Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society | June 12, 2019
Couture in Occupied Paris
By Emma Kelly
When we think of Parisian couture we often think of the work of Worth (the Grandfather of Haute Couture), Poiret, Vionnet and Chanel, key names of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not to mention their counterparts from ‘The Golden Age of Couture’ such as Dior and Balenciaga. The early years of the 1940s seems to have been overlooked to some extent. The occupation of Paris is an emotionally charged topic so one can understand why discussion of Parisian couture does not often touch upon this period.
Dominque Veillon, in her text ‘Fashion Under the Occupation’, paints an image of the lead up to the war in Paris stating, ‘At the end of August 1939 it seemed that summer would last for ever. There were storms but the weather was still hot, the sky barely tinged with grey. Men still wore their light suits and women their flowery summer dresses. They wore tiny hats on their heads, trimmed with foliage or ribbons, unless they were lucky enough to own one of those delightful hats decorated with feathers. For most town dwellers the holidays were drawing to an end.’(1)
Only a few short weeks later, on September 3rd, war was declared for the second time in almost forty years. On May 14th the Germans swept through the Maginot Line. Thousands fled from advancing Nazi forces who made their way to the capital, arriving to the depopulated city on June 14th. What followed was the armistice and the division of France into the German occupied zone and Vichy France. At the core of the German occupied zone was Paris, the pinnacle of art and design and the home of Haute Couture.
The Nazis had a plan to embrace the reputation of the city of light as their own. Lou Taylor states, ‘the provision of luxury ‘articles de Paris’ amusements and gourmet food were therefore allowed, but the Nazis intended that these would be turned to the benefit and pleasure of the Third Reich and their friends.’(2)
Included in this embrace was Haute Couture. Irene Gunther notes that the Nazis had two options when it came to Paris couture, ‘the eradication of Parisian couture, would mean the ultimate retaliation for tolerating years of French taunting about the total unstylishness of German women. It would also serve as revenge for enduring decades of French cultural supremacy in the realm of fashion. The second choice, seizing the french couture industry, might very well translate into large profits. The Nazis opted for the money angle.’(3)
What stood in their way was a group of designers, Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisian, ‘an employer’s syndicate, whose goal was to guard the interests of the high dressmaking profession’(4) led by Lucien Lelong (image 1). He was at the helm of the Syndicale throughout the occupation and in the aftermath of the liberation guiding the industry in the face of uncertainty, working tirelessly to maintain Parisian couture.
The main consideration of many who remained in the city was their staff, not only those in the houses such as the vendeuses and tailors but those beyond the city limits; the embroiderers, textile makers, weavers and printers. The fear of what would happen if a house shut down was too much for many to think about. As a result, throughout the occupation the Syndicale and the couture houses were involved in an uneasy relationship with the Nazis.
As the head of the Syndicale, Lucien Lelong attended fourteen official conferences with the occupier.(5) His role as mediator between the designers and the Nazis brought him up against those who now controlled his city and had his industry in their eye line. Lelong, through his meetings with the Nazis, was able to broker deals including the introduction of a card system. This card system was aimed at the customers of the houses, who were required to ‘obtain permission in the form of a couture card from a German authority and to pay a luxury tax on their purchases’(6) to purchase couture clothing from the Parisian houses. To have customers you needed houses and Lelong was able to have this card system increased to more houses. The number stood at ninety five at one point but was ‘decreased throughout the occupation’.(7)(8)
An ever present threat to the industry was a move away from Paris. The occupier sought to move the industry to ‘Berlin or Vienna, where companies would continue their work under the banner, names and auspices of German fashion’.(9) While the move never materialised, it must have been an ever present fear for those involved in the industry. Such a move would have had wide ranging consequences. Lelong argued against such a move stating that, ‘you can impose anything on us by force but Parisian Haute Couture will not budge either as a whole or bit by bit. It is Paris or its nowhere.’
At the end of the occupation in 1944 fashion journalists made their way to Paris , expecting the very worst. However, what they found was that the arrival of Nazi forces to the city did not see the industry crumble, rather, with somewhat depleted numbers in terms of houses and customers, it remained. Taylor states of the reactions of those who arrived, ‘the sight of young Parisienne in their pretty summer dresses and billowing skirts and hats caused a deep shock. The discovery by Alison Settle that at least one hundred fashion houses had kept running more or less intact through the occupation caused even more profound surprise.’(10)
In the months that followed Paris couture sought to reestablish itself, putting to rest any questions of collaboration. Having been absent from the international fashion circuit since 1940, the Autumn shows of 1944 provided Paris with the chance to show the world couture that was befitting of the situation Europe found itself in (image 2). Taylor discusses the situation couturiers found themselves in, saying, ‘Even stylistically the designers seemed lost in these years… they seemed to have lost their flair, turning out a jumble of directionless styles, some with bustles, some severe and tailored.’(11) It seemed that Paris couture was unsure of itself; it had fought for four years to stay open and producing clothing but here it was, outside of the bubble that was occupation and facing international scrutiny and fabric restrictions.
The Fashion Theatre or ‘Theatre de la Mode’ was created in 1944-45 and consisted of 12 scenes of Parisian life designed by artists, depicted on small scale sets which were filled with small dolls. These dolls were dressed in garments produced by couture houses (image 3). The Theatre was displayed in March 1945 at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris before embarking on a world tour, which included stops in Barcelona, London and Vienna. Little over three years later Dior presented his now famous collection, dubbed the ‘New Look’ by Carmel Snow, signaling a new age of couture, the actions of the recent past almost forgotten. The work of Lelong on behalf of the Syndicale has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by the glamour of post-war couture. Yet were it not for his work, the industry would not exist today.
1. Dominique Veillon, Fashion Under the Occupation (Oxford: Oxford Berg, 2002), 1.
2. Lou Taylor, Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader (London: Pandora, 1992), 128.
3. Irene Guenther, Nazi chic?: Fashioning Women in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford Berg, 2004), 209.
4. Guenther, Nazi chic?: Fashioning Women in the Third Reich, 65.
5. Taylor, Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader, 129.
6. Jonathan Walford, Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 144.
7. Walford, Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look, 144.
8. Walford, Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look, 146.
9. Taylor, Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader, 129.
10. Taylor, Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader, 135.
11. Taylor, Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader, 136-137.