It was called, with some hope, “the war to end all wars.” Not a chance. But as often happens when the world is otherwise engaged and men are at the front, W.W. I allowed women into public life and the workforce—which meant a radical change in the way they dressed. Gone the stilted corseting of the Edwardians. Functional clothes were crucial for women driving ambulances, nursing on the front lines, running the family business. The exhibition “French Fashion, Women, and the First World War” zeroes in on these improvised wartime uniforms, on society’s mixed messages regarding home-front fashion—be elegant but not frivolous—and also, for the first time, on how Paris couture adjusted to the war’s new realities.

“There was hardly any information on what happened to the fashion industry between 1914 and 1918,” says Maude Bass-Krueger, who co-curated the show with Sophie Kurkdjian. “And yet fashion underwent tremendous changes between 1910 and 1920. Many books simply stated that the fashion industry ground to a halt” during the war, “but the fashion industry was in fact robust, and the war was a catalyst for transformations.”

Women couturiers rose to new prominence. Couture design, extremely cumbersome and constructed before the war, now became comparatively streamlined. The industry devised new strategies to replace the diminished native market. Even America pitched in: it was during the war that Condé Nast launched the first European edition of Vogue.

La Baïonnette, a lithograph by French illustrator Paul Iribe, 1917.

Of the many pieces never before exhibited in this country, a Lanvin “Madame” dress from 1917 says it all. “The dress is made from just one fabric, silk crêpe, and the decoration comes just from the Cornely-machine embroidery,” says Bass-Krueger. “Pre-war dresses were made from many different kinds of fabric, with lots of ornate decoration. The dress also has pockets. The colors of the dress and embroidery are red, white, and blue—very patriotic. The dress is so modern you feel you could easily slip it off the mannequin and wear it today.”

Slip it on, slip it off, women’s fashion would never be the same. —Joel Lobenthal