With Dresses, Capes and Flair Kansas City’s National WWI Museum Explores How The French Spirit Mobilized Fashion
A new exhibition, Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI, uses the lens of fashion to examine how the war impacted women’s domestic lives and created new opportunities.
Trench warfare. The Battle of the Somme. Air-to-air combat among pilots, made legendary by the Red Baron. Those are likely images that come to mind at the mention of 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 curate a new exhibition, Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI, he recalls his first thought: “This is really out of my wheelhouse.”
“I’m a lot more used to talking about uniforms, and machine guns, and cannons, and things like that,” Cart says. “But as I got really into the purpose of the exhibition it became a lot clearer. It wasn’t just about the war, it was about the people.”
Silk and Steel opened at the museum on Friday, featuring dresses, capes, coats, and accessories from French designers, such as Hermès. The exhibition explores changing war-time silhouettes and women’s uniforms in France and America.
“The war effort had an all-encompassing impact on societies," says Dr. Matthew Naylor, the museum’s president and CEO, "but the role of women is often overlooked."
Women took on active duties during WWI -- in nursing, agriculture, and transportation. At the same time, many were lobbying for suffrage and equal pay. In France, the fashion industry stayed at the forefront, adapting to the scarcity of materials and societal changes.
“Recent scholarship has shown the survival of women’s fashion also played an important role in keeping up morale, maintaining ties with allies, and even helping the wartime economies,” Cart says.
“As Women’s Wear Daily wrote in May of 1917: ‘The invincible spirit of France has been nowhere better mobilized than in its brave couture.’”
About half of the material on view, including clothing, accessories, military uniforms, archival documents, photographs, posters, and French fashion images and periodicals, comes from the museum’s own collection.
One poster from the collection, titled “Women in Wartime,” shows three women in different roles -- reflecting changing norms and tradition.
“We see this woman engaged in agricultural work, on the left side, we see a woman involved in factory work, perhaps munitions,“ says Camille Kulig, the public programs specialist at the museum. “And then centered here we have the role of woman as mother. And that being centered is no coincidence.”
Dresses range from the stylish to the functional.
Visitors will see a black silk satin and tulle evening dress with elaborate beadwork designed by Madeleine Vionnet. A marigold velvet dress with a drop waist. And an American Red Cross dress for a woman based at a rest station, which is, as Kulig puts it, “loose-fitting to fit the work they were performing.”
Curator Doran Cart dipped into the museum’s extensive collection of shell art -- brass shell casings collected from battlefields decorated as souvenirs.
“This might seem incongruous in an exhibition on fashion during the war,” Cart says, “but I found two images that were created on the used artillery shells that showed women’s fashion for part of the decoration.”
Two shells are placed in the center of a glass case in the exhibition. “The small shell, on the left, shows a young woman embracing her homecoming soldier with her very fashionable shoes,” Cart explains. “And the larger one, on the right, pictures a French woman with a diaphanous short dress.”
This exhibition builds on the research and themes of a 2019 exhibition, French Fashion-Women, the First World War, organized by the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York; and a 2017 exhibition, Mode & Femmes 14-18, organized by the Bibliothèque Forney in Paris.
Original clothing and accessories are also on loan from a handful of other sources, including the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, the Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and the Kansas City Museum, which is scheduled to re-open in 2021.
“We were lucky in that we had a strong women’s auxiliary who began collecting historic costumes and textiles from the very beginning of our existence in 1940,” says Denise Morrison, director of collections and curatorial services at the Kansas City Museum, “so there is a wealth of clothing and accessories we’ve been collecting for 80 years.”
Morrison adds, “And it’s always great to give the community a chance to see it.”
COVID-19 slowed down plans for the exhibition opening since some of the loans were not available, says Cart, as museums were closed and not staffed. The National WWI Museum and Memorial reopened in June, with expanded cleaning protocols and new hand sanitizing stations. Visitors are required to wear face masks, consistent with Kansas City regulations.
To sum up the exhibition, Cart says it “shows that, from the fragile silk of dresses to the unyielding steel of armaments, to the women’s work and sacrifice, the history of this war is made of wide cloth and many hands.”
Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI runs through April 11, 2021, at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, 2 Memorial Drive, Kansas City, Missouri. (816) 888-8100.