In June of 1940, near the beginning of World War II, Nazi forces took control of the France and its textile industry. Prior to the occupation, many non-native designers, such as Charles Creed, Adrian, Mainbocher, Edward Molyneux, and Elsa Schiaparelli had already fled the country to London, New York, and Hollywood in anticipation of war. Once Nazi forces invaded, Paris was cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for itself.
At the time, Lucien Lelong, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne (CSCP), an Haute Couture designer himself, was left to negotiate with the occupying German regime. From the beginning, Nazi forces pressed hard to dismantle the CSCP and to move Paris’s Haute Couture industry, including all of its ateliers, to Berlin, Germany and Vienna, Austria.
In July of 1940 Nazi officials raided the headquarters of the Chambre Syndicale and seized irreplaceable archives which included information about clients, fashion houses, and the French export trade. Lucien demanded the files back and flew to Berlin to argue that Parisian Haute Couture was best left in Paris, due to the extreme importance of the working relationships between the ateliers (smaller houses of skilled artisans specializing in detailed work such as beading or embroidery) and the couturiers. The individuals employed by the ateliers had taken decades to reach the levels of craftsmanship required—skills which were not transferrable or teachable except through generations of meticulous work. Couture houses employed hundreds of workers, from the grand vendeuses (saleswomen) through to the skilled tailors, drapers, and midinettes (seamstresses). He argued that it would be impossible to move these skilled craftsman, not to mention all of the milliners, embroiderers, lacemakers, weavers, jewelers, corsetiers and shoemakers, to a different environment and expect them to produce the same quality of work while also training unskilled workers as replacements. He insisted that each country had a right to produce its own fashion and argued that the ateliers produced such exquisite work as a result of working in the comfort of their own surroundings.
During the occupation, Lelong also negotiated with the Germans to allow a small number of couture houses to remain operational and insisted that the industry have access to enough fabric to maintain production. Mme Gres, Balenciaga and Molyneux had their showrooms forcibly shuttered, and Chanel chose to close her showroom during the war. In all, around sixty of the ninety-two couture houses remained open. Joined by Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior, Carven, Fath, Desses, Lanvin, Nina Ricci, Costello, and Patou, the couture houses faced the Nazi occupation and rose to the challenge.
Lelong continued to fight for Haute Couture to remain in Paris and in the end he was finally able to convince the Germans that their plan to move the couture industry would only serve to destroy it. Lucien Lelong is credited with preventing over 12,000 workers in the couture industry from deportation to German work camps during World War II.
Couture houses that remained open drew disapproval from people in the Allied countries who resented the fact that some of the top designers appeared to work in cooperation with occupational forces. This was even more controversial when the first images of Paris post-war emerged, and the world got its first look at the extravagance of designs that had continued to be produced during the war. It became something of an international scandal. Despite the fact that the couture houses had continued, Paris was still suffering from severe shortages in fabric and materials. The Chambre Syndicale, in the hopes of renewing interest in Parisian fashion and tactfully transcending the perceived scandal, decided to embrace the long ago tradition of sending miniature mannequins dressed in the latest couture to international buyers. The mannequins were fashioned from salvaged wire with plaster heads. Fifty-three couture houses were tasked with creating up to five outfits in miniature, complete with proper linings, closures, buttons and decoration. From embroidery to beading, each mannequin was outfitted with a miniature wig styled to perfection, tiny Parisian shoes, jewelry, gloves, hats, purses, belts, and even little cosmetic cases. In all, the Théâtre de la Mode included 200 dolls and 15 sets. The dolls traveled across the globe, renewing interest in Parisian Haute Couture, just as the Chambre Syndicale had hoped.
Baker, P. (1992). Fashions of a decade. The 1940s. New York. Facts on File.
CQ Press. Wartime Rationing. [Online]. Available: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre1942011200