Catherine Bergin: Wartime Fashion
Varian Fry, an American tasked with helping political refugees out of France, arrived in Spain with the aim of making contacts to facilitate this objective. In his suit case, Fry carried secret messages in everyday innocuous items including tubes of toothpaste but it was not these messages that worried him. When he reached the comfort of his Spanish hotel, inside almost every item of clothing in his suit case were notes from his secretary in France reminding him to bring back soap.
When we think of war, we think of battles. Rarely do we think of the everyday mundane concerns experienced by those living through these experiences. And yet in order to better grasp and deepen our understanding of the past we must not dismiss what we may consider ‘trivial’ every day concerns. This became particularly clear to me when going through French wartime newspapers. I started off my research that summer morning in 2012 with the aim of tracing a British military campaign through the collaborationist press (German controlled newspapers) and comparing coverage with the resistance press. That was how the day started… it certainly didn’t end that way. Somewhere along the line I got lost in the fashion pages of a notorious collaborationist newspaper, Les Nouveaux Temps. It was certainly not my intention but let me tell you the style! As my imagination began to wonder back to the period of occupation, I began to see in my minds eye a French woman (and committed resister) picking up Les Nouveau Temps in disgust at the rubbish it was spouting about the war but secretly flicking to its back pages to get the latest updates on current fashion trends. In a world without soap, clothing and shoe rations, French style became a world of making do and innovation.
While circumstances did not permit me take pictures of the fashion images in Les Nouveaux Temps I would like to take the opportunity to share some photographs gathered from various other online sources.
Here are some of my favourites …
Check out the hats!
As historian Donimque Veillon noted, with the shortage of clothing milinery became increasingly important.
A French wedding dress made out of Allied parachutes …
Just so no one thinks that this interest in style was a purely French phenomenon, the Imperial War Museum have published a number of British wartime-related fashion articles written by Laura Clouting and Amanda Masson. Here are some of the images Clouting and Masson collected:
The handbag gas mask
And just in case you thought that the adult ‘onesie’ was a modern phenomenon, here is one specially designed for women spending time in air raid shelter.
Both the resourcefulness of women and the fashion industry’s response to the war merits, at the very least, some admiration. Overcoming fashion problems and daily difficulties inspired ingenuity. And in case anyone seeks to trivialise the importance of fashion just remember that the armed forces, including the Allies, were aware of the danger posed by a glamorous woman! A particular famous poster warned men to ‘Keep Mum- she is not so dumb!’
Equally, women engaged in resistance activities often took care of their appearance and used it to their advantage. One such woman, Nancy Fiocca, frequently arranged dates with German guards she met at checkpoints, none of which she kept.
This is but a short light piece on fashion but it is important not to dismiss such concerns as trivial. Fashion trends can often sum up the social and political interests, innovations or limitations of a generation.