Art Where You're At

Take Off Your Sweats And Step Into 'Silk And Steel' — French Fashions In WWI


French woman conductor for the Paris Trolley Company, 1917
Excelsior – L'Equipe/Roger – Violett, National WWI Museum and Memorial

French woman conductor for the Paris Trolley Company, 1917

In 1939, anticipating the German invasion of Paris in World War II, designer Coco Chanel closed up shop. "This is no time for fashion," she said. And, to put it delicately, she shacked up at the Ritz with her lover — a Nazi intelligence officer.

In World War I, however, Chanel was selling hats, and kept selling them throughout that war.

At the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., the new exhibition, "Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI" does not, alas, include any Chanel (not even a sock). But Madeleine Vionnet, a major French designer of the day, is elegantly represented.

Despite agonizing trench and tank warfare, with more than one million French casualties, wealthy Parisian women dressed for dinner during World War I. (Amazed, sitting there in pandemic clothes you haven't changed in a week? Well, before that war, monied Madames changed clothes five times a day!) In wartime, taking over men's factory jobs, some even dressed up their work clothes.

Curator Doran Cart says since the French government didn't provide clothes for women to wear in munitions factories and other plants, "they had to be creative and adapt overalls that were made for men. That's why you see them so ill-fitting." But they perked it up with necklaces and earrings.

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French designers (mostly male) went to war. And their fashions also saw action.

Henry Whiteley Patterson, an American, bought himself this belt when he joined the French army. And wore a smart uniform with a colorful collar.

The red on that collar is strategic and political. Nineteenth-century French military wore long red pants — visible red. (You'd think they would have learned better from the British during the American Revolution.)

Red pants went into World War I for a while. But curator Cart says there was a political problem: The red dye came from Germany — the enemy. So with pre-war leftover dye, red was limited to collars, and trimmed with gold.

It was worn by artillerymen. Troops needed to spot an artilleryman quickly "to identify him," says Cart, "but not enough color to make him a target."

World War I had an impact on French fashion. Museum educator Camille Kulig says "clothing is a barometer of change." You can see that in women's wartime wear. "It's pared down, its not nearly as complicated."

Shortages made clothing less vivid. More tan, beige and gray on the palette. And with casualties that left some 600,000 French war widows, black mourning clothes darkened homes and streets.

That long-ago "war to end all wars" (the phrase is often credited to President Woodrow Wilson) influenced some things we still wear today. Trench coats, labeled in World War I though invented in 19th-century Britain, go perpetually in and out of style. Epaulettes — shoulder tabs which indicated rank, and steadied straps to rifles and binoculars — pop up on modern sweaters and coats. And wrist watches, essential to soldiers too occupied to keep pulling watch fobs out of their pockets, still tell time for those who never learned (me) to look for it on a phone.

All wars leave scars and separations. Morale sinks. In France, what seems a national impulse to style kept World War I women groomed and chic as possible. And boosted morale through a long and terrible conflict.

Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing lively online offerings at museums closed due to COVID-19, or at re-opening museums you may not be able to visit.

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