Ms. Bass-Krueger and Ms. Kurkdjian are historians with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the largest governmental research organization in France. They filled the library’s exhibition space (three rooms encompassing more than 2,150 square feet) with a rich selection of posters; 43 archival photographs; and 72 plates from fashion magazines and satirical journals. Fifteen garments were lent from the Palais Galliera, the City of Paris’s fashion museum; the Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux, and the archives of the Chanel and Lanvin fashion houses — both of which remained in operation during the war.
“France could not afford for couture to fail,” said Ms. Bass-Krueger, noting that the textile and dress industry was crucial to the country’s wartime economy. “The industry was highly propagandizing, and signaled to Frenchwomen that the most important thing they could do was buy French fashion.”
Case in point: a silhouette with a shorter, flared skirt that had been introduced just before the war. Quickly rebaptized as a “war crinoline,” it was pushed aggressively as allowing greater ease of movement even though it actually was heavier and more cumbersome than earlier styles.
Similarly, the 1917 “barrel” silhouette, advertised as lighter than crinolines, restricted the ankles, making it more difficult for women to move. In both cases, the goal was to get Frenchwomen to invest in a whole new wardrobe — not make them more comfortable.
Equally complicated was the issue of dressing for work. As men were called up, women took traditionally male jobs (driving trams, delivering mail, working in factories), and their clothes reflected both the cultural ambivalence about this shift, and its temporary nature. Nurses excepted, most women wore their own dresses on the job, denoting official roles with homemade insignia.
As a result, Ms. Kurkdjian said, “Women were on the roofs of Paris cleaning chimneys, but their clothes were often inappropriate” to their new tasks: Long skirts were at risk of getting caught on pipes, doors and machines.
Recognizing the danger, the government eventually mandated that factories provide protective workwear for women, but images of female industrial workers in men’s gear generated biting criticism in the press. One 1917 magazine caricature in the exhibition shows a bar scene, with a woman in coveralls talking to a male factory worker. “What’s your husband doing?” he asks. “He’s at home mending my silks,” the woman responds.
In reality, though, female factory workers sought to remain elegant, accessorizing coveralls, blouses and skirt suits with brooches, necklaces and earrings — as did most wartime-era working women.
“It was considered a national duty to look beautiful in wartime,” said Adelheid Rasche, a fashion historian and curator at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany, and author of “Wardrobes in Wartime, 1914-1918,” “But women were now also expected to work like men. It became hard to know when to be modern and when to look as before.”
This was particularly clear when it came to honoring the dead. Nineteenth-century mourning rituals were lengthy and highly codified; the Great War made this impractical. The exhibition includes a 1915 silk dress featuring a draped shawl collar and intricate lacework, for example, but by 1920 the equivalent outfit had been shortened, straightened and stripped of detailing. Meanwhile, women were mocked as “merry widows” — even as they were urged to remarry and bear children.
It all created a great divide between the new woman of soldiers’ fears, and women as men wished them to be. Caricatures from satirical journals read at the battlefront figured women as either masculinized or spending wildly on the latest designs. In the exhibition, these are displayed opposite a wall of 50 pastel-tinted postcards received by soldiers, with studio photographs depicting women as subdued, romantic and mid-swoon.
That may help explain why postwar, women were dismissed from their jobs and pressured to return to the home. Though the simple silhouette of a 1919 Lanvin gown in teal silk crepe illustrates the vast distance fashion had traveled from the restrictive prewar layers, gender relations had not kept pace.
As the exhibition shows, the press then stressed that a woman’s power derived not from her intellect or economic contributions, but her attractiveness. And if the corset was out, dieting was in. Said Ms. Kurkdjian, “The message is: We can’t give you the vote, we can’t give you real freedom, but you can be beautiful. And that should be enough.”
It took another war before women got the right to vote in France in 1945, and the real fashion revolution would not come until the 1960s. Some battles, as the exhibition demonstrates, take decades.
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