French Fashion, Women and World War I Explored in New Museum Exhibition

How the fashion industry was impacted and responded to the First World War is the focus of a new exhibition that bows Friday at the National WWI Museum and Memorial.

Running through April 11 at the Kansas City, Mo., institution, the “Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI” show features fashion, posters, postcards and other memorabilia from that time and explores societal issues, as well as style-oriented ones.

During that period of great global upheaval, while men predominantly fought in the war, some women in different countries stepped up to take on new responsibilities. Nearly 1.5 million French soldiers gave their lives during the war.

Visitors to the exhibition will learn how French women, like others, worked in war-related industries, in agriculture, nursing and transport, striving for suffrage, equal pay and respect. The women’s fashion industry especially in France played an important role in life during the Great War as a morale booster and economic driver, said Camille Kulig, the museum’s public program specialist. Galeries Lafayette and other department stores and fashion houses switched tracks to provide uniforms, textiles and accessories for Army use. They were transformed into workshops to produce bandages, shirts and socks for soldiers fighting on the front.

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Kulig noted how designers like Jeanne Lanvin continued to work, catering to an international clientele. Gabrielle Chanel, who had opened a hat shop a few years prior, gained prominence during that time especially for her jersey skirt suits, which epitomized the era’s zeitgeist.

Three years after the start of the war, Women’s Wear Daily reported in 1917, “The invincible spirit of France has been nowhere better utilized than in its brave couture.”

The scarcity of materials and other restrictions shifted consumers’ interest to silk blends and jersey. What the industry was able to produce was directly impacted by the German Occupation in Northern France, said Kulig. Keeping the fashion churning, whether that be by keeping some factories open or unveiling new stores like Galeries Lafayette, was key to morale in France and an economic driver, she said. “While other places were shuttered, factories were still functioning and department stores were open,” Kulig said.

“We wanted to make clear that there are many ways to understand World War I and those that were impacted, and learning about fashion and the fashion industry is one of those ways to do that.” Kulig said.

However far away World War I might seem to many today, that was a period when the world was facing another pandemic – the Spanish flu. “The world of 100 years ago was not so different than the world we know now [in that sense],” Kulig said.

Dresses, coats, capes, hat, shoes and accessories are featured in the exhibition, which highlights the evolution of the war-time silhouette, as well as Parisian designers during the war, the influence of military uniforms, women’s uniforms in France and the U.S., war-related work, the economics of fashion and post-war emancipation.

A dress of gold-colored velvet with metal thread made by Liberty, 3B Des Capucines in Paris in 1920 is one of the standout pieces. There are more expected pieces, like a French Army artillery officer’s wool dolman style short jacket from 1914. One section of the show explains that French women did not earn the right to vote until 1944, whereas American women did so after the 19th amendment was passed in 1919. In 1914, French suffragettes were closing in on what they thought would be a victorious effort to gain the right to vote. After the war broke out, they put their demands on hold to support the nation at war. Once peace was reached, women were encouraged to return to their roles as homemakers, mothers and wives, a museum spokeswoman said.

Kulig noted that women worked “in indelible ways to keep the French economy moving, but they were not able to enjoy what many considered to be a very basic right [the right to vote] during that time and after.”

The show builds upon the research and graphics created for “French Fashion-Women, the First World War,” which was organized last year at the Bard Graduate Center gallery in New York. The root of the American projects were the 2017 exhibition “Made & Femmes 14-18” that was held at the Bibliothèque Forney in Paris, which was curated by Maude Bass-Krueger and Sophie Kurkdjian. On Oct. 19, the pair will host a Zoom conversation via the WWI Museum and Memorial that will address how the exhibition relates to the world right now, “as it experiences such national traumas, changes and upheaval. How does fashion respond to that and how can that function as a barometer of international moods as well?” Kulig said.

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