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Enterprise & Society 4.3 (2003) 559-561

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Dominique Veillon. Fashion under the Occupation. Translated by Miriam Kochan. New York: Berg, 2002. xi + 205 pp. ISBN 1-85973-543-6, $68.00 (cloth); 1-85973-548-7, $22.50 (paper).

In one of the dozens of vignettes that define her style, Dominique Veillon opens her superb history of French fashion under German occupation by painting a picture of Paris in the summer of 1939. The great designers were preparing to show their winter collections. They worried about Adolf Hitler but believed that couture had an important role to play in national salvation. "The more elegant French women are," wrote the editor of Votre Beauté, "the more our country will show people abroad that it does not fear the future" (p. 6).

The future, of course, brought war. The national mood dictated sober styles; women adapted their clothes and coiffures to gas masks and air-raid shelters—although the guests who huddled in the cellars of the Ritz Hotel during blackouts still wore Schiaparelli ensembles and stood on Hermès rugs. The sense of urgency faded, however, as the months of "phoney war" dragged on. By spring 1940, Paris culture had largely recovered its panache.

Invasion and surrender suspended fashionable activity, but Veillon finds that Parisians adapted with surprising speed to the boches, who replaced Allied soldiers at Fouquet's and Maxim's and swarmed across Paris buying up luxury items in a first, spontaneous act of German pillage. As the trauma of defeat and occupation receded, most of the couturiers reopened their houses, comforting themselves that their efforts gave work to thousands and buoyed the nation's morale. [End Page 559]

Thus infused with an appropriate new "sense of moderation and simplicity" (p. 23), the fall collections of 1940 "bore the hallmark of a sober and purified chic" (p. 34). Society dames found that true elegance had become more difficult, given the dearth of cotton, wool, and other materials. The majority of françaises worried more about staying warm and finding something comfortable to wear while riding around on the bicycles that became the chief mode of transportation under the Occupation.

By 1941 shortages began to bite hard, and the situation deteriorated steadily thereafter. Veillon uses footwear to trace the trajectory of decline. While the scarcity of leather forced French women to clop around on wooden soles, the Germans demanded the delivery of "4 million slippers" and "650,000 pairs of fashion shoes" (p. 46). By 1942 virtually no shoes were to be had, even with the vouchers that Vichy used to regulate consumption. The French tried to plug these gaps in material with fibranne and other ersatz fibers. Chic at first, these "articles nationaux" soon lost their novelty and became "intolerable" (p. 78).

In wartime France almost everyone faced the dilemma of "making do and looking smart" by recycling clothes and making the best use of the "meagre quota." Veillon draws a vivid picture of the "Système D" [Débrouillage: resourcefulness] that allowed the French to survive with flair, aided by suggestions from women's magazines and an impressive measure of ingenuity. Inventiveness sometimes produced "bizarre ideas and preposterous creations" (pp. 61-62) that clashed with Vichy ideology, which despised the decadent styles of the Third Republic. Designers searched for some "permissible brand of coquetry" (p. 130). But "moral" principles proved difficult to apply to everyday fashion, where they so often bumped up against practicalities. Trousers, for example, were officially proscribed, yet women wore them for warmth and convenience.

The most serious threat, Veillon points out, came not from scarcity but from German plans to hijack haute couture for the Reich. Here French designers dug in their heels in a rare display of obduracy and managed to keep the Germans at bay until the summer of 1944. Sadly, the industry put no equivalent effort into blocking the "Aryanization" of the disproportionately Jewish fashion trades. Indeed, the author remarks, the process caused "little shock" (p. 102) and produced a fair number of illicit fortunes.

Typically, none of their wartime behavior caused fashion makers much trouble...


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