If you’re not a fashion tragic, you may be tempted to skip this exhibition of la mode in France during World War I. But even if you’re not ga-ga over gowns, don’t dismiss it – it goes well beyond its brief to provide an intriguingly fashion-skewed insight into the era from a rare, female perspective.
Mode & Femmes 14/18, at Bibliothèque Forney in the Marais until June 17, includes some nice vintage frocks, sure. But it also tells some fascinating stories you may not have heard before. Like that of the midinettes (couture workers) who, in 1917, started a strike for better conditions that became the biggest Paris had known at that time, with over 130,000 men and women taking to the streets. (Striking, too, is a poster passionately demanding that women should be paid a wage equal to men’s. Plus ça change!)
There were 600,000-odd widows created by the war, not including the ‘white widows’, unmarried young women who lost their fiancés at the front. All were expected to follow the era’s strict codes of mourning (two years for the loss of a husband) – a challenge if she also had to find a way to support herself, with pensions being less than generous. And of course, the fashion industry of the day was ready to cash in on this explosion in the market for gowns in black.
It’s clear from the exhibition that wartime in a pre-feminist era was a minefield. Chic Parisiennes were derided for being too frivolous, while women who joined the workforce out of need or opportunity were accused of being ‘too masculine’. But what to do when you take a factory job and there’s no uniform for you because women have never done this job before, so you have to wear a man’s? The prism of fashion becomes a looking glass through which we can see more clearly the contradictory demands made of women, especially when times were tough.
The explanatory panels are in both English and French and, besides the wartime outfits on display, there are posters, postcards, photos and contemporary newspapers and catalogues illustrating the fashion and the themes. If your French is up to it, it’s well worth timing your visit for the free guided tours every Saturday at 3pm. This is the kind of exhibition you enter thinking ‘I just want to see the inside of this incredible building’ (admission is free), and leave two hours later, having sacrificed a decent chunk of early spring sunshine and feeling like it was a deal well made.
Bibliothèque Forney, 1 rue du Figuier 75004 Paris
Tuesday-Saturday 1pm-7.30pm (from 10am Wednesday and Thursday)
Bonus gift: The setting for the exhibition is within the L’Hôtel de Sens, one of Paris’ rare surviving medieval buildings. Built between 1475 and 1519 by an archbishop, it was rented out up until the Revolution (one of its more illustrious tenants being Queen Margot in 1605). It was extensively renovated between 1929-1961 and is in pristine condition – apart from the cannonball lodged in the facade to commemorate a battle waged here during the 1830 Revolution.