1914 marked a violent transition between worlds which saw the unleashing of forces that ultimately saw the end of the stable and orderly political, social, and economic European-dominated world order. The events of the First World War ultimately led to a near-complete reordering of political, social, economic and cultural institutions that saw the elimination of the certainties of the prewar world and more importantly, it shattered people’s belief in a world that was constantly improving and becoming a better place for all.
As with other institutions, fashion was deeply affected by the war and the evidence can be readily seen in the shift in silhouettes away from the structured forms that had dominated fashions since the 19th Century. More profoundly, the war saw the introduction of more utilitarian designs in response to women’s changing role in society. Women were now increasingly working outside of the home, primarily in response to labor shortages due to men going off to war, women were increasingly working outside of the home and fashions evolved in response. At the same time, fashions changed in response to outside forces such as materials shortages and changing social attitudes. Finally, it must be noted that many fashion trends that occurred during the First World War did not represent a complete break with the past; many fashion trends we see during the war were a continuation of trends which had been developing from about 1908 on.
So what were some of the basic style details trending in 1914? First, the most obvious is that hemlines were significantly higher than anything previously. Since the early 1900s, hemlines (mostly in daywear) had been steadily moving up, starting with the ankle and moving up to the lower leg. Second, clothing had evolved towards a less structured silhouette with the introduction (or rather re-introduction) of the empire line/Directoire style. Also, this trend towards a more flowing, looser look was also inspired by Oriental fashions and the draped clothing of Classic Greece.
To begin, here are some typical day dresses from various sources. First, we start with some fashion plates:
And for some extant examples:
Below is a day dress from 1910:
And another day dress from c. 1914 – 1915:
And finally, one from c. 1915:
For evening/formal wear, one can see a variety of new designs to include the return of the empire/Directoire style:
The influence of Orientalism can be seen here:
So by 1914 the perfectly sculpted, corseted figure created by the s-bend corset had disappeared and while clothes still retained some structure, that structure came from the clothes themselves, rather than from the undergarments. However, to be sure, structured undergarments were still worn but the effect tended to be more subtle and not so obvious.
One other significant trend was the movement away from the hobble skirt. Originally developed by Paul Poiret around 1908, the hobble skirt with it’s narrow skirt was visually appealing but severely inhibited the wearer’s movement. Below is just one example of the controversial hobble skirt style from 1910:
Later, the more extreme features of the style were somewhat mitigated by various designers by including hidden gussets and various other contrivances in an effort to restore practical movement yet maintain the style. Jeanne Paquin was noted for including incorporating hidden pleats at the bottom of her dresses to allow for more fuller movement, such as with this dress:
Finally, to conclude, here are a couple of humorous views of the hobble skirt trend:
For the fashion world in France, the outbreak of the war in 1914 was a catastrophe. With the country mobilizing for war and Paris under threat from the advancing German armies, there was mass economic disruption and the bottom fell out of the luxury goods markets resulting in mass layoffs and many of the great fashion houses either closing or scaling back their business. With the Battle of the Marne eliminating the threat German to Paris, the war settled into a long-term affair and the fashion industry was able to recover by by contracts for the production of uniforms for an expanding French Army.
The preceding survey is just a small has been a brief one and we are admittedly painting with an extremely large brush. However, we want to emphasize that fashion never exists in isolation from the rest of society and that it is subject to the influence of world events. For the fashion world, the First World War marked a definite and final break with the past. In future blog posts, we’ll further explore these themes so stay tuned.