WWI Fashion Revisited

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.

Annie Kenney & Christabel PankhurstWomen’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.

Weldon's Ladies Journal 1911With 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.

Weldon's Ladies Journal 1917And 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]

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

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]

WWI Fashion – a time of change

Source: Henry Madden Library

For additional articles about WWI Fashion, visit French Weddings Circa WWI and WWI Fashion Revisited.

Lies Told in Silence, soon to release, is set in WWI France with characters representing three generations. Matters of fashion were important considerations in numerous scenes and I found it fascinating to see the changes in women’s clothing that occurred in that time period.

Helene Noisette, the main character, is sixteen when the novel begins in 1914, Lise is her mother and Mariele her grandmother.

According to www.fashion-era.com , the  French called the era from 1895 to 1914 La Belle Époque,  a time “of beautiful clothes and the peak of luxury living for a select few – the very rich and the very privileged through birth”.

Monica Fusich created a special collection for the Henry Madden Library at California State University. She has the following comments about styles in 1898:

The large sleeves have deflated to small puffs on the shoulder, with the rest of the sleeve being fitter. Hair is worn in the ‘Gibson Girl’ style, puffed around the face and pulled into a pompadour.

I like to imagine that Mariele – the grandmother – would have worn clothes such as these and might feel conflicted about new fashions of the early 1900′s and beyond.

Styles changed from the S-curve of the turn of the century to straighter, simpler lines and as WWI began skirt lengths rose to six or eight inches above the ground, simpler styles took over, bras were introduced and women even began to wear pants. It seems to me that Lise would be open to these simpler styles.

While the suffragette movement had considerable influence, many of these changes came about because women took over jobs previously done by men. A site called Fashion of the Ages has an interesting article about changes to women’s clothing.

During the war, a dye shortage and fabric shortages encouraged a certain utilitarian drabness in dress, but the most noticeable change engendered by the war was a relaxation of the formal rules of attire which had bound men and women’s dress since early in the Victorian era. Not only did women’s hemlines rise to mid-calf length, but more exciting yet, women wore these shorter styles with sexy heeled shoes and flesh toned silk stockings, not high button boots.

Source: Fashion of the Ages

Helene, the youngest of the three women, is a teenager when the story opens and eager to try new styles.  As war unfolds, she takes on adult responsibilities including duties that men would normally handle.  This character even adopts men’s trousers as both a practical and comfortable style of dress.

second post about WWI fashion, explores more of the influences causing fashion to change. A few French wedding customs are contained in another post.

In my travels I have found other websites with WWI photos and fashion information.

Victoriana Magazine http://www.victoriana.com/edwardianfashions/

The Costumer’s Manifesto http://www.costumes.org/History/100pages/1910links.htm

From the search engine Bing a collection of WWI photos http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=WWI+France+women+pictures&FORM=IGRE#

From ww1photos.com, a section on the homefront illustrates women’s fashion, particularly through images of the kind of work women did during the war http://www.ww1photos.com/TheHomefront.html