One of the most visited posts on A Writer of History is WWI Fashion so I decided to do a second post and a deeper dive into the factors influencing fashion before and during the war. Here’s some of what I found.
La Belle Epoque sets the stage: The age preceding WWI is referred to as La Belle Epoque in France and the Gilded Age in the United States. In Britain the period coincided with late Victorian times and the Edwardian era, in Germany it was the time of Kaiser Wilhelm II and in Russia, Alexander III and Nicholas II reigned. Peace and prosperity characterized this period and all aspects of the arts flourished. France was a centre of global influence and considered a leader in education, science and medicine.
France’s Third Republic was a period of strengthening democracy. It was also a time of social and education reform with a move to educate women in order to reduce the influence of the Catholic church.
In Britain during the years before the war, protests rumbled beneath a surface calm, trade unions demanded the right to strike, socialists wanted to nationalize property, Ireland desired home rule. The privilege and political power of the aristocracy were under attack and a more leisured middle class was emerging with some disposable income.
Women’s Suffrage instilled new attitudes: As women sought to have a voice on the political front, they developed new views on what a woman was capable of doing. This prompted a move to slimmer, less restricted silhouettes in terms of clothing and led to the female equivalent of suits, split skirts and even trousers.
Technology also played a role: New technologies like the automobile, the telephone, and cinematography changed how people communicated and the ease with which people and ideas travelled. Mass production techniques enabled clothes to be produced more readily and less expensively.
Paris was the centre of fashion: During La Belle Epoque, fashion designers like Worth and Poiret emerged and fashion began to move in a yearly cycle. These designers experimented with new styles, fabrics and colours, and found inspiration from other cultures. Earlier, individual tailors and seamstresses made clothing for those who could afford their services while others sewed their own clothing.
With the rise of fashion designers came women’s magazines like La Gazette du Bon Ton, Weldon’s Ladies Journal, Harper’s Bazar and La Vie Heureuse. Not only did these magazines display the latest fashions but they also promoted women’s new found sense of equality, writing articles and picturing the ‘modern woman’ in bolder pursuits like mountain climbing and skiing. Such magazines promoted new looks, and pattern-makers and retail stores adapted the new styles for the general public. The corset and S-curve disappeared to be replaced by a leaner silhouette and narrower skirts. Clothing changed to suit the new crazes of cycling and motoring. Women began to wear breeches for riding.
For more information, the Toronto Public Library presents an interesting look at the Gilded Age of Fashion.
Department stores brought fashion to people from all classes – although Le Bon Marche was originally built in 1838, by 1852 its wide variety of goods was arranged in departments in such a way that consumers were brought into direct contact with sought-after goods at reasonable cost. Other department stores like Grands Magasins Dufayel and La Samaritaine or Selfridges in Britain came on the scene and increasingly women formed the workforce at these stores.
So what do we have? A time of prosperity and stability, new ideas about women’s roles in society, women with more education, women in the workforce requiring more practical clothing. Department stores selling what today we would call knock-offs of designer fashion along with magazines prompting awareness of the latest fashion.
And then war broke out: During the war itself, women readily took on many traditional male roles. As a consequence, skirts shortened to suit these jobs which led to shoes with higher heels rather than ankle-length buttoned boots that looked odd with shorter skirts. Women’s trousers appeared, wider more practical skirts emerged instead of the very narrow skirts worn in the later years in La Belle Epoque. Dye shortages and fabric shortages led to a more utilitarian drabness in clothing; economics and social attitudes led to less formal attire. Bicycles and motorcycles as a mode of transport led to tailored suits and breeches.
Not surprisingly, military styles for coats and capes emerged as did the adaptation of the Russian soldier coat with its straighter cut and cord or sash around the middle. Cloth was expensive so styles with voluminous skirts or overskirts gave way to more utilitarian and economical lines. “After all, it is clearly a woman’s duty to keep herself well dressed, though it may be on a slightly more economical scale than usual. [Source: the archives of The Guardian]
Again, not surprisingly, styles included a prevalence of black. “A very economical and becoming item for home wear is a simple blouse and tunic of black taffeta”. Such an item could be worn over skirts. [Source: The Guardian archives]
Coco Chanel became influential. She believed that, “Woman could be active and still remain elegant. She put this philosophy into her designs, shortening skirts and using jersey in womenswear … Her dresses stressed the new social role played by women, incorporating simplicity and masculinity.” [Source: Eurbanista] “Chanel’s uncluttered styles, with their boxy lines and shortened skirts, allowed women to leave their corsets behind and freed them for the practical activities made necessary by the war.” [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]