In the summer of 1944, shortly after the liberation of Paris but as war still raged in the rest of the world, a group of French artists and designers dreamed up a bold and imaginative scheme to ensure Paris remained the capital of Haute Couture in the post-War world. Le Petit Théâtre de la Mode, or the miniature theatre of fashion, was an attempt to reassert the superiority of French designers and exclusive, custom made gowns over a style that had been developing during the war of comfort and informality. American designers had popularized trousers and shirtwaist dresses as a clean, straightforward sporty look for active American women of the day increasingly available as ready-to-wear.
As Paris was celebrating its new-found freedom from the Nazi occupiers, 1944 was for most of France a time of appalling food shortages exacerbated by hungry prisoners who now started trickling back only to find their homes looted or destroyed and loved ones missing or killed. In addition, many women accused of fraternising with German soldiers – what was allegedly termed collaboration horizontale – now faced brutal punishment without trial often involving head shaving and being forced, semi naked, into a humiliating parade around town.
It was in this febrile atmosphere that the designer Lucien Lelong, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, took urgent action. Four years earlier, in July 1940, he had already shown his mettle by standing up to the Nazis when five German officers arrived at his offices and demanded various files about the creation and export of Parisian designs. Hitler wanted to move the houses to Berlin to ensure that Paris was no longer the fashion centre of the world but Lelong, believing that he was defending not only a French workforce but French culture, insisted that Parisian haute couture was in Paris or nowhere. He went to Berlin to argue his case, insisting that the designers and workers would not be able to produce anything if they were removed from their familiar surroundings. He won that battle, saving a workforce of roughly 25,000 women, often seamstresses working in specialized fields of embroidery or beading, many of them Jewish refugees.
And so in 1944 Lelong, together with Robert Ricci, son of the couturier Nina Ricci, dreamed up a brilliantly original scheme harking back to an eighteenth-century practice of presenting fashion to the world by means of dressed dolls. The plan was to dress up 170 scaled-down figures, one-third of human size, made of wire with porcelain heads, in clothes fashioned by more than fifty of the great Parisian couture houses, including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Jacques Fath, Jean Patou and Elsa Schiaparelli, all desperate to revive their pre-war fortunes. Christian Dior was working for Lucien Lelong at the time. Some houses, such as Chanel, had closed down completely during the war while the American born Mainbocher and Schiaparelli had escaped to the US. The dolls, wearing real jewellery designed to scale by Boucheron, Cartier and Van Cleef, and lingerie that could not be seen but which was delicately stitched on, were mounted on sets created by designers such as Jean Cocteau and Christian Bérard. It was an entirely Paris-based initiative to reassert quickly the dominance of French fashion and was supported by France’s newly created Ministry of Reconstruction partly because, while the country’s economy was in ruins, it provided employment for the hundreds of ancillary seamstresses, beadmakers, craftsmen and artisans whose skills were so vital to the success of the textile industry and whose survival had been ensured by Lelong’s efforts in 1940. But it was also important as a way of bringing much needed dollars into the country – Americans had in the 1930s been major customers of some of the 70 registered Parisian couturiers – since rebuilding the shattered French industrial base was going to be much tougher and in the end would require assistance from the American-funded Marshall Plan, a recovery programme in which the United States gave more than $12 billion to help rebuild western Europe’s shattered economies.
For weeks everyone worked long hours often without heat, with frequent electricity cuts, which meant sometimes working by candle light, and meagre food supplies to create the tiny shoes, handbags, belts, gloves and bags, all meticulously crafted even from scraps. Top hairdressers were brought in to create elegant wigs from a mixture of human hair and glass thread.
The show opened at the Louvre in Paris on 28 March 1945, and was enormously popular, attracting more than 100,000 visitors, as well as raising a million francs for French war relief. At the end of the year it travelled to Barcelona, London and Leeds, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Vienna then, in 1946, moved to New York and San Francisco.
For many British women, whose wartime clothes had been guided by comfort, restraint and deliberately sober severity, such a lavish display, often impractical and overtly sexy, was perplexing. But French women had throughout the War taken a different attitude to fashion and for almost six years remained as fashion conscious as they could in spite of shortages of fabrics and materials, especially leather, as a way of retaining pride in their own identity and refusing to be humiliated by their conquerors. Most, admittedly, had never frequented couture salons other than to get ideas and then take a pattern to their own dressmaker, and did not do so now, but relied on their own creativity to look stylish.
But the war years, with German officers and their wives living in Paris, were good times for couturiers who, according to fashion historian Dominique Veillon, saw turnover in 1943 rise to 463 million francs from 67 million in 1941. Jacques Fath, who started trading as a couturier only in 1939, was able to increase the number of his skilled staff from 176 in 1942 (many of them drawn from other houses that had been forced to close) to 193 in 1943 and 244 in 1944. His pretty wife, Geneviève, was a key asset as she was not only photographed in his creations on magazine covers, such as Pour Elle in March 1942, but who also maintained the crucial business connections with the German purchasing office in Paris ensuring that Fath’s creations were reproduced and discussed in the French and German press. There were others in the fashion industry who maintained an equally opportunist, if not actively collaborationist, attitude by joining the Cercle Européen, an ideological centre for those who believed in Nazi ideas, among whom Marcel Rochas is the best known. Rochas had been suspect ever since he and Maggy Rouff agreed to present a private show to German dignitaries in November 1940.
The fashion magazines that managed to keep going continued to publish photographs of Parisian high society with details of what women were wearing at least until February 1943 when the Germans, not wishing to encourage an appetite for clothes its own women could not satisfy, finally banned the distribution of photographs of French fashion. Anyone wishing to buy haute couture after this could only do so with a special ration card which was given to a mere 200 German women and 19,015 French women. What really helped the couture houses survive during the war was not only the newly rich French ‘collabos’ and German officers visiting Paris – Göring, for example, reportedly ordered twenty gowns for his wife Emmy from Paquin – but the flourishing theatre and cinema which enabled some couturiers to branch out into stage costumes. From 1943 only actresses were allowed to buy long gowns.
“For the couturiers,” explains Veillon, “the cinema and theatre were a concrete means of proving what they were capable of doing despite shortages as well as a way of spreading their ideas.” Jeanne Lanvin, who designed costumes for Arletty in the great wartime classic Les Enfants du Paradis, and Maggy Rouff who created the outfits for Danièle Darrieux in Premier Rendez-vous, were two who particularly profited from both stage and screen.
By acting swiftly, le Petit Théâtre de la Mode with all its lavish creativity did its job of wooing post-war American women hungry for femininity, softness and French sophistication. After the final exhibition in San Francisco, the mannequins and their scenery returned to Paris and were packed away into boxes, forgotten in a Paris basement until 1952 when, thanks to the interest of a wealthy American philanthropist, they were acquired by the small Maryhill Museum in Washington, which undertook extensive restoration of the mannequins and their sets.
But the porcelain dolls had by then done their job. They had paved the way for Christian Dior’s extravagant ‘New Look’ in 1947 which enabled French couture to remain dominant until the 1960s when casual and comfortable American clothes finally started to fight back.
Les Parisiennes; How the Women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in July 2016