
Leather and bead embroidery boots, 1917, Texas museum, USA
Afternoon dress by Estelle T.Hart, 1915, Cincinnati Museum of Art, USA
The media was extremely supportive as we can read in the article published in Les Modes on November 1915
Les Modes, Paris, Nov 1915
The new fashions should be bought and consumed as a war effort by women. Especially those women who were not expected to do manual labour. Wearing these fashions was also about patriotism and ‘keeping up appearances’ despite the difficult times.
These new fashions received great media coverage and even satirical magazines like La Baionnette (published between 1914 and 1918) represented them exquisitely.
La Baionnette, 1916
The magazine even dedicated a whole issue (August 1915) to the topic of fashion – in satirical terms of course. “Elegancese Berlinoises” was the title, each image representing German women in old-fashioned, shapeless clothes. Their figures far from the fashion ideals of Parisian couture.
La Baionnette, Aug 1915, translation: “German fashion from now on will not follow French taste”
A last word should go to hats of this period. This was one of the most creative and darkly inspired moments of the history of millinery
both from Les Modes,Paris , 1917
Feather toque,1915, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N. Y
Fur and embroidery toque, 1916c, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.
In conclusion we can say that World War I fashion was a comfort in the discomfort of the times. A true effort was made by Paris fashion houses, followed by the rest, to keep alive an industry and ultimately (however frivolous it may sound) to keep up morale through exterior female beauty.
Apart from the high heels, it actually looks very comfortable indeed.