Essay: Haute Couture Under Occupation

by Amy de la Haye on 1 July 2020

Fashion and dress historian Professor Amy de la Haye explores how the heights of Parisian haute couture fared under Nazi occupation during WWII when workers were persecuted, resources were scarce and exports were forbidden.

Fashion and dress historian Professor Amy de la Haye explores how the heights of Parisian haute couture fared under Nazi occupation during WWII when workers were persecuted, resources were scarce and exports were forbidden.

On 14 June 1940, German troops marched into Paris and occupied the City of Light to immediate and devastating effect. In keeping with the fashion theme of this series, I explore the impact of Nazi diktat upon the Parisian haute couture industry, its designers and the collections they created in the ensuing four years of occupation. I conclude by looking at how, once liberated, this fabrics-starved industry mobilised itself–pre-Christian Dior’s seminal 1947 'New Look' collection (which required masses of fabric)–to reassert Parisian fashion supremacy in the post-war period when resources were still limited.

Within days of the occupation's start, many international designers left Paris: Schiaparelli set off for a lecture tour of America but kept her salon open; Molyneux and Creed returned to their London houses and Mainbocher and Charles James re-established themselves in New York. Chanel closed her fashion house but kept her lucrative perfume and cosmetics boutique open; during the occupation she lived at the Ritz Hotel, which had been requisitioned by senior Nazi officers, with her lover Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Meanwhile, many thousands of highly skilled Jewish workers, and minority groups including people who would now identify as LGBTQ, who were engaged in fashion and its ancillary trades throughout Europe, were to have their businesses shut down or taken over. They were persecuted and murdered. Dispensation was made for some Jewish fur workers, however, as the German armed forces required their specialist skills to make warm apparel for soldiers fighting on the Russian front.

Photographer unknown. Advertisement for Schiaparelli (cosmetics) oils, 1943. Elsa Schiaparelli left Paris for a lecture tour of America but kept her fashion house and boutique, which sold accessories, perfumes and beauty products open. By May 1941 she had opened a salon in New York. (T34-52284)

Nazi ideology denounced Paris fashion and the slender feminine bodies it idealised as decadent and corruptive to noble and ‘natural’ Aryan women, furthermore imports were deemed detrimental to the German domestic economy. Adolf Hitler extolled the nationalistic virtues of German regional dress, including dirndl dresses, and women in uniform; both of which were made on German home soil. Yet he was enamoured by the glamour and cultural cachet of the Parisian haute couture industry that drew royalty, aristocrats, celebrities and plutocrats from around the globe to its gilded salons. Hitler thus determined to relocate the industry to Berlin as part of his broader plan to make the German capital the centre of world culture. Haute couturier Lucien Lelong, in his capacity as President of the trade organisation the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, was summoned to Berlin to discuss logistics. After much persuasion and diplomacy, Lelong managed to convince the Führer that this highly specialised industry could operate only within the cultural milieu of Paris, not least because of its dependence upon the nation’s specialist ancillary trades – milliners; bag, gloves, belt, umbrella and shoe makers; silk flower, button, and corset makers; passementerie (braid, tassels, ribbon etc.) firms; embroidery houses; dyers, specialist pleating firms; luxury textiles industries and jewellers. Hitler reluctantly conceded that the industry could remain in Paris, but would henceforth operate within Nazi regulations and that all exports–that were vital for the Parisian fashion industry's income generation– would cease with immediate effect. From that point, communications with the outside world were severed and Paris no longer communicated the latest trends to the rest of the world.

Bernard Blossac fashion illustration of Paris daywear, Art Galery 1943, left to right: Madame Charpentier, Lucien Lelong, Robert Piguet, Worth, Balenciaga and Paquin (T77-17286)

The Parisian couture scene was made up of around 85 houses, including Balenciaga, Bruyère, Jean Dessès, Jacques Fath, Madame Grès, Lanvin, Lelong, Patou, Paquin, Robert Piguet, Nina Ricci, Marcel Rochas and Worth. Henceforth, their new clientele comprised the wives and lovers of Nazi officers, other collaborators and wartime profiteers, who–along with very wealthy French women–were required to apply for special dispensation passes in order to place orders. In spite of the shortages and restrictions placed upon luxury materials (the houses were permitted to use just 50% of the material they used pre-war), fashions created under the new regime were extravagant. Hats were tall, and silhouettes relatively short (hemlines were just below the knee) but fulsome: rounded shoulders were heavily padded; extra-wide bishop or batwing sleeves were caught into tight wrist bands; peplums on jackets and dresses were popular; waists were cinched in tightly and draping was often asymmetric. Stylistic statements, which consumed additional quantities of fabric such as pleating and bows, were concentrated in one area.

Madame Grès (born Germaine Émilie Krebs, also known as Alix Barton and Alix), famous for her neo-classical Grecian pleated evening gowns, presented a defiant collection made in the red, white and blue colours of the French flag - a brave and patriotic act, which saw her business temporarily closed down in 1942. When luxury materials were no longer available, the designers decorated their apparel using cellophane, wood shavings and paper. By 1941, French leather stocks, which had been re-directed to make boots for German forces, were virtually depleted and so civilian shoes were made with chunky wooden wedge soles. By February 1943, just 47 houses remained in business, and the following year the Nazis decreed that the bi-annual collections which had typically featured 100 models, be reduced to feature only 60.

André Delfau fashion illustration tear sheet (source not known) for Paris evening wear 1943. (Z86-50522)

As ever, haute couture remained the preserve of a tiny minority–significantly less than 1%–of women. Throughout the occupation the French nation as a whole suffered extreme shortages and many people were utterly destitute. Whilst for the general population a coupons system was put in place for buying new clothing, all of which was made according to strict style regulations that ensured economy of fabrics and labour, many people still simply could not afford new clothes. As ever, the second-hand market flourished and old clothing was re-purposed. La robe mille morceaux (the dress of a million pieces) fashioned from multi-coloured patchworked fabrics was a popular and stylish option. Some of these are so striking and beautiful they might be likened to abstract paintings.

On 25 August 1944, the German garrison surrendered the French capital to Allied forces. Coco Chanel was arrested and held for three hours but, following intervention by her friend the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was released and took refuge, with von Dincklage, in her Lausanne residence. She would remain in exile until she presented her ‘comeback’ collection in 1954. Other couturiers, to varying degrees, were considered to have supported the regime: Jacques Fath and his model wife were, for example, often photographed attending Nazi receptions. Collaboration is a contentious and complex subject, which is still the subject of much debate. At the time immediately following liberation, many designers claimed to have designed collections that made their clients look ridiculous. Retrospectively, historians have variously interpreted the wartime activities of the Parisian haute couture industry as collaboration, or a necessary survival strategy that ensured the livelihoods of some 12,000 workers and a unique industry.

A view through selected pages from the original Théatre de la Mode catalogue.

Throughout the war, London and New York, which each had established luxury fashion designer-led industries in the 1920s and ‘30s, developed their own distinctive label and national fashion identities, each metropolis hoping to lead international fashion in the post-war period. But, the Parisian haute couture industry was not about to let this happen! While confronted with severe shortages of luxury materials, designers nevertheless helped seal Parisian fashion supremacy by staging the Théâtre de la Mode (March 1944), a travelling charitable exhibition of 237 wire-frame fashion dolls, each 70cm tall, clad head-to-toe in exquisite, fully accessorised, miniature ensembles designed for summer and winter. These were choreographed in hauntingly beautiful and fantastical tableaux designed by avant-garde artists Christian Bérard and Jean Cocteau. After touring Europe and America in 1952, Théâtre de la Mode was acquired by Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington.

A page from the original Théatre de la Mode exhibition catalogue, showing the wire frame dolls against a wire silhouette Parisian skyline.

While the fashion capitals of the world are not currently under occupation, the coronavirus pandemic has forced a reduction in resources - namely labour, as people can no longer work alongside one another for fear of contagion. This has, as a result, transformed fashion conception and production. While we have not yet seen plans for a return of the Théatre de la Mode dolls, designers have taken to the digital in order to maintain their place in the fashion pecking order, much like the couturiers of old, creating digital environments, press days, fashion films and CGI to keep customers allured and reassured.

A page from the original Théatre de la Mode exhibition catalogue.



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