Color lithograph by Theophile Steinlen of French Women Mourning
Color lithograph by Theophile Steinlen of French Women Mourning, 2020.23.1d, museum collection

When the first World War exploded in the late summer of 1914, armies took the field in bright uniforms and navies steamed to sea flying the colors of their nations. 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, a largely unrepresented population in the histories were women in countries involved in the war. Women worked in war industries like agriculture, nursing and transport, while engaged in the fight for voting rights, equal pay and respect. In France, recent scholarship has shown that the survival of women’s fashion also played an important role in keeping up morale, maintaining ties with allies and even helping the war-time economies.

“Silk and Steel: French Fashion, Women and WWI” features original dresses, coats, capes, hats, shoes and accessories from period French designers including Madeleine Vionnet, House of Worth and Hermès. From the evolution of the war-time silhouette, the influence of military uniforms and post-war emancipation, this exhibition provides a new chapter of the history of the war at the Museum and Memorial. Presented by PNC Bank, “Silk and Steel” will run through September 6, 2021 in the Wylie Gallery of The National WWI Museum and Memorial (Kansas City).

Black silk satin and tulle evening dress
Black silk satin and tulle evening dress designed by Madeleine, Paris. The Preservation Society of Newport County, RI
French Army artillery officer's wool dolman style short jacket, 1914
French Army artillery officer’s wool dolman style short jacket, 1914 theme Military Uniform influence, 2014.22.1
Lion Head Shell Art
Unknown maker, Lion Head Shell Art, c. 1918, brass shell casing, 8 3/4 x 3 1/2 x 4 3/4 in., National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City
Petit point French evening bag with beaded metal frame
Petit point French evening bag with beaded metal frame and chain link strap Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection University of Missouri 2018.17.9_01 U of M
Illustration of women at work
Theme Women at Work AM-W-22_1920.1.259, Museum collection

“The war effort had an all-encompassing impact on societies, but the role of women is often overlooked,” says Dr. Matthew Naylor, President and CEO of the National WWI Museum and Memorial. “Through the lens of French fashion, this exhibition exposes us to the many ways that women were full and equal participants in the Great War. It is an engaging examination – and the collection that will be displayed is truly remarkable.”

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