Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI

A Special Exhibition at the National WWI Museum and Memorial – September 25, 2020 to April 11, 2021 in the Wylie Gallery

The First World War exploded in the late summer of 1914. Armies took the field in bright uniforms. Navies steamed to sea flying the colors of their nations. It was supposed to be over by Christmas, but it was not. For the ensuing years of global war until the peace treaty was signed on June 28, 1919, most history has centered on battles, leaders and empires.

Throughout this time and even today, a largely unrepresented population in the histories were and are women in all belligerent countries during the war. Life went on, deeply affected by loss of loved ones and normal lives and war destruction, but still with hope for peace. French women, like others, worked in war industries, in agriculture, in nursing and in transport. The women volunteered, struggled for suffrage and equal pay and respect. In some countries, women also served in military duties. In France, recent scholarship has shown that the survival of women’s fashion also played an important role in life during the Great War. Women’s fashion needed to adapt to the necessities of new actions, scarcity of materials and ever-present societal morale needs. The fashion industry, particularly in France, responded.

This special exhibition, Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI, is presented by the National WWI Museum and Memorial from September 25, 2020 to April 11, 2021 in the Wylie Gallery. A previous iteration, entitled French Fashion–Women, the First World War, was organized in 2019 by the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York.

The Museum and Memorial’s exhibition builds upon the excellent research, graphics and assistance they provided in the greater context of the war and women’s efforts as interpreted by the nation’s WWI Museum and Memorial. The basis for these American projects was the 2017 exhibition, Mode & Femmes 14-18, organized by the Bibliothèque Forney, Paris, France. That exhibition was curated by Maude Bass-Krueger and Sophie Kurkdjian.

Silk and Steel features original dresses, coats, capes, hats, shoes, uniforms and accessories. Topics presented include the evolution of the war-time silhouette, Parisian designers during the war, military uniforms’ influence, women’s uniforms in France and America, women’s war work, the economics of fashion and post-war emancipation.

Original clothing and accessories are on loan from the Kansas City Museum; Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection, University of Missouri, Columbia; Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, and the Preservation Society of Newport County, Newport, Rhode Island. Original historical material from the National WWI Museum and Memorial includes clothing, accessories, military uniforms, archival documents, photographs, original posters, armaments produced by women and French fashion images and periodicals.

From the fragile silk of dresses and unyielding steel of armaments to the women’s work and sacrifice, the history of this war is made of wide cloth and many hands.

You can learn more about this exhibition at

–By Doran Cart, Senior Curator

About The Author: Contributing Writer


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