PRINT Summer 1991


“Le Théâtre de la Mode”

WHEN I WAS A GRADUATE STUDENT AT YALE, a professor asked me about the subject of my dissertation.

“It’s about fashion,” I said.
“That’s interesting,” he replied. “Italian or German?” Was he talking about Armani? Did he consider Karl Lagerfeld a German designer? Finally the light dawned.
“Not fascism,” I said. “Fashion. As in Paris.”
“Oh.” Without another word, he turned and walked away. Clearly, fashion was not a serious subject.

To juxtapose fascism and fashion might seem doubly frivolous, but “Le Théâtre de la Mode” (The theater of fashion), a recent exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, indirectly illuminated the range of human reactions to war and dictatorship. It should be made clear that the exhibition was not primarily “about” fascism; it did not focus on the clothes promoted by the various fascist regimes. There were, for example, none of the black berets that some French fascists wore in emulation of the SS. But to anyone interested in the history of the 1940s, les années noires and their aftermath, the show provided food for thought.

Allied forces liberated Paris in the summer of 1944, ending the four-year Nazi occupation of the city. Within a matter of months, a group of artists and designers working together with the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne began to organize a fashion exhibition to raise money for French war-relief organizations. Because of a shortage of materials and money, it was decided to show miniature couture fashions by designers such as Balenciaga and Madame Grès which were displayed on 30-inch-high doll-like wire mannequins.

The exhibition came to the United States in 1946, and after it was dismantled, the fashion dolls ended up at the Maryhill Museum of Art, in Goldendale, Washington. No one in France knew what had become of them until 1983, when plans were set in motion to restore the dolls and to recreate the sets of the original 1945–46 show. Press reports about the new 1990–91 exhibition focused on the discovery of the dolls—a story that certainly has an intrinsic popular appeal, rather like the awakening of Sleeping Beauty.

But at least as significant is the exhibition’s subtext. Among the couturiers featured, for example, Coco Chanel was conspicuous by her absence. After the liberation of Paris, she had been arrested as a Nazi collaborator, and although she was soon released, she remained for many years under a cloud.

We may begin to feel that the French have finally, after almost half a century, begun to come to terms with the humiliating history of defeat and collaboration. It is now possible to discuss the Vichy regime without cant, although this may be largely because most of the players have died. Dominique Veillon’s La Mode sous l’Occupation (Paris: Editions Payot, 1990) is the first important French historical study to deal with the fashion of this period. Utilizing both French and German archival sources, Veillon goes far beyond earlier (often tendentious and self-serving) accounts about the realities of fashion under the Occupation. Veillon’s work is cited in the catalogue for the Metropolitan exhibition.

By placing the original fashion show within the context of the history of the 1940s, the organizers of “Le Théâtre de la Mode” showed a similar willingness to address hard issues. To this end, an introductory section displayed photographs from the Paris of the 1940s in order to show the influence of the war on the clothes that people wore. A photograph of a Jewish woman wearing a yellow star is, among other things, a clothing image. A fashion photograph of a woman wearing clothing appropriate for a bomb shelter testifies to the realities of modern warfare. Another fashion photograph shows a model posed next to a bicycle, automobiles having been largely requisitioned for the Nazis.

Until recently, most accounts of Paris fashion under the Occupation focused exclusively on the couture’s “resistance” to Germany. It is certainly true that the representatives of the French couture had to fight hard to keep the Nazis from implementing their plan to move the couture—lock, stock, and barrel—to Berlin. Both the Vichy government and the Nazi regime with which it collaborated recognized that the French fashion industry was a valuable financial resource, and they were at loggerheads about who would benefit from such a gold mine. But at least some French collaborators agreed with the Nazis that modern fashion was decadent, degenerate, and in need of immediate reform. Thus, the Vichy regime announced that the fashion image of the sexy, cosmopolitan Parisienne would be replaced by the image of the Frenchwoman as wife and mother. The peasant-style dress, for example, became one of the new, officially approved fashions. Conversely, women were strongly discouraged from wearing trousers.

The Italian fascists took a similar stance against the internationalism, artifice, and fantasy of fashion. Mussolini’s censors instructed the editors of fashion magazines not to show clothes worn on “decadent” slender figures, but rather to promote a new image of the “Fascist woman,” who was to be as “athletic and wholesome” as a peasant in simple, modest garments. But whereas the Italians and the Germans based their fashion nationalism in part on antiforeign sentiment, the French were under pressure to abjure the very idea of Paris as a cosmopolitan capital of luxury and pleasure. There was, however, considerable local resistance to any such fashion diktat.

Both during the Occupation and in the immediate aftermath of the war, widespread poverty and shortages meant that sartorial displays were severely curtailed in Paris. Yet despite this, many Parisians regarded it as extremely important for their own morale to try to look elegant and even fashionable. High, thick heels and towering turbans functioned as forms of sartorial defiance. If they had no leather for shoes, French women made creative use of wood, cork, and even raffia. They cut up curtains and recut the jackets and trousers of their absent menfolk, fashioning suits with broad shoulders and exaggeratedly short skirts. Because they often had to resort to homemade clothes in poor materials, style became even more of an issue.

The French experience of fashion during wartime differed significantly from that in America, and the Met’s curator, Katell le Bourhis, also included photographs illustrating the fashions of wartime America. Military uniforms were, obviously, prominent. A Japanese family being led to an internment camp wear identification labels, which are uncomfortably reminiscent of the stars worn by Jews in Nazi-occupied France. Among the most significant photographs are those showing Americans wearing “Victory Suits,” a style mandated by the government to conserve the fabric used for nonessential civilian clothing. In Great Britain, also, clothing was rationed.

American fashion designers responded with patriotic enthusiasm to wartime material restrictions by creating simplified clothing designs. “By contrast,” writes le Bourhis, “the French deliberately flouted far more severe restrictions and attired themselves in the most defiantly loud and flamboyant creations.” As she points out, French couturiers “responded to imposed restrictions on fashion by reducing the quantity of styles presented in their collections, rather than by forgoing their creative license in using what materials were available to them.”

When the Allied troups (and accompanying journalists) reached Paris in 1944, they were horrified by the elaborate fashions being created by the French couture. The American War Production Board attacked the French couture collections for being in “flagrant violation of the imposed wartime silhouette.” From the French perspective, of course, compliance with restrictions would merely have helped the enemy: leather not used for civilian shoes went to make Nazi boots, it did not help the patriotic Resistance. And after the liberation of Paris, the French were concerned with rebuilding the couture and other luxury industries, which formed an important part of their economy. But it was difficult to convince the Allies that French fashion was, in its own way, patriotic.

For many Americans, the 1946 exhibition represented their first sight of Paris fashion since 1939. The organizers of the exhibition sought to forestall any negative reactions from non-French viewers. “Let there be no misunderstanding on the part of those who are going to see these evocations of luxury,” insisted the French ambassador to London, when the exhibition opened there. “These beautiful objects are a labour of love on the part of the Paris midinettes who made them with frozen fingers in their famished city.” Or as the catalogue text put it: “There is more than one meaning to French Resistance.” On one level, this seems a threadbare self-justification. But it is also true that, unlike the English and Americans, the French have never seen fashion as a “useless” frivolity, to be jettisoned in “serious” times. On the contrary, it is precisely at those times that fashion is most necessary.

Among the artists/designers in the Met’s exhibition, two stand out: Christian Bérard and Jean Cocteau. Bérard’s set depicted a theater, seating several dozen mannequins in beautiful evening clothes. It thus recreated one of Paris’s most important fashion arenas, where audience members traditionally became not only spectators but also fashion performers.

Far and away the most striking set, however, was the garret room designed by Cocteau. Inspired by René Clair’s 1942 film I Married a Witch, it showed several evening-gown-clad figures grouped about a swooning bride in a wedding gown by Marcel Rochas. Above them was the broomstick-riding witch, about to exit from one of several gaping holes in the roof, through which could be seen photographs of the rubble-filled city below. On one level merely a mild Surrealist fantasy, Cocteau’s set was, on another level, the only one that acknowledged the fact that Paris had recently been a war zone. “This picture of a devastated room where elegant figures continue to move in style can be regarded as a symbol . . . even the reason for this Exhibition,” announced the text of the original catalogue. “France has suffered greatly from the war and the Occupation. . . . But her creative genius is intact. That is all she wishes to prove by a manifestation such as the Theatre of Fashion.”

In 1947, the international success of Christian Dior’s “New Look” would prove just how hungry women all over the world were for new, luxurious, and defiantly frivolous fashions. Although the war years had given the American fashion industry a chance to develop independently, the practical and comfortable innovations of American sportswear designers were soon overshadowed by the revival of the French couture. Indeed, le Bourhis convincingly argues that “the New Look succeeded because it was anti-everything reasonable.”

Although many leftists and feminists are inclined to regard fashion as a negative force, in need of reform or even abolition, it may also be viewed as a powerful force for individuality and creative expression. Long before the Nazis came to power, there had existed a conservative dress reform movement in Germany, which urged women to abandon “unhealthy,” “lascivious,” and “artificial” fashions—and to go back to Kinder, Kühe, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). It took a totalitarian state apparatus to enforce this anti-fashion mandate. And even then, as the exhibition shows, women fought a rear-garde action in favor of fashion. Defiantly chic Parisiennes and an army of WACS buying lipstick and French perfume formed a community of women with minds of their own.

When Yves Saint Laurent did a 1940s collection in 1971, it was criticized by many who wanted to forget the harsh exigencies of the war years. But there is something heroic about maintaining glamour even under a reign of terror. Just as the French Revolution established the importance of liberté and egalité, so also did later generations insist on the liberating power of frivolité.

Valerie Steele is the author of several books on fashion, including Women of Fashion, which will be published this fall by Rizzoli.