French Women, Fashion, and the First World War; Exhibit Review

French Women, Fashion, and the First World War; Exhibit Review

If you have a chance to see this exhibit before it closes on Jan. 5 — make your way to the Bard Graduate Gallery! The interplay and tension of war and fashion for French women and the overarching concepts are phenomenal! The exhibit opened on Sept. 5 and was curated by Maude Bass-Krueger and Sophie Kurkdjian. This review will highlight some of the sections and objects on view.

The exhibit begs the question in its opening text:

“What happened during the four years of the war [1914-1918] to create such a vivid shift in fashion, and what impact did this shift have on French women?” 

Callot Soeurs, Evening Dress, Paris, 1915-1916, silk & metallic thread, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, C.I.51.97.1a,b; photo by FFF

I love that this exhibit was able to dive deep into some trickier concepts that unfolded during the war, like the public opinion of women who began taking jobs now vacated by men on the front lines, how dress for women became more practical suit their wartime reality, and the pressures faced by the fashion industry in France during WWI restrictions. The war forced modernization upon the western world in many ways. Certain practices, like entrenched Victorian concepts of wearing particular garments depending on the time of day or type of activity, seemed frivolous as many women did not have time to change their entire ensembles multiple times in a single day. Jobs thought previously only possible or appropriate for men to perform were suddenly opportunities for women and a necessity for them to fill. The fashion industry, by which many standards France had been the center, was suddenly crippled by fabric restrictions and shuttered factories. There were new roles for women and political struggles during and after the war, and the exhibit explores this phenomenon and its relationship to women’s fashion.

Beginning of the timeline from the exhibit; photo by FFF

The exhibit opens on the first floor of the gallery and continues on the second and third floors. To begin, a comprehensive timeline details events of the First World War in France above and dates relating to Fashion and French Women below. I think seeing these events side by side helped to illustrate in an organized way the progressions that took place, both as a cause and effect and in spite of each other. Photos and images peppered the timeline like the example above, making the chain of events seem clear.

The timeline is critical in remembering key dates, but also in further conceptualizing the gradual changes that occurred which ultimately resulted in a very different post-war outlook for women, and the physical projection of the political and social changes manifested in fashion. Three garments in the center of the room, all from the same design house, Lanvin, are used to illustrate the changes taking place in women’s fashion before, during, and after the war. The Lanvin gowns below are from 1914, 1917, and 1919-1921 respectively:

Jeanne Lanvin, “Feuille Morte” dress, Paris, 1914, silk, Patrimoine Lanvin; Jeanne Lanvin, “Saxe” dress, Paris, 1917, crepe, Patrimoine Lanvin; Jeanne Lanvin, “Résurrection” dress, Paris,1919-1920, 1921, crepe, velvet, glass beads, Patrimoine Lanvin: all from French Fashion, Women & The First World War, photo by FFF

Notice how the waistline drops gradually throughout the years, the skirts progressively use less fabric, and the ornamentation changes too. The first dress from 1914 uses ruched fabric ruffles, the center dress from 1917 has embroidery thread (less fabric needed for decoration), and the dress from  1919-1921 is beaded.

Embroidery detail on the Lanvin dress from 1917, photo by FFF

As the exhibit continues, its discusses the particulars of the now-outdated mourning system. They note that 600,000 French women became widows during the war. I thought this section in the gallery that exhibited the changes in mourning wear was fascinating! Mourning and the appropriate clothing for mourning, became complex during Victorian times. There were certain social codes to abide by depending on how close you were to the person who passed away (widow, sister, mother, etc.) and how long ago that person had died (were you still in full mourning or half mourning?), and this would affect the colors, accessories, fabric, and all aspects of how you dressed. It may seem macabre to think about, but these distinctions between certain kinds of mourning dress suddenly became impractical with the constant presence of death. You would be perpetually observing the mourning codes! Mourning clothing was still worn, but much nuances and severity (like half-mourning and two year periods of mourning) were dropped or simplified.

Both mourning hats are from 1915, silk & velvet, France, Musée des Arts Decoratifs; mourning muff, 1914-1918, taffeta embossed with artificial fibers, France, Palais Galliera; mourning dress on far right, 1920, cotton, linen, silk, satin, lace, France, Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux, photo by FFF

On a lighter note, many women became nurses, and this was a practice that had previously developed as an occupation for women. It became something of a status symbol to become a nurse during the war but there were also critics of the perceived “fashion” of nursing. In the text for this section, “The Fashion for Nursing,” they expand on the idea that:

By placing the nurse on the cover of fashion magazines, publishing photographs of aristocratic nurses in the society pages, and describing nurses’ uniforms as if they were the latest fashions, the fashion press fueled public criticism.”

It is noted that more than 70,000 French women volunteered as Red Cross nurses. For those women, they may have worn uniforms that looked like these on display:

Left: Nurse’s uniform belonging to Sidonie Pocquet, 1914-1918, France, wool, cotton, linen, Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux; Center: Nurse’s Bag, 1914-1918, France, cotton, Musée des Arts Décoratifs; Right: Nurse’s blouse and apron belonging to Louise Daniel, 1914-1918, France, cotton, linen, Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux, photo by FFF

For those who were not nurses, many jobs still needed to be filled. The exhibit showed a wonderful collection of photos that captured women at work as well as many other examples of women’s uniforms. Up until this point, there had been no need to create specific clothing for the working women, so women adapted what they could from men or otherwise wore various forms of the tailored suit or tailor-made. Women of all social classes soon adopted this practical form of dress on the home front. It consisted of a skirt, blouse, and jacket and could be made in a wide variety of fabrics depending on its wearer’s needs. This simpler ensemble replaced much of the daywear previously needed and would function for multiple times of day and activities.

Two tailored suits: Left: 1915-1916, cotton cloth & organdy, France, Musée des Arts Décoratifs; Right: Auguste Champot, 1915, silk velvet & fur, France, Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, photo by FFF

Fashion was at the center of much of the social tension in France. Many men felt threatened by their female counterparts who were now part of the workforce and there was fear of upsetting the social status quo and also due to the first female-led strike in 1917, as noted by the section titled “Social Upheaval.” These caricatures below were made to reinforce the ideal female and reassure the soldiers returning from the war from a variety of French publications:

a variety of French magazine caricatures on display from WWI, photo by FFF

This review only scratches the surface of what you might find at the exhibit. Other information not detailed here related to patriotism and fashion, more specifics in daywear for women (like changing hat styles), the French couture industry, and much more!  All in all, it was an absolute pleasure and I would encourage anyone who can make it before January 5 to go! The fashion on display was beautiful, and the scope of what was covered in terms of detail and deeper concepts was exceptional!


-Danielle Morrin


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like 5 Fearless Flying Females You Need to Know and The Nurse: Uniform Attire, Practice & Florence Nightingale.

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2 thoughts on “French Women, Fashion, and the First World War; Exhibit Review

  1. Hello there! This blog post could not be written much better!
    Reading through this article reminds me
    of my previous roommate! He always kept talking about this.

    I am going to send this article to him. Fairly certain he’s going to have a very good read.
    Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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