In its latest exhibition titled “Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women, and WWI,” the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, explores the impact of French fashion during the Great War.

“Fashion wasn’t just a thing of pride, but also really showed how a woman’s place in the French society changed dramatically and almost immediately,” Doran Cart, the museum’s senior curator, told HistoryNet. “The exhibit really emphasizes how French women reacted to the war.”

The conflict also marked a burgeoning shift away from the traditional female sphere of domesticity as women in greater numbers transitioned to working in factories, shipyards, and other defense industry plants. The sturdier, more simplistic clothing for such environs highlighted this evolution. Another big change ushered in by the war? The addition of pockets.

“Previously, French women didn’t have ‘work’ clothes,” said Cart. “There were a lot of aspects, especially working in a munitions factory, where you couldn’t wear certain fabrics. You had to have a heavier duty [material].”

In addition to adapting to simpler, more functional clothing, the colors of the garments themselves were changing. Prior to the war, many of the dyes were imported from Germany. After 1914, the French fashion industry had to adjust to the wartime shortage, using dyes more readily and locally available.

The arrival of uniformed American women in France in 1917 also shook up the nation’s clothing trends.

Men in the French Army “wouldn’t allow women to wear uniforms until late in the war…the argument for this was that if French women…dressed in uniform like the American women then they would want the vote,” Cart stated. It would take two world wars for female suffrage to be actualized in France.

Adjusting to shortages also meant that previous fashions went out of style. Mercifully, less restrictive garments like girdles and corsets fell into disuse—all in the name of patriotism.

The national shift from metal-constructed corsets to bras due to a paucity of materials actually resulted in enough steel to build two battleships during the course of the war.

“Their resolve became steel,” said Cart.

“It wasn’t a physical thing…but it was how they were resolved to help their nation survive.”

The exhibit is open to the public from September 25, 2020–April 11, 2021.

 

  • The wool jacket of a French Army artillery officer.
  • Black silk satin and tulle evening dress designed by French fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet.
  • French evening bag with beaded metal frame.
  • Dress of gold velvet with metal thread made by the couture label Liberty Paris 3 Boulevard Des Capucines.
  • Color lithograph by Théophile Steinlen of French women in mourning.

*All photos courtesy of the National World War I Museum and Memorial.