Trench war. Battle of the Somme. Air-to-air combat between pilots, made legendary by the Red Baron. That’s a picture that might come to mind when we mention World War I – not fashion.
So, when Doran Cart, senior curator at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, was approached to organize a new exhibition, Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women, and World War I., he remembered his first thought: “This is totally outside my wheelhouse.”
“I’m more used to talking about uniforms, and machine guns, and cannons, and things like that,” Cart said. “But when I really understand the purpose of the exhibition, it becomes much clearer. This isn’t just about war, it’s about people. “
Silk and Steel opens at the museum on Friday, featuring dresses, robes, coats and accessories from French designers, such as Hermès. This exhibition explores the silhouettes of war times and the changing uniforms of women in France and America.
“The war effort has a far-reaching impact on society,” said Dr. Matthew Naylor, president and CEO of the museum, “but the role of women is often overlooked.”
Women took active duty during World War I – in grooming, agriculture, and transportation. At the same time, many are lobbying for equal suffrage and wages. In France, the fashion industry remains at the forefront, adapting to scarcity of materials and social changes.
“Recent scholarships have shown the viability of women’s fashion also plays an important role in preserving morale, maintaining relations with allies, and even helping the wartime economy,” Cart said.
“As Women’s Wear Daily wrote in May 1917: ‘The spirit of France that is invincible has been mobilized better than in bold fashion.'”
About half of the materials on display, including clothing, accessories, military uniforms, archival documents, photographs, posters and pictures as well as French fashion magazines, come from the museum’s own collections.
One poster from the collection entitled “Women in Wartime” shows three women in different roles – reflecting changing norms and traditions.
“We see this woman engaged in agricultural work, on the left, we see a woman involved in factory work, maybe ammunition,” said Camille Kulig, a public programs specialist at the museum. “And then centered here we have the role of women as mothers. And being centered is no accident. “
Dresses range from stylish to functional.
Visitors will see a black silk satin and tulle evening gown with intricate beads designed by Madeleine Vionnet. Marigold velvet dress with drop waist. And American Red Cross dresses for women living in rest stations, which, as Kulig puts it, were “loose to fit the work they do.”
Curator Doran Cart dips into the museum’s extensive collection of shell art – brass cartridges collected from the battlefield decorated as souvenirs.
“It may seem out of place in a fashion show during the war,” Cart said, “but I found two images made on used artillery shells that show women’s fashion as part of the decoration.”
Two shells were placed in the center of the glass case at the exhibition. “The little shell, on the left, shows a young woman hugging a soldier coming home in very fashionable shoes,” explains Cart. “And the larger one, on the right, depicts a French woman in an unusually short dress.”
This exhibition is built on the research and theme of the 2019 exhibition, Fashion-French Women, First World War, organized by the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York; and exhibition 2017, Fashion & Women 14-18, organized by Bibliothèque Forney in Paris.
Original clothing and accessories are also borrowed from several other sources, including the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, the Missouri Historical Costume and Textiles Collection at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and the Kansas City Museum, which is slated to re-open in 2021.
“We are fortunate that we have strong female helpers who started collecting historic costumes and textiles from the very beginning of our existence in 1940,” said Denise Morrison, director of collections and curatorial services at the Kansas City Museum, “so there is a lot of clothing and accessories that we have. collect for 80 years. “
Morrison added, “And it’s always great to give the community a chance to see it.”
COVID-19 is slowing down plans for opening exhibits because some loans are not available, Cart said, because museums are closed and staffed. The National WWI Museum and Memorial reopened in June, with expanded cleaning protocols and a new hand sanitizer station. Visitors are required to wear face masks, according to Kansas City regulations.
To conclude the exhibition, Cart said it “shows that, from the fragile silk of dresses to the unyielding armament of steel, to the works and sacrifices of women, this war history is made of wide, multi-handed cloth.”
Silk and Steel: French, Women’s, and World War I Fashion lasts until April 11, 2021, at National PDI Museum and Memorial, 2 Memorial Drive, Kansas City, Missouri. (816) 888-8100.
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