Parisian Insights: Mode & Femmes – 14/18

Rarely has World War I been studied through the prism of fashion and femininity. It is often as if, from 1914 to 1918, civil life had been suspended. Maud Bass-Krueger and Sophie Kurkdjian, the two curators of the Mode & Femmes – 14/18 exhibition held at the Bibliothèque Forney, in Paris, have decided to demonstrate how different reality was. With numerous documents and various garments in particular from the Chanel and Lanvin archives – the couture houses that remained opened during the war – they reveal how effective fashion and womanhood were during this short period.
What is indeed often overlooked is how crucial the fashion industry was at the wake of World War I, a flourishing industry, it was also greatly exported, thus serving as a promotional tool and banner of French craftsmanship and sense of luxury. Aware of this, politicians believed fashion could promptly be part of the war effort, an economic partner and a major employer, in particular of women, it was perfect for propaganda. The beautiful illustrations and written documents selected by the curators in the first room highlight this political and social aim.

View of the exhibition's first room

View of the exhibition’s first room

Thus, fashion becomes a patriotic tool and, from garments bearing the colors of the French flag to accessories made of shells, socialites claim their fidelity to their nation while modest women replace men gone at war, in factories and diverse careers as post-office employees, tramway operators, chimney sweeps…Because of that, feminine pieces of clothing have to adapt themselves to these new activities as their prewar unsuitable outfits put women’s lives at danger with their long impractical forms. Fashion becomes such a close partner of war that magazines also deliver advices about how efficient mourning outfits should be.
Just before World War I, fashion had already begun to evolve, simplifying itself with more linear lines and less embellishments, corsets had been replaced by girdles and skirts are slightly shorter…War will further this change. The war crinoline (rebaptized as so in the early days of the war) that appears in 1914 is not a realistic « revolutionary and patriotic » tool despite how it is sold: it requires important quantities of textiles and it restricts the shape just as the « barrel silhouette » that hinders the ankles. The government establishes an aggressive marketing to encourage consumerism rather than truly liberate women and their bodies. More practical, the tailored suit becomes a standard. When some professions request a uniform, they don’t exist in their feminine versions and women have to adapt themselves or transform their masculine interpretations before the government understands the importance of providing adapted outfits and urges factories to provide a protective working gear. This lack of interest for women’s workwear reflected how ambivalent the situation was: yes, it was wonderful that women replaced men at work but no, we didn’t want them to gain too much of a power: this substitution was clearly seen as temporary. Nurses are the only one to wear an authentic as well as recognizable uniform that rapidly transform them into symbolic romantic figures of the war and the display shows  lovely examples of such outfits.

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View of the exhibition’s second room

Because of the ambiguities that arise between the new active roles women have to adopt and the masculine demands for charming femininity, beauty and elegance (how lovely are the postcards presented on a glass panel with their very dreamy depiction of womanhood). Sexist and satyrical remarks, mockeries and caricatures inhabit newspapers while tensions emerge between the men in the trenches and women that have stayed at home. Should it be because of their professional and social independence that men disapprove or through their fashion choices, everything is an excuse for sexist parody, an irony that reaches its peak with the concept of the « merry widow », there again based on equivocation: they should remarry and make children promptly while wearing appropriate and refined widowhood garments which are nonetheless also seen as frivolous. Women were supposed to be brave and work hard but also respect their prewar traditional identity.

View of the exhibition's third and last room

View of the exhibition’s third and last room

The exhibition very interestingly insists on how much more qualified our vision of women’s emancipation during World War I must be. They were simply given an overview of what they could expect in posterior times. When the war ended, they were asked to return to their domestic existences as wives and mothers. What fashion had enabled to precipitate, society had not.

A very interesting and complete exhibition, Mode & Femmes – 14/18 is a must-see for its rare war outfits and the stimulating questions it arises.

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