When Paris was liberated in 1944, the city was on its knees. Within little more than a decade, it had regained its status as a world capital of unmatchable style, romance and allure.
The mood on the streets and the streets themselves had certainly improved a bit. But the really startling difference was to the city’s reputation. How did Paris manage such a stunning transformation in what we would these days call its brand image?
Paris after World War II – fact
Post World War II, France is broke, its economy on its knees, and over a sixth of all the buildings in Paris are in a seriously dilapidated state. In Paris: Biography of a City, Colin Jones reports that the wear and tear of decades of neglect are painfully obvious in smoke-blackened stone facades, cracked and untended stucco, and peeling paintwork. In Another Me, Ann Montgomery, who worked as a model in Paris, recounts that when she arrived there in 1954, “Much of Paris was still infected by a war-weary shabbiness that cast a despairing shadow over the grandeur of the ancient city.”
According to Antony Beever and Artemis Cooper (Paris After The Liberation) in April 1945 the city’s population averages only 1,337 calories a day. This overall figure hides terrible imbalances between the beaux quartiers and working-class districts where many, especially the old, virtually starve to death. And the truth is that there is a group of wealthy Parisians, diplomats and visitors living a life of luxury. Everyone else has to do whatever they can to look after themselves. The black market is in full swing.
There is a collective sense of shame at the way the country rolled over without a fight in the face of the Nazis. There is a settling of old scores, the most visible face of which is the meting out of summary justice: collaborators are executed or, in the case of women, their heads shaved. Increasingly politicized, Parisians stage public protests as often as celebrations.
In 1947, the year Christian Dior unveils the New Look, France is still suffering terribly from wartime shortages. There is little coal, and electricity is rationed. Daily circumstances for the average Parisian are not much better than they were during the war. That summer, Paris is paralyzed by an increasing number of workers’ strikes. The humorist S J Perelman describes his impressions of Paris during a trip that summer:
The food scarcity was acute, the cost of living was astronomical, and a pall of cynicism and futility hung over the inhabitants. Everywhere you went, you sensed the apathy and bitterness of a people corroded by years of enemy occupation.
In October of the same year, the San Francisco Chronicle reports:
The regular afternoon showings at the great couturiers are crowded with some wealthy French women; some members of the diplomatic set; some tourists, and many members of what is called “international society.” The girls who model the gowns are scrawny and petulant looking. The dresses themselves have never been so elegant nor so luxurious. One couturier makes it a business to feed his models. “I want them to look like human beings, not skeletons,” he said. “And, if they have enough to eat, perhaps they’ll smile,” he added hopefully.
Arthur Miller, another visitor, that winter observes:
The sun never seemed to rise over Paris, the winter sky like a lid of iron graying the skin of one’s hands and making faces wan. A doomed and listless silence, few cars on the streets, occasional trucks running on wood-burning engines, old women on ancient bicycles.
Rationing of bread continues until February 1948; coffee, cooking oil, sugar and rice are rationed until May 1949. Even foreign residents have to line up outside the town hall to get coupons for everything from food to clothes. Harper’s Bazaar’s “Report from Paris” in the autumn of 1949 opens, “In an atmosphere tense from the bitter strike in the dressmaking trades, the collections finally came off.”
Paris after World War II – fashion
21st century marketers seeking to launch or reposition a product or service look for “flagship attributes” – features that will grab headlines and capture people’s imagination. The flagship for the post-war renaissance of France in general and Paris in particular is fashion.
Why fashion? Because that’s what the city was synonymous with the before the war. The sector employs some 13,000 skilled artisans in such highly specialized workshops that despite their efforts the Nazis have failed to move it to Germany. France is desperately short of foreign currency, and rich women overseas, especially in the Americas, are willing to pay a fortune for their clothes. What’s more, couture is a high-profile and exportable manifestation of l’art de vivre for which France would like to stand.
In the summer of 1944, shortly after the liberation of Paris, led by Lucien Lelong and Robert Ricci, a group of French artists and designers develop a plan to enable Paris to recapture its position as the world capital of haute couture. They create 170 figures, each one-third the size of a real person, to display the first post-war Paris collections, complete with jewellery, designed to scale by Boucheron, Cartier and Van Cleef. The dolls are shown in a miniature theatre (Le Petit Théâtre de la Mode), with sets by the likes of Jean Cocteau and Christian Bérard.
The show opens at the Louvre in March 1945, and attracts more than 100,000 visitors, as well as raising a million francs for French war relief. The same year, it moves to Barcelona, London and Leeds, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Vienna before crossing the Atlantic in 1946 to New York and San Francisco. Meanwhile, the devaluation of the franc in December 1945 acts as a powerful incentive for tourists and buyers to come and spend money in France: couture has never been so reasonable!
The turning point comes in spring 1947 with the launch of Christian Dior’s New Look, his first collection. The lead up is chaotic. With less than two months to get the collection ready, an untried staff, and not enough space, work has to be done in corridors and on the stairs. A key workroom lady collapses with nerves and a model passes out in Dior’s arms at a fitting.
The turmoil and excitement carry over into the show itself, as Vogue editor, Bettina Ballard recalls in In My Fashion:
I was conscious of an electric tension that I had never before felt in the couture. Suddenly, all the confusion subsided, everyone was seated and there was a moment of hush that made my skin prickle. The first girl came out, stepping fast, switching with a provocative swinging movement, whirling in the close-packed room, knocking over ashtrays with the strong flare of her pleated skirt and bringing everyone to the edges of their seats. After a few more costumes had passed all at the same exciting tempo, the audience knew that Dior had created a new look. We were witness to a revolution in fashion…
The New Look, a reprise of mid-19th century fashions with billowing skirts below nipped-in waists, is a sensational departure from the frugality and angularity of wartime fashion with its broad shoulders reminiscent of military uniforms. The New Look is also totally uncompromising. It calls for unusually intricate workmanship and a return to sewing techniques that have been almost forgotten. And it requires serious undergarment engineering to create the distinctive, curvaceous silhouette. “Money no object” would summarize it nicely.
It’s a triumph for Christian Dior, garners acres of press coverage around the world, and marks the beginning of a renaissance for French couture. The fashion editors, the rich and the famous love it. Most of those who can’t afford it, aspire to it. It’s just a must-have, as a Parisian around at the time recalls:
For two years after the war, fashions – wide shoulders and knee-length skirts – didn’t change. SUDDENLY, Christian Dior arrived and over night we all adopted his New Look. We immediately threw away all our previous dresses and skirts. It was still hard to find material, but it was inconceivable to still wear short dresses! At that time, there were big differences in fashion between the cities and the countryside, where women went on being dressed as before, an object of ridicule for us city-dwellers.
But, particularly in France, the New Look is controversial, as demonstrated by a photo shoot organized to show Dior’s clothes in a Montmartre street market.
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 stall-holder 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.
That anecdote comes from Antony Beever and Artemis Cooper’s book.
For all the protests, The New Look reflects a genuine change of mood in society and sets the tone in the fashion world for the next decade. What’s striking is how savvy Dior is as a businessman. An article by Theodocia Stavrum in the San Francisco News describes his establishment in its first year of operation, about six months after the launch of the New Look:
Little do you realize when you sit I the elegant high-ceiling, gray-walled salon, with sleek French models displaying clothes, that in the back of the charming od building there is a modern “skyscraper” as they term it. It’s actually five stories high, as high as French law allows.
Here we found the workrooms and the head cutters, fitters, tailleurs and their staffs, first and second hands and apprentices. There’s also an employees’ “canteen” where we found many of them eating a hot luncheon with a bottle of beer or wine at each place.
There’s a complicated system of selling. Some saleswomen are socially prominent and wear the clothes, bringing friends in to buy. There are various saleswomen who rate according to experience and ability. A crew of chauffeurs deliver the things and a concierge must be on the place day and night. There are about 12 models, a head of the dressing room, and four dressers … plus several dozen other men and women who tend to the intricate details of the business.
And Christian Dior is not the only entrepreneur. In the course of the 1950s, his counterparts, like him, create perfumes, open boutiques and license their designs to foreign manufacturers so that by the end of the decade the leading couture houses have become global brands.
Paris is right back on the international map.
Paris after World War II – fantasy
But there’s more to Paris’ renaissance than the couturiers. Important as they are, their success and influence are underpinned by the efforts of the international fashion press, particularly Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Ann Montgomery remembers how “Every fashion magazine in the western world was represented by top editors accompanied by photographers racing to record the work of the fabulous couturiers during the two-week blitz of showings” of the spring and autumn collections. Vogue sends Irving Penn, Harper’s Bazaar Richard Avedon.
It is Avedon who probably plays the biggest part in creating Paris, the fantasy of popular imagination. Whereas Penn captures the collections in a studio, Avedon takes the fashions out on the streets, turning Paris into a film set for an increasingly ambitious series of fashion stories. For example, for the September 1954 issue of Harper’s Bazaar he and his model, Sunny Harnett, stage a series of night scenes for which he has to use large floodlights to compensate for the slowness of the photographic film available to him. He ends up renting generator trucks to illuminate whole blocks of Paris, and police to hold back the crowds who gather to watch the proceedings.
The resulting editorials together with the published work of other less famous photographers such as Gleb Derujinsky and Kenneth Heilbron revive an image of Paris that has been decades in the making. During the Belle Époque (the period between the 1870s and the beginning of World War I), Paris established itself as the cultural capital of Europe and a go-to destination for any US citizen of wealth or artistic pretension. In the 1920s and ’30s it acquired almost mythical status as an artistic melting pot, attracting a host of American luminaries including Ernest Hemmingway, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Man Ray and Cole Porter.