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

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.

As discussed in the previous post, the early years of World War I were espousing a unified visual aesthetic between illustration, photograph, and text that started to deteriorate as the war progressed.  Nineteen sixteen was the year in which the disunity was at its greatest.

Vogue, January 15, 1916

In this year, the fashionable silhouette in illustrations had shifted to a more ‘traditional’ feminine shape with a natural waistline, fitted bust, and a wide skirt in the pages of Vogue. 

The Queen, March 4, 1916

 Even The Queen’s illustrations were supporting this image.  To add to this, the text form 1916 was promoting a youthful silhouette.  The Queen remarked that ‘[a]ll the new models are extraordinarily youthful for youth is privileged in France, and is almost tyrannical when it is a question of fashion.’[1]  Vogue also mentioned that, ‘[t]he “young thing” appears everywhere, an astounding combination of worldliness and ignorance […] a wild mixture of Paris futurism, the primitives, and a little rouge […].  She is feverishly interested in two things, herself and her clothes.’[2]  Note that there is no mention of the war here.  In this year, the disunity becomes blatant.  Considering Vogue’s focus on Paris, the assumption would be that the magazine would also focus more information on the war and the fashion industry in Paris.  However, this was not the case.  For 1916, the war and fashion were still separate issues.  In the March 15, 1916 ‘Paris Openings’ issue, the main fashion article, ‘The Tale of the Paris Openings’ did not mention the war at all in the article.[3]  Even Vogue’s editor, Edna Woolman Chase’s autobiography refers to the war with nonchalance: ‘in the trenches our circulation was second only to the Saturday Evening Post.  At first I couldn’t believe it, but I suppose in a way it was natural.  Vogue is about women and their frills and furbelows; it is a vastly different diet from mud and uniforms, boredom and death.’[4] 

In contrast, by June 1916, women were being told in Vogue that the fashionable body would be wearing a slimmer silhouette despite being shown the contrary:

some of the smartest houses are advocating the slender silhouette, there is every reason to expect that limp frocks will be demanded by the clients themselves, and the society, like the little Quaker maiden, will “rip the hoops out of its gown.”  The “slender” silhouette does not mean a return to tight skirts—not at all.  In fact, skirts will remain ample, but the fulness [sic] will be softly and limply disposed.[5]

 Additionally, in The Queen’s March 4, 1916 issue, Mrs. Jack May lamented that:

[w]omen just now seem to be divided into two communities—those who are too panicky to dare to spend money, even when on necessary dress requirements, the others paying not the slightest attention to the pleas for economy and spending as freely as ever […].[6]

Yet in the same article she contradicts her previous statement:

And afterwards, when this wearisome, long-drawn-out war ends, we shall look back on having been taught the valuable lesson of how to administer a dress allowance with care […]; also the realisation how, given the proper care and intelligent attention, it is possible to dress well and at the same time economically.[7]

However, M.E. Clarke’s November article ‘Causerie de Paris,’ lamented that, ‘nothing but cloth is being used, and never have the skirts been wider.  They look less wide in effect because there are so many pleats, but they take an enormous amount of material.’[8]  It is notable that the silhouette was supposed to look ‘less wide,’ but the dresses still required an ‘enormous amount of material.’

Vogue, November1, 1916

Vogue, November1, 1916

In these illustrations from Vogue on November 1, 1916, the ‘Straight Way of Paris’ shows the ‘less wide’ skirt, but it still appears to be just as full as the earlier versions.

Vogue, July 1, 1916

 In this illustration, the long tea gown with the kimono-style sleeves did not appear to be using moderation in the least.

Vogue, June 1, 1916

Vogue, August 15, 1916

However, when examining the photographs from this year, the dissimilarities are obvious.  Putting the earlier illustrations from Vogue’s June 1, 1916 issue alongside a photograph from August 1, 1916, one can observe Adorno’s montage at work.  It is through these seemingly incongruous images that a more complete picture of the fashionable body becomes evident.

This image shows the beginning of the transition towards the idea of unity as the illustrated examples here more closely mirror the illustrated ones, which both follow the ‘slender silhouette’ mentioned in the text.  However, it should be noted that the above text from June 1916 does not seem to be made visually relevant until these examples in October and November of 1916.

Vogue, November 1, 1916

Vogue, February 1, 1917

In the final two years of the war, the magazines introduced the ‘Barrel Silhouette,’ which reintroduced the narrow silhouette of the 1914, and was almost the opposite fashionable body from that of 1916.  In Vogue’s UK edition from Early April 1917, ‘[t]here are just three things one can wear in town this spring,–a tailored suit, a one-piece dress, or a dress with a coat.’[9]  This was supported by the above Illustration in which all of these women are wearing one of the examples listed in the Vogue quotation above.  Even The Queen weighed in: ‘[t]he rule is a tailor-made, and, if not, the very simplest of frocks.’[10]

Vogue, April 1, 1918

 However, unity was not completely seamless.  In this example from the ‘Paris Openings,’ April 1, 1918, the narrower silhouette only reflected a simplicity in external shape while the internal line remained complex.  The three dresses at the top of the page all have multiple layers and the dresses on either end both have kimono sleeves all requiring more fabric than would be necessary if simplicity and thrift were the real goals.  All of these dresses have complex necklines requiring extra fabric—such as the ‘scarf’ neckline in the top left illustration.  Additionally, these dresses have an internal complexity, which cannot be conveyed by the silhouette alone such as the illustration on the lower right which has a gathered neckline, a waistband with a large appliqué insert on the front, and a split overskirt with a longer underskirt.

The introduction of the ‘Barrel Silhouette’ was the moment when the illustrations and the photographs, especially, began to merge into a similar silhouette.

Vogue, January 15, 1918

Vogue, August 1, 1917

 Here the dresses these society women are wearing mirror the illustrated garments.

It is important to note that after America’s entry into the war, the silhouette began to unify across the three types of sources.  The only explanation for this shift comes from historian Elizabeth Miner King in 1917 in which, ‘[w]ar conditions have forced the business of the importation of wearing apparel from Paris to the United States almost to the wall.  Therefore American designers have had to supply an industrial demand in the clothes line.’[11]  The entry of the US into the war seems to have influenced the ‘look’ of the fashionable body across the different sources.  However, this particular change needs further exploration.

Despite this, it is important to emphasize that at this moment, the montage was reaffirming unity.  In August 1917, Vogue seems to also be integrating the war into the fashionable body with the article titled ‘The Fashions of Paris Lead the Simple Life’ with the subheading: ‘Paris Is in No Mood for Gay Colors and Amazing Silhouettes; Wartime Frocks Must Be Simple of Line and Quiet of Color—but They Are Allowed All the Charm They Want.’[12]  Even Vogue changed the name of its regular article ‘Smart Fashions for Limited Incomes’ to ‘Dressing on a War Income’ in the February 1, 1918 issue—a change which occurred in the British edition Early March 1918—this change did not affect the main fashion content about the Paris designers.  As reflected in the shift from a complex silhouette to a complex internal line, fashion seems to have conformed to the demands for simplicity of silhouette during the war.  However, it must be reiterated that this was more a shift from a complex silhouette to a complex internal line.  It was this unified montage which has led Francois Boucher to remark that ‘[t]he 1914-18 war left women mistresses of their own fashions for four years by freeing them from their dependence on couturiers… liberated from their enslavement to the demands of the couture at exactly the time when new needs spurred them to look for more convenience and comfort in clothing.’[13]   And by 1918, Richard Barry had hoped this change would, ‘lift us, as a nation, from the semi-barbarism of clothes-silliness to a higher aesthetic plane of clothes-adornment.’[14]  Regardless of the ‘success’ of this statement, the unity achieved is significant as it is creating a unified fashionable body for women—a unity that was absent in the early years of the war.  In short, the fashions in 1917 and 1918 seemed to have conflated into a unified visual aesthetic, which firmly established a hegemonic visual culture, which led to a fashionable body more unified in silhouette than was evident in 191


[1] M.E. Clarke, ‘Causerie de Paris’, The Queen, 21 October, 1916, p. 576.
[2] Mildred R. Crux, ‘The Extreme Adolescence of America’, Vogue (US), 1 February, 1917, p. 66.
[3] ‘The Tale of the Paris Openings’, Vogue (US), 15 March, 1916.
[4] Edna Woolman Chase and Ilka Chase, Always in Vogue (Victor Gollancz Ltd: London, 1954), p. 129.
[5] ‘Paris Rolls Away the Hoop: The Full Skirt Will Still Be with Us, but the Distended Skirt is Packing Up Its Crinoline and Bidding Us a Lingering Farewell’, Vogue (New York), 15 June, 1916, p. 39.
[6] Mrs. Jack May, ‘Fashion’s Forecast’, The Queen, 4 March, 1916, p. 360.
[7] May, p. 360.
[8] M.E. Clarke, ‘Causerie de Paris,’ The Queen, 4 November, 1916, p. 634.
[9] Vogue (London) Early April 1917, p. 36.
[10] M.E. Clarke, ‘Causerie de Paris,’ The Queen15 July, 1916, p. 97.
[11] Elizabeth Miner King, ‘War, Women, and American Clothes: Dress, the Money-Maker’, Scribner’s, 62 (1917), pp. 592-598 (592).
[12] ‘The Fashions of Paris Lead the Simple Life’, Vogue (US), 1 August, 1917,p. 29.
[13] François Boucher, 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: New York, 1967), p. 408.
[14] Richard Barry, ‘“Style” in Women’s Clothes’, The North American Review, 207 (750), May 1918, 729-34 (p. 730).
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One Response to Guest Post- War in Conflict: World War I, Haute Couture and the Fashionable Body (Part II)

  1. Umberto says:

    Thanking Ms Conover for her interesting view on fashion during the war, I would like to bring to her attention that what is reported in her two articles is merely a part of the truth. If Vogue and The Queen (high-end fashion magazines) kept a frivolous view of women throughout the war, other magazines didn’t.
    In Paris, La Mode Illustree (the most-widely read fashion magazine of the time) and La Mode Pratique, to cite just two, had a very different approach to the war and fashion. La Mode Illustree’s editorials (written by Madame Raymond), for instance, didn’t touch anything but war themes for the entire duration of the war and well after (included articles on frugality and the like), while the fashion editorials always considered war and practicality. Moreover, the magazine in general and the fashion editorials in particular frowned upon the eccentricity of couturiers and advised sensible women in France to adopt less adorned fashions. The fashion editor, Madame Thevenot, writes copiously about what to wear and what not to wear advising against the new creations, especially at the beginning of each season, as they would be surely tuned down as the seasons progressed. In addition, the images and the texts were always coherent. Of course, In January, Madame Thevenot would talk about the spring new lines but the magazine would continue displaying winter fashions until March.
    I do understand that Vogue and The Queen, speaking with a detached and distant view, might have interpreted only certain novelties coming from Paris, but I would recommend to bare in mind that what Paris was going through was palpably different from the experiences of the United States and the United Kingdom (let’s not forget that France had actually been invaded by Germany). It goes without saying that Vogue and The Queen were catering the well offs and did not take into account the Middle Class of the time. So, it is interesting to notice what fashions were being displayed in Vogue and their counterparts (much tuned down versions) in La Mode Illustree.
    Another important aspect that shines some more light on my all comment is that as soon as the war broke out La Mode Illustree was forced to cut down the number of pages (and it would remain so until the end of 1920, with a predilection for articles on war-related topics and frugality over fashion) because of shortages of paper as the magazine often explains.
    I want to conclude by saying that as lovely as Ms Conover’s articles are, I would advise against referring to Paris fashion using only British and American sources, as these do not prove useful enough to really understand what was going on in France due to reduced communication.
    Yours sincerely,
    U.M.

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