During the Occupation, even Communists had regarded Parisian fashion as a weapon of resistance. Lise Deharme, the Surrealist hostess, wrote in Les Lettres françaises: ‘Yes, true Parisiennes were supremely elegant during the four years; they had the elegance of racehorses. With a tear in the eye but a smile on the lips, beautiful, perfectly made-up, discreet and insolent, they exasperated the Germans. The beauty of their hair, of their complexion… their slimness as opposed to the fat ugliness of those overgrown trouts packaged in grey [the German servicewomen], yes, that provoked them. These Parisiennes were part of the Resistance.’
Haute couture had emerged from the war in much the same shape as the elegant Parisian women: slimmed to the point of emaciation, but still defiantly maintaining the standards of French taste and craftsmanship. Yet if the Germans had had their way, the French fashion industry would not have survived at all. In August 1940, they warned Lucien Lelong, head of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, that all the great French designers, plus the skilled workers of their ateliers, would be transferred to Berlin. With their knowledge and expertise, Berlin and Vienna would become the centres of fashion in the New Europe, while Paris dwindled into insignificance.
‘You can impose what you will by force,’ wrote Lelong in response, ‘but Paris’s haute couture is not transferable, either en bloc or bit by bit. It exists in Paris or it does not exist at all.’ This was not merely spirited talk. The industry employed some 13,000 skilled artisans. The fabrics and trimmings they worked with were the product of highly specialized workshops that had developed in France over generations; it would be impossible to transfer an industry so widely spread and so deeply rooted. The Germans were forced to agree, but they were still determined to break the power of Paris fashion. The industry was forbidden to export its goods. Each major fashion house could produce only forty models in each collection instead of 150 and was subjected to the severest rationing of cloth. Many folded during the Occupation, but the industry did not die because there was still a demand for its work. It is often supposed that the principal customers for luxury clothes were the occupiers themselves; yet the ration cards known as cartes couture,issued to buyers, proved otherwise. The Germans took only 200 per year out of a total which dwindled from 20,000 in 1941 to 13,000 in 1944.
At the Liberation, Lelong called for a comité interprofessionnel d’épu-ration for the couture industry. The committee looked into fifty-five cases of collaboration, most of which had to do with textile handling rather than the running of the great couture houses. It was a remarkably mild épuration, for one simple reason. Rich women all over the world, particularly in the Americas, were willing to pay a fortune for fine clothes; and France was desperately short of foreign currency.
French haute couture, however, was no longer in the commanding position it had enjoyed before the war, when fashion was dictated from Paris. American designers in particular had found their own style and expanded their markets in the four years they had been cut off from France, and they had been encouraged by the belief that Paris haute couture was dead. After the Liberation, something had to be done to show the world that the vitality of French fashion was as strong as ever and that it was ready for business.
In the autumn of 1944 an idea arose which was to relaunch the French fashion industry in a most spectacular way. The spark, curiously enough, came from Entr’Aide Française – an umbrella organization for French war charities. Its president, Raoul Dautry, suggested that the couture industries put on a fund-raising exhibition.
Robert Ricci, the son of the designer Nina Ricci and head of the Chambre Syndicale, recognized the idea as a wonderful opportunity. The exhibition could display the first post-war Paris collection (spring and summer, 1945) in miniature, modelled on dolls. French dressmakers had always used exquisitely dressed dolls to show the courts of Europe the latest styles from Paris; but the dolls for this very special collection must be entirely new and unexpected. The design for the new dolls was entrusted to Éliane Bonabel, barely twenty but already known for her illustrations in Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit. They were made entirely of wire, looking more like modern sculptures than toys, and the Catalan sculptor Joan Rebull was commissioned to make plaster heads for the figures, which he insisted should remain free of make-up.
Christian Bérard was appointed artistic director of the exhibition and he gathered together a remarkable group of artists to paint backdrops for the models. Among the painters, sculptors and set-designers involved were Bérard’s lover Boris Kochno, Jean Cocteau, Grau-Sala, Georges Geffroy, the young André Beaurepaire, and Jean Saint-Martin, who specialized in wire sculptures and had made the dolls from Éliane Bonabel’s design. All gave their services free.
The image that was to unify the whole exhibition came from Ricci: ‘I finally had the idea of a little theatre in which each of the artists would construct a set and we would put on the stage dolls dressed by the couturiers.’
Each couture house had to produce between one and five models. Christian Dior is thought to have been responsible for two of the miniature dresses presented by Lucien Lelong, for whom he worked as designer. With their nipped-in waists and full skirts, they stand apart from much of post-war fashion, which had not yet shaken off the war years.
The couture houses set to work with a will. Throughout that winter, in freezing studios, seamstresses, shoemakers, milliners and glovers warmed their fingers every few minutes over candle flames and plied their craft in miniature, and such was the rivalry between the couture houses that no trouble was too great. Patou had one fabric specially woven so that it would fold properly on the model. The striped fabric on a Carven dress called ‘Sucre d’orge’ was cut up and resewn to make the stripes sufficiently small.
The exhibition opened on 27 March 1945 at the Pavillon de Marsan of the Louvre, and was accorded such importance that the Garde Républicaine, en grande tenue, formed a guard of honour on the opening night. Over 100,000 people came to see the exhibition over the following weeks. Most of them had had no new clothes since 1939 and haute couture was way beyond their means. Yet the numb, grey years of the Occupation had made them thirsty for colour and luxury, and the effect of these beautifully dressed wire dolls in their fantastic settings was magical. Some of the sets were Surrealist, but most were firmly Parisian. The centrepiece was Christian Bérard’s theatre, the stage and boxes of which were thronged with dolls dressed in the most elaborate evening gowns, sparkling with jewels by Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Underneath the satin and chiffon, some of the dolls had even been given silk underwear.
To go with its fashions, ‘Paris always has to have a current beauty who is the rage,’ wrote Bettina Ballard of Vogue. Gloria Rubio arrived in Paris in the summer of 1945, and was immediately ‘the rage’. She was Mexican, and was dressed by Balenciaga, a designer known for a certain dramatic elegance that bordered on the vampish. For the next year she was very much on the social scene, and had the added attraction of being between husbands. She was in the last stages of divorce fromher German husband, Count von Fürstenberg, and was engaged to the Egyptian Prince Fakri. (She later married the English millionaire Loel Guinness.)
The importance accorded to those in fashion came as a revelation to Susan Mary Patten when she planned one of the first charity balls in post-war Paris in the summer of 1946. Dark and pretty, Susan Mary was intelligent, entertaining and very well read. She and her husband, Bill Patten, had a great many friends, both Parisians and among the diplomatic community.
The ball was to be in aid of the orphans of war-torn Lorraine. She booked the Pré Catalan, a restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne, hired an orchestra and sent out tickets for a masked ball, thinking that people would willingly buy them for such a good cause. One of her French friends told her she was mad: ‘No one is going to come to anything in this city for a good cause unless it’s fashionable, and you aren’t fashionable.’ Aghast, Susan Mary begged Diana Cooper for help. Diana said she would talk about it everywhere and they would visit the dressmakers. ‘Reboux, Schiaparelli, Lanvin, Balenciaga were our first stops,’ wrote Susan Mary. ‘At each one Diana asked, “Could I please see the models for the masks for the ball at the Pré Catalan? I’mterribly sorry to be so late; you must be running out of materials already.”’ No couturier dared admit he had never heard of it and ‘the bluff paid off. Two weeks later we were oversold and a nice little black market in tickets had started.’
Gambling had always been one of France’s most lucrative tourist attractions, whether on the sea at Cannes, Biarritz or Deauville, or at the inland spa towns, where the casino was compensation for the austerities of a health cure.
All gambling clubs had been closed during the war, both in the occupied and unoccupied zones; and after the Liberation casinos in France were refused materials for repair, as priority had to be given to housing. Ironically, one of the first to apply for a return of its gaming licence was the casino at Vichy. Its application was based on the grounds that a certain number of its former staff, prisoners of war and deportees, were in ‘urgent need’.
Most casinos did not open until the spring of 1946, and then only after mayors, members of the National Assembly or prefects had written to the Minister of the Interior begging for his intervention to save towns whose only natural resource was tourism. The time was ripe, for the devaluation of the franc in December 1945 had acted as a powerful incentive for foreigners to come and spend money in France. Couture had never been so reasonable, and what they saved on clothes they would spend at the tables. The country’s desperate need for foreign exchange was the best argument against Communist attacks claiming that ministers were in the pockets of casino owners.
The most enthusiastic, and the most silent, supporters of the revival of gambling were the big black-marketeers. Casinos offered the easiest way to launder large amounts of money. Before French casinos reopened, these men and women would travel to Monte Carlo with a suitcase full of grubby notes, and return with a pristine cheque from the Société des Bains de Mer and an unbreakable story that their fortune came from a lucky streak at the tables.
In the years following the Liberation, racing was more controversial than gambling, since it attracted the rich French in a very public display of money and fashion while casinos catered more to foreigners. The racing correspondent of one newspaper denounced as scandalous the fact that racegoers – or turfistes, as they were called in the popular press – were running up restaurant bills of 10,000 to 12,000 francs for lunch. He also declared that ‘the paddock is overrun by the cream of the collaboration’. Guy de Rothschild recorded in his memoirs that ‘the owner of an important racing stable had his face publicly slapped at Longchamp by a man who was, moreover, not entirely irreproachable himself. A few years after the war, the same owner had the luck to win the Arc de Triomphe two years running; fearing the hostile reaction of the crowd, he didn’t even dare to leave his box.’
The first presidential inauguration of the Fourth Republic took place on 16 January 1947. Nobody wanted to be president more than Vincent Auriol, the Socialist from the south-west who joked about his Languedoc accent. Auriol had been so nervous about the outcome of the election by the Assembly that he had hardly stopped touching wood.
It was freezing on the day of the inauguration, but the sun was out. That night the Élysée Palace was illuminated, and the floodlit tricolour above it was flown for the first time in seven years. On 11 February, President Auriol gave the first large reception held since the war. The palace was brightly lit, some thought too brightly; the women wore very formal dresses, but the men were in dinner jackets rather than tail coats. The most crowded room was the dining room.
Auriol was a bon vivant Socialist who took such pleasure from the trappings and the traditions associated with the office of president that the Communist minister François Billoux dubbed him ‘l’intoxiqué de l’Élysée’. He had a strong sense of the dignity of his new position. At the first meeting of the Council of Ministers, Jules Moch, an old companion-in-arms from the Socialist Party, turned to him and addressed him by the familiar tu.
‘Allow me,’ replied the President of the Republic, drawing himself up in his chair, ‘to make the observation to Monsieur le Ministre des Travaux Publics that…’
The new President was also passionately fond of shooting and trout fishing, and whenever ambassadors arrived to present their credentials the talk soon turned in that direction. He was determined to improve the presidential shoot at Rambouillet, which for him was one of the most enjoyable perks of his position.
February marked the start of the spring collections. It was always an exciting time, and the shows at the different maisons de couture were announced in the press in far larger letters than any opera or exhibition. And 1947 saw the emergence of a new designer, Christian Dior, who was to change the direction of fashion overnight.
Bettina Ballard described Dior as a ‘pink-cheeked man with an air of baby plumpness still about him, and an almost desperate shyness augmented by a receding chin’. On 12 February 1947, the day he was due to present his first collection, he arrived early at 30 Avenue Montaigne, a beautiful hôtel particulier with an ornamental doorway which framed an awning on which his name was written in discreet black lettering.
The house was in a frenzy of activity. Workmen were still tacking down the carpet, and people ran around with armfuls of fresh flowers for the reception rooms. Behind the scenes, the mannequins tried to calm their nerves by concentrating on their make-up. The main salon and the little one beyond were crammed with gold chairs. On each chair was a name card, every one of which represented hours of minute adjustment so that every fashion editor and important guest should feel not only that they had been correctly placed, but also that they were sitting next to people of equal rank with whom they were on good terms.
No attempt had been made to drum up publicity, but Dior had powerful friends such as Comte Étienne de Beaumont, Marie-Louise Bousquet, Christian Bérard, and Michel de Brunhoff of Vogue. All had recognized Dior, from his work at Lelong, as a designer of prodigious talent. This had stirred up a great deal of excitement and curiosity about Dior’s new fashion house. The crush was so great that some people even attempted to get in through the top of the house with ladders.
At half past ten, with the salons full to overflowing, all was ready. Having greeted his guests, Dior escaped to the sanctuary of his office to endure his agony of nerves as far from the catwalk as possible. The very first model to step out was so agitated that she stumbled; and once off-stage she dissolved into mascara-blackened tears and was incapable of making another entry. But as each new dress appeared it was greeted with gasps of admiration and applause. Members of Dior’s staff kept bursting into his office to report each new success; but he could not quite believe what had happened until he emerged, to be given a thunderous standing ovation. Among the most enthusiastic was Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar. ‘Your dresses have such a new look!’ she exclaimed – and so the name was born.
The clothes looked simple, but they were extremely complex in construction. The most famous dress of his first collection was ‘Bar’: a white shantung jacket, nipped in at the waist and exaggerating the curve of the hips, above a wide black pleated skirt. Dior’s favourite dress in the collection, however, was called ‘Chérie’: beneath a tight bodice and tiny waist, the skirt consisted of yard after yard of white faille. A rumour went round that Dior’s backer, Marcel Boussac, actively encouraged Dior’s extravagant use of cloth to boost his textile sales. Dior always hotly denied it, and pointed out that Boussac dealt mainly in cotton – a material for which he had very little use.
The impact of the show was astonishing, and reached far beyond the world of fashion. One old regular of the Jockey Club, M. de Lasteyrie, remarked that he had never heard a couturier’s name mentioned on the premises in the forty years he had been a member, but now ‘on ne parle que de Dior’.
Balmain, like Dior, had spent the early part of the war in the unoccupied zone, in his native Aix-les-Bains, where he had met Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. After they had returned to Paris, Balmain and Dior worked side by side, designing all the clothes that the house of Lucien Lelong produced, for Lelong himself never pretended to be a designer. Dior wrote: ‘Neither Balmain nor I will ever forget that Lelong taught us our profession, in spite of all the restrictions of wartime and the constant fear of sudden closure.’
In 1945, Pierre Balmain left Lelong to found his own maison de couture. His first collection was pronounced fresh and imaginative. Although not particularly avant-garde, the opening show was graced by the presence of his friends from Aix: ‘Gertrude Stein with her familiar cropped head, and Alice B. Toklas with her dark moustache, sitting in the seats of honour watching the pretty striped numbers go by, noting them meticulously on their cards with the same intensity of interest as they had noted the Matisses or Picassos that had passed through their lives’.
Susan Mary Patten went to Dior’s first collection, and, as one of the vendeuses had become a friend of hers, ‘I was allowed into the fitting-rooms afterwards to try on some models. This was more dangerous than entering a den of female lions before feeding time, as the richest ladies in Europe were screaming for the models, shrill cries of “WHERE is ‘Miss New York’? I had it and someone has stolen it right from under my eyes!”’
Daisy Fellowes, on the other hand, did not have to fight with the crowd in the Avenue Montaigne – the clothes which everyone desired so desperately came to her at the Ritz. ‘She is living in the most magnificent apartment on the first floor,’ wrote Duff Cooper, ‘and there vendeuses from Dior were showing her dresses and drinking her champagne. It was an exhibition of great wealth.’
The conspicuous extravagance of Dior’s clothes was offensive to those for whom the war had meant five years of misery. ‘People shout ordures at you from vans,’ wrote Nancy Mitford to Eddy Sackville-West, ‘because for some reason it creates class feeling in a way no sables could.’ Just how offensive was proved by a photographic session organized in March 1947, which was designed to display Dior’s clothes in typically Parisian surroundings. Among the obvious settings such as the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées someone thought of a street market in Montmartre.
The clothes were dispatched to Montmartre in great wooden packing cases on board a camionette. The models changed into them in the back room of a bar. But when, proud and graceful, the first one walked out into the rue Lepic market, the effect was electric. The street sank into an uneasy silence; and then, with a shriek of outrage, a woman stallholder hurled herself on the nearest model, shouting insults. Another woman joined her and together they beat the girl, tore her hair and tried to pull the clothes off her. The other models beat a hasty retreat into the bar, and in a very short time clothes and models were heading back to the safety of the Avenue Montaigne.
Even in the conservative confines of the 7th arrondissement Dior clothes provoked some hard stares. Nancy Mitford was wearing her Dior suit when ‘a strange woman said would I excuse her asking but does it come from Dior? This was in the bistro I go to – and of course everybody knows about Dior’s prices. So I made up a sort of speech about how I saved up the whole war for a new coat etc.! But I know mine will soon be the same fate of l’élégante de la rue Lepique [sic]. Between the Communists and the ménagères one’s life is one long risk.’
But despite the disapproval of the great and the good, and the outrage of the poor, there was no turning back: the New Look was in such demand that it represented 75 per cent of the total export sales from France’s fashion industry for 1947. It was also relentlessly copied. ‘The London New Look made me die laughing,’ wrote Nancy Mitford. ‘Literal chintz crinolines. Apparently Dior went over: and when he reflected on the fact that he was responsible for launching it, he was ready to kill himself.’