Wearable technology may be all the rage but wearable publicity is a lot more fun! I must be one of the luckiest of authors as I have had a scarf designed especially to accompany my latest book, Les Parisiennes; How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s. It’s a fabulous pure silk scarf made in Italy but dreamt up here in London by a brilliant young designer, Emma Greenhill. Emma offered to design the scarf as she started her fashion career in Paris and spent a year there working for John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld, really getting to grips with what it takes to create a Parisienne! Having learned that luxury matters, (she subsequently worked in fashion PR for many years for a variety of big names, most recently Hussein Chalayan), now that she is setting up her own company she is determined only to use luxury fabrics and has her scarves made in the same Italian factory that manufactures items for Gucci and Alexander McQueen – as you can tell as soon as you touch them.
It is entirely appropriate that she has made a luxury fashion item to accompany this book as being stylish, even during the Occupation when shortages were dire, was anything but trivial for Parisian women; they believed that looking your best at all times was crucial initially as a way of showing support for their husbands and sons at the front, just as the magazines told them they must, but then, when defeat overwhelmed them, continuing to try and look their best as a way of not succumbing to their German occupiers. It was even a form of resistance, to show that they had not been ground down, and it kept thousands of frightened and impoverished women employed in their ateliers, beading, attaching fur or inserting pockets and linings. So, when shortages of fabrics meant new clothes were almost impossible, women spent hours cutting down old clothes, sometimes the suits of their missing husbands, or turning two bags into one, covering wooden shoes with fabrics and creating extravagant creations on their heads that passed as hats. Many people commented on the vegetables, flowers and cascades of ribbons that now appeared on the brims of hats. So keen were Parisiennes to appear fashionable at all times that, even as they arrived in the brutal camp of Ravensbrück, the other women prisoners already inside muttered and whispered about “Those Frenchwomen”…one woman smuggled in a powder compact – an unheard of luxury – while another wore an Hermès silk scarf.
The beautiful limited edition scarf Emma has designed for Les Parisiennes has at its heart a woman on a bicycle since women in wartime Paris went everywhere on bicycles – private cars were impossible to maintain and there was no fuel. Yet, as women were legally not allowed to wear trousers at the time (too masculine!) many designers made a form of divided skirt or culottes, which were really trousers in disguise! There are many other symbols in Emma’s scarf such as the caged bird with plumage in the three colours of the French tricolour which was a brooch designed by Cartier to represent how Parisians felt during the Occupation. But, come the Liberation, the bird was freed as the cage doors were opened. As I wear my scarf I shall proclaim to the world Parisian women certainly know how to do fashion.
Les Parisiennes can be bought at all good bookshops and on line in all the usual places www.emmagreenhill.com to see a selection of Emma’s scarves.
In July, on Bastille Day, Weidenfeld & Nicolson will publish Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s. In October (in the book trade that’s considered simultaneous) St Martin’s Press in the US will publish Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died under Nazi Occupation.
Spot the differences!
This is not the first time that one of my books has been published simultaneously in the UK and US but I had assumed that since this book had been planned with and commissioned by both publishers together five years ago it would be the same product. Actually it is, exactly the same inside. But both publishers have chosen not only slightly different subtitles (one has the word Nazi while the other points to the fact that I have written about a whole decade) but very different jackets in which to clothe the words. Since I am constantly asked why, I shall try to explain!
The British cover tells a story. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower (just to make sure you know where this is happening), a slightly wary, elegant Parisienne is chatting up a German officer who, even from the back, looks highly relaxed. His head is sympathetically angled to one side and he has one foot perched on a ledge. What he is saying to her we can only guess at but this cover is so wonderfully evocative that everyone who handles it will want to know what on earth is happening and (I hope) have to buy the book to find out.
The American cover is more subtle but also features an elegant Parisienne, this time she is striding purposefully towards a shelter perhaps, or a doorway protected by sandbags, but into where? This cover too has an air of mystery and needs some explanation. Paris, once defeated in 1940 was declared an ‘Open City’ which was the deal between Vichy and the Nazis which prevented it being attacked by the Germans and saved its most iconic buildings and bridges. But the sandbags were put in place in 1939, when there was huge fear of German bombings, and largely not removed until the Liberation even though it was unlikely that the Allies would bomb civilians when they needed to concentrate their fire power on German and other targets. By 1944 however the Allies considered they had to bomb strategic targets in the vicinity of Paris and there were of course civilian casualties.
When I was first shown the UK cover (yes, authors are consulted!) I was worried the picture was almost too good and therefore must have been staged or even doctored. But, as I should have realised, the truth is always more interesting. It is a genuine photograph by Roger Schall who was given special permission to take pictures in occupied Paris (others were not and if your were caught with a camera there were serious consequences). He had also published during the Occupation several books of views of the monuments of Paris and of France, under the imprints of Verlag Schall, Odé and Kremer with captions in German and obviously directed at a German audience. According to a French museum curator, Catherine Tambrun at the Musée Carnavalet, Schall was probably paid by the Germans to take photographs during the Occupation and the most obvious destination for such photographs would have been the German propaganda magazine Signal. He used his talent to survive. Is it worse than a vegetable seller?
This is another kind of deal, then, and as my book tries to make clear, surviving in Paris was for almost everyone, dependent on doing some kind of deal. After the war this was often punished as collaboration and it was assumed there was a sexual element to many deals. Sometimes there was, but it was rarely as clear cut as that. I have tried over the last few years to understand where the line between survival and collaboration should be drawn and it shifts constantly. I think my two covers lead you enticingly and with great style into that debate.
“This is a valuable book, not least because it doesn’t shy away from the physical misery of women’s lives — the indignity of having a period in camps with no sanitary protection, the abortionists who were put to death under Vichy while prostitution was legal, the children who died because their mothers were too weak to breastfeed. Although Sebba salutes the bravery of Les Parisiennes, such as Geneviève de Gaulle, who made great sacrifices to resist the enemy, she is careful not to condemn the ones who chose simply to survive. ..To read this book is to admire female bravery and resilience, but also to understand why the scars left by the Second World War still run so deep.”
Caroline Moorehead in the Literary Review described it as “Sebba’s book, with its phenomenal amount of detailed research and its vast cast of characters, is rich in stories about the tricks of life under occupation, the heroism of those who carried out acts of defiance, the slipperiness of collusion and the vast profits made by fixers, contacts, middlemen and entrepreneurs. She is particularly good on the fashion world and the scheming equivocating social luminaries…”
Read Clare Mulley’s review of Les Parisiennes in the Spectator: http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/keeping-up-appearances-in-1940s-paris/
(June 2nd 2016)