Guest Post- War in Conflict: World War I, Haute Couture and the Fashionable Body (Part I)

By Katy Conover

 Katy Conover is currently working as a research assistant at the Victoria & Albert Museum on the upcoming “Hollywood Costume” exhibition. She received her MA from the RCA/V&A program in History of Design. Her current research focus on early 20th century fashion and the body. This post is from a presentation I she at the Women in Magazines Conference June 23-24 at KingstonUniversity, Kingston, England.

When examining fashion during the 20th century, magazines are a vital source for women.  The World War I period is no exception.  Despite the war lasting only 4 years, fashion changes were still occurring and fashion magazines were at the forefront of conveying this information.  Within the pages of Vogue and The Queen, these magazines were conveying information through 3 different means: illustration, photography, and text.  What each one of these ‘said’ about the fashionable body during the war allowed for a montage to emerge to which the illustration, photograph, and text all contributed.  The ‘montage’, in this instance, is best understood through the theorist Theodor Adorno as that which ‘disavows unity through the emerging disparateness of the parts at the same time that, as a principle of form, it reaffirms unity.’[1]  The montage unifies and provides a more accurate understanding of the design changes which were happening during the war years.

In order to understand how magazines contributed to the idea of the ‘montage’, it is necessary to first understand some key points in regards to the overall importance of magazines.  The magazines exploited a recognizable visual landscape with the ‘capacity to re-make itself, each number the same and yet different.’[2]  In regards to fashion magazines, the magazine’s ‘superlative presentation, photography and subject-matter epitomised […] a dream world peopled by the rich, the beautiful, the famous.’[3]  Thus functioning as objects that exposed this ideal, the magazines were a key source through which women could study the fashionable body.  As explained by Beetham: ‘[a]ll ladies’ papers made appearance central to their definition of themselves as well as their readers.  The message was carried primarily by the wealth of high quality illustration.’[4]  Through the magazines, ‘[t]he reader could therefore not only regulate her own consumption to produce the right kind of home and self, she could also recognise and read the signs other women produced.’[5]  However, women were not only ‘reading’ that appearance in the illustrations, but they could also ‘read’ that information through photographs and text.  As mentioned above, illustrations had been considered the main source of information for women reading fashion magazines.  Additionally, photographs and text have been used simply to support the fashionable body presented in the illustrations—omitting contradictory information.  Focusing on the war years, the war did not detract from the aim of these magazines to display, promote, or sell the idea of the fashionable body to the contemporary woman.  There was a continuation of prescribed social codes, which dictated appropriate clothing for every situation.  As stressed by Mary Brooks Picken’s 1918 manual:

[y]ou must realize that if you are going out to business you should not dress as you would if you were going to a church gathering; nor should you, if you are going to an elaborate dinner party, wear a shirtwaist and skirt, as you may be privileged to do at a simple home dinner with your own family or with intimate friends.[6]

Even in 1917 The Queen reported:

 we have our morning, afternoon and evening dresses, costumes for out-of-doors and in, for fine weather and stormy, for sports, work, pleasure—in fact, for every conceivable object and every conceivable occasion, no matter how ordinary or how unusual this may appear to be at first sight.[7]

Despite this advice, there are no images to show how a woman was supposed to know the difference in the looks for these occasions which contradicts Beetham’s assertion that illustrations were paramount for women understanding their fashionable body.  Rather, as the previous image shows, women were expected to know how written description would be translated into the look.  Here the idea of the montage is necessary in order to understand how the fashionable body could be created into a unified ‘look’ from the disparate parts that it is presented.  This assumption of inside knowledge assumes that the contemporary woman could ‘read’ not only the illustration and photographs but also visualize and interpret the text.  From this, the woman could focus on finding her ‘correct’ look in which a woman, must grasp conclusively two points: first, the limitations of her natural outline; secondly, a knowledge of how nearly she can approach the outline demanded by fashion without appearing a caricature, which is another way of saying that each woman should learn to recognise her own type.[8]  Additionally, when taking into account the speed at which seasonality affected fashion, a woman had to become adroit at being able visually to assess the fashionability of an item and, ultimately, of her entire dressed body.  Therefore, the photographs and text included in the pages of Vogue and The Queen went as far to inform a woman about the fashionable aesthetic as seeing the illustration.

scanned from Vogue, February 15, 1914

Vogue, March 15, 1914

As an example, in 1914 Vogue showed that the woman’s silhouette was following a slim line with a continuation of the lavish internal detail of the previous few years.  Women’s fashions maintained a complicated, multi-tiered silhouette: ‘[w]hether we shall be wide from side to side or wide from front to back, or revert again to the unbroken line, are the questions with which the couturiers are preparing to confront us at their spring openings’[9]

The Queen, March 28,1914

Much like the illustrations in Vogue, The Queen was illustrating the same, feminine, multi-layered dresses.  In order to emphasize the ‘new’ fashions The Queen uses its text to try to show a difference between ‘tunic’ and ‘flounce’: ‘[t]he word tunic, it is to be noticed, is being avoided, although these flounces, which are used in groups of twos and threes, are very closely related to the upper skirt, known as a tunic.  The difference, however, rests in a decided fullness, which justifies them being called flounces.’[10] 

Vogue, July 1, 1914

Another factor that contributes to the ‘montage’ are the events of the war, but it is an area that needs further study.  In terms of what the magazines were saying about the war, Vogue credited itself in 1915 with ‘[doing] its part during the war, carrying articles about relief efforts and sponsoring its own appeal for the Sewing Girls of Paris […running] sober stories of sacrifices on the part of the rich for the war effort.’[11]  In the first years of the war, mentions of the war were happening independently from mentions of fashion, especially Vogue.  Additionally, when the war was mentioned in Vogue, its separation from fashion, even within the same article, made the war seem to be more subjective rather than an objective force directly influencing fashion.  

Vogue, March 1, 1915

In the March 1, 1915 article: ‘New Silhouettes Against a Background of War,’[12] in which the ‘new silhouettes’ were not even mentioned until the fourth page of the article after a discussion of general war events—a discussion which was limited to the first page of the article.  Yet interestingly, there are illustrations throughout the article that do not correlate directly with the text.Despite this separation, the war did contribute to the montage which was informing women of the fashionable aesthetic.  This is best related by the author Mrs. Humphry Ward, ‘in the course of months it had become a habit with me never to write about the war; and outside the hours of writing to think and talk of nothing else.’[13]  However, the war was the constant through these years in which its continual presence was a constant source or unity despite the seeming disparity between the illustration, the photograph, and the text.  Yet, as I will explore shortly, the above-mentioned ‘types’ of sources actually also contributed to the unity of the montage. However, this unity between sources was not happening in the middle years of the war.  As such, 1916 was the year of the greatest split between the illustrated fashionable body and the photographed fashionable body in which the disparity between the illustration, photograph, and text was blatant.

In the next post, I will continue to explore fashion’s montage through the height of the magazine’s disparity and how the illustration, image, and text reunify in the later years of the war.

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (The Athlone Press, Ltd.: London, 1997), p. 154.
[2] Margaret Beetham, A Magazine of Her Own? (Routledge: London, 1996), p. 10.
[3] Irene Dancyger, A World of Women: An illustrated history of women’s magazines (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1978), p. 119-120.
[4] Beetham, p. 100.
[5] Beetham, p. 96.
[6] Mary Brooks Picken, The Secrets of Distinctive Dress: Harmonious, Becoming, and Beautiful Dress—Its Value and How to Achieve It (International Textbook Press: Scranton, 1918), p. 9-10.
[7] Mrs. Jack May, ‘Fashion’s Forecast: For Indoor Wear’, The Queen, 6 January, 1917, p. 14.
[8] Emily Burbank, Woman as Decoration (Dodd, Mead and Company: New York, 1917), p. 31-2.
[9] Vogue (US), 15 February, 1914, p. 22.
[10] Mrs. Jack May, ‘Fashions’ Forecast’, The Queen, Jan 17, 1914, p. 94.
[11] John Tebbel and Mary Ellen Zuckerman, The Magazine in America 1741-1990 (Oxford University Press: New York, 1991), p. 106.
[12] ‘New Silhouettes Against a Background of War,’ Vogue (US), 1 March, 1915, p. 23.
[13] Mrs. Humphry Ward, England’s Effort: Six Letters to an American Friend (Smith, Elder & Co.: London, 1916), p. 2.
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1 Response to Guest Post- War in Conflict: World War I, Haute Couture and the Fashionable Body (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Guest Post- War in Conflict: World War I, Haute Couture and the Fashionable Body (Part II) | ON PINS AND NEEDLES

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