“The invincible spirit of France has been nowhere better mobilized than in its brave couture.”
— Women’s Wear Daily, May 1917
WWI exploded in the late summer of 1914. Armies took the field in bright uniforms. Navies steamed to sea flying the colors of their nations. For the ensuing years of global war until the peace treaty was signed on June 28, 1919, most history has centered on battles, leaders and destruction.
Throughout this time of global upheaval and a devastating war primarily fought by men, women around the world actively responded to the tumult by accepting, and at times actively pursuing, new responsibilities and roles. French women, like others, worked in war industries, in agriculture, in nursing, in transport, for suffrage and equal pay and respect. In France, recent scholarship has shown that the survival of women’s fashion also played an important role in life during the Great War. Women’s fashion needed to adapt to the necessities of new actions, scarcity of materials and ever-present societal morale needs. The fashion industry, particularly in France, responded.
This special exhibition, Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI, is presented by the National WWI Museum and Memorial from Sept. 25, 2020 to Sept. 6, 2021 in the Wylie Gallery. A previous iteration, entitled French Fashion, Women and the First World War, was organized in 2019 by the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, N.Y. This exhibition, Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI, builds upon the excellent research, graphics and assistance they provided, including most of the large subject and theme labels that have been adapted. The basis for the American projects was the 2017 exhibition Mode & Femmes 14-18 organized by the Bibliothèque Forney, Paris, France. That exhibition, as well as the exhibition at Bard Graduate Center Gallery, was curated by Maude Bass-Krueger and Sophie Kurkdjian.
Silk and Steel features original dresses, coats, capes, hats, shoes and accessories. Topics presented are the evolution of the war-time silhouette, Parisian designers during the war, military uniforms’ influence, women’s uniforms in France and America, war work, economics of fashion and post-war emancipation.
Original clothing and accessories are on loan from the Kansas City Museum; Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection, University of Missouri, Columbia; Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka and the Preservation Society of Newport County, Newport, R.I. Material from the National WWI Museum and Memorial includes clothing, accessories, military uniforms, archival documents, photographs, original posters and French fashion images and periodicals.
Period French designers shown include Callot Sœurs, Madeleine Vionnet, House of Worth, Maison Complier & Rondeau and Hermès.
French Fashion, Women, and the First World War was organized by Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York. An initial iteration of this exhibition called Mode & Femmes 14–18 was presented at the Bibliothèque Forney in Paris by Bibliocité.