1914 – Couturiers Under Arms

On August 2, 1914, France formally began mobilizing its forces in response to Germany’s declaration of war. As part of the mobilization process, reservists were recalled to the Army and soon all of France was in turmoil as men reported to their pre-assigned deports and were issued their uniforms, arms, and equipment. One such reservist was Paul Poiret and on August 4 he reported for duty, having first closed his couture house.

Robes of Paul Poiret 1908

From “The Robes of Paul Poiret” (1908), illustrated by Paul Iribe.

When war broke out, Poiret was 35 years old and still had an outstanding reserve obligation so he very quickly found himself in uniform. By his own admission, he was a somewhat indifferent soldier when he had initially entered the Army in 1900 to fulfill his military service obligation, characterizing it as a complete waste of time (in 1900, all French males had a military service obligation of two years active service although under certain circumstances, some soldiers only had to serve for one year). But that was in peacetime; things were different now that a war was on and France was being invaded.

After a series of misadventures due to bureaucratic foul-ups, Poiret was assigned the task of working on the production of uniforms and one of his most notable achievements was creating a new design for a greatcoat that saved four hours of labor and nearly a yard of fabric. Moreover, Poiret was instrumental in setting up a production facility for producing greatcoats that employed many of his former employees who had been put out of work with the closure of Poiret’s fashion house.

1914 Greatcoat_Poiret

The P1914 Greatcoat, First Pattern (aka “The Poiret”). Poiret was instrumental in designing this coat and facilitating its production.

Ironically, when Poiret initially arrived at his regiment, his occupation was noted in military records as being that of a tailor- no doubt pigeonholed as a result of his work as a couturier- and set to work as a regimental tailor, responsible to ensuring that soldiers’ uniforms fit correctly to regulation. Ironically, he had no skill in this area and when he attempted to inform the military authorities, he was dismissed as a malcontent and trouble-maker (during this time, many fashion designers have little or no sewing ability and even today, this is common in the fashion industry).  Eventually, the situation was resolved but it added to Poiret’s dislike of the military.

vogue-1914-10-15-p44-poiret-enlisted-pic

Paul Poiret in uniform, Vogue, October 15, 1914

Poiret eventually re-opened his fashion house in 1919 but the damage had been done, both in terms of the direct effects of lost business and more indirectly in that he had become increasingly out of touch with fashion developments (four years is a long time in the fashion industry). Worse, Poiret had been unable to exercise much influence over developments in fashion and it simply moved on without him (most notably, new designers such as Coco Chanel were able to take advantage of wartime conditions to establish herself as a new force in the French fashion industry). Although Poiret was still able to create a number of striking designs during the 1920s, he was never able to achieve the over-arching prominence he had enjoyed prior to the war.

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