World War I conjures a particular set of associations. We are likely to envision battlefields lined with trenches and thick clouds of tear gas. We might equally imagine the dissociative horror of shell shock, so vividly captured by the Expressionists.
Although such images are faithful representations of the conflict, they tell only part of its story, as demonstrated in ‘French Fashion, Women, and The First World War,’ the Bard Graduate Center’s fascinating study of fashion and gender in France from 1914 to 1918. Shifting attention to the home front, the show considers how French women experienced the Great War, casting it as a moment of sartorial revolution that brought with it the hope – if not the realization – of social revolution.
Though the art of haute couture and that of warfare seem to have little in common, the exhibition reveals that women’s fashion was a critical source of French revenue throughout World War I. French designers – many of them female – kept the national economy afloat, manufacturing shorter, simplified evening dresses for export, accompanied by propaganda that equated supporting Paris fashion houses to giving military aid. (For example, a flared petticoat debuted before 1914 was rebranded a ‘war crinoline’.) Women were also crucial to maintaining traditionally masculine industries and public services, taking over positions as munitions manufacturers, tram operators or chimneysweeps. This work required comfortable clothing, pushing women to adopt looser and more androgynous apparel, including pants and overalls, thus further accelerating the shift toward straighter silhouettes and higher hemlines.
As illustrated in a smart selection of advertisements, fashion plates and garments, in a brief span of four years, women’s fashion went from frivolous to functional: out went the pouf and pain of prewar designs, such as the ‘hobble skirt’, so named because its tight cinch prevented walking. In came the narrow mid-length dresses we associate today with flappers or garçonnes, their French equivalent.
Liberating women’s fashion unfortunately did not translate into women’s political emancipation. (Suffrage did not come to France until the 1940s.) But as the exhibition proves, World War I was nevertheless an important step in the march toward women’s rights – launching an unprecedented number of women into the workforce and allowing them to test new modes of self-expression.
‘French Fashion, Women, & The First World War’ is on view at the Bard Graduate Center, New York City until 5 January 2020.