FASHION IN THE 1910s

Between 1910 and 1920, fashion began to loosen up. French designers like Paul Poiret encouraged the trend after 1907 by designing women’s clothes for an uncorseted figure. Their clothes were softer in line and followed a woman’s body rather than forcing the body to conform to clothing as previous designers had done.

Within a few years women could finally throw away their corsets–underwear garments with long laces that were pulled until a woman’s body was held in a tightly defined silhouette, then tied to keep it that way. Needless to say, corsets could be uncomfortable. Meant to control how a woman moved and stood, they could, if too tightly laced, restrict her breathing, even her eating. Yet, many women found them comfortable and women of all classes wore them to conform to the fashion of the day.

There had been a movement since the mid-nineteenth century to abolish corsets. By 1900, women were wearing at-home gowns, sometimes called tea gowns, with minimal corseting and a long, slim shape. Between 1908 and the end of the 1920s, the tubular silhouette, with its emphasis on slimness and the natural motion of the body, remained fashionable

During the First World War (1914-1919), great changes came to couture. Paul Poiret and other fashion designers were called into the military and their couture houses closed. Wartime prevented commerce between France and the United States and, although the French silk industry remained in operation in Lyon, its clientele in the couture disappeared into the army along with many of its weavers.

As male designers were off defending France, a young female designer came of age. In 1915, Gabrielle Chanel was in the West of France, out of the combat zones, producing hats and designing loose-fitting chemise dresses with belts at the hip. By 1916, she was making casual pleated skirts from the practical Rodier wool jersey that before the war had been restricted to men’s underwear, and topping them with sailors’ sweaters–in the mode of the sportswear that had begun to appear earlier in Vogue.

In the face of wartime shortages, Chanel’s practical but expensive jerseys seemed an instant modern classic, appealing to wealthy clients because they made the rich look young and casual. By contrast, the designs officially promoted by the French government, which considered it essential that its fashion houses be supported throughout the war, looked dated.

Throughout the 1910s, there was a trend in some circles toward so-called peasant, or native-dress, motifs. Embroidery designs from native European dress found their way onto couture gowns, as did smocking and brightly colored fabrics. The designers of the early twentieth century and their clients were experimenting in the new century.

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Think about the pace of change in today's fashion industry. How long do styles last?