French Fashion, Women, and the First World War — on view at Bard Graduate Center Gallery September 5 — is an unprecedented examination of the fraught and dynamic relationship between fashion, war, and gender politics in France during World War I. Women mobilized to keep the French economy afloat, as did the clothing industry (the second largest economic driver in France at the time). The fashion press promoted Paris’ leading female designers — Jeanne Paquin, Jeanne Lanvin, and Jenny Sacerdote — intensively. Paquin, Lanvin, and Sacerdote were smart businesswomen prior to 1914, and the war only enhanced their dominance on the international scene. Among Paris’ rising couturiers was Gabrielle Chanel, whose simple, elegant designs helped her rise to prominence during the war and whose jersey skirt suits captured the zeitgeist of this new era.
With its diverse range of clothing and ephemera, from the exquisite to the quotidian, this exhibition brings into sharp focus the relationship between fashion and war, and how fashion reflected social change and became the locus of male anxiety in the face of rapid social upheaval. What role did fashion play in the disjunction between the horrors of the front experienced by French soldiers, resulting in almost 1.5 million dead, and the reality of life in wartime, in which women worked valiantly to provide for their families and contribute to the war effort? Can the endless critical discourse around what women wore, how they wore it, and the anxieties it provoked explain the stilted progress of women’s emancipation in postwar France, where women did not gain the right to vote until 1944?