Women in World War I "La Victoire" Dress Silks

A few weeks before the armistice that ended the fighting in World War I was signed in November 1918, an innovative American silk manufacturer, H.R. Mallinson & Co., Inc., headquartered in New York City, dedicated a new group of printed dress silk designs to France “as a tribute of appreciation of the debt of honor we all owe to this wonderful country...”  The designs were titled: “The Scouts,” “Marines and Camouflage,” “Chasseurs,” “French Harvest,” and “Guard Mount.” Titled La Victoire (Victory), this first series proved so successful that new designs were added to it after the Armistice, in conjunction with the Peace Conference being held in Paris: series II designs included “Minerva,” “Dove of Peace,” “Garden of the Trianon,”  “Arc de Triomphe,” “Women of the Allied Nations,” “Allied Soldiers at Versailles,” and two versions of a popular French good luck charm design called “Nennette and Rintintin.” 

The museum’s curator of textiles at the time, F.L. Lewton, recognized their importance, and requested that the manufacturer donate lengths of both series of the La Victoire silks. A letter from Lewton to Mallinson’s Art Director in January 1919 stated: “These will be installed within a few days so that the public may have the privilege of enjoying them and appreciating the significance of the designs while the Peace Conference is going on in Europe.”

The war’s impact lingered in the minds and memories of those who had lived through it. For the first anniversary of the Armistice in November 1919, Mallinson’s offered two commemorative designs: “Pershing Orchid” (for American general John Pershing) and a garland design called “Begonia Gloire de Lorraine.”  A Fall 1920 series was inspired by “...woodlands made famous by the recent war...pictured in soft autumn colors,” such as the Argonne, Monthiers, and Bois de Meuse. These had all been the scenes of terrible battles, but the silk designs depicted them as they had been before the destruction of the war. The 1920 series also included an exuberant print in celebration of the hard-won peace, called “Armistice Day.” It depicted “showers of confetti and swirls of paper...in artistic confusion against a plain dark ground.” (Neither of these later sets of designs are represented in the NMAH collections).

The silks were used by custom dressmakers, home sewers, and ready-to-wear manufacturers to make dresses, blouses, hats, and scarves, and to line coats and suit jackets. Mallinson’s silks were not inexpensive, but they had a reputation for high quality. The “French Harvest” fabric illustrated here, for example, cost about $4.00 per yard. A customer might purchase novelty designs such as these—very much “of the moment”—as a dress length of four or five yards if she were well-to-do, or just a yard or so, enough to make a blouse or scarf, if she had less money to spend on clothes but still wanted to appear up-to-date and patriotic.

In the 1910s and 1920s, many women still purchased fabric and took it to a dressmaker to stock their wardrobes. Ready-to-wear clothing was still an uncertain commodity, although by the end of the 1920s it would be far more important as an industry than custom clothing. But in the days when a woman chose the fabric for her clothing, selecting a design from the La Victoire dress silks gave a woman who did not yet have the right to vote a way to make a statement of personal and political interests and loyalties in a socially acceptable, feminine manner.

Credit for the written content of this section goes to Madelyn Shaw from the Division of Home and Community Life.