Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The man who saved Parisian couture

Lelong evening dresses from 1946. Which unknown designer in his employ might have designed them?

This is my piece from the Telegraph about Lucien Lelong, who stood up to the occupying German forces and saved Paris from being moved to Berlin:

Paris struggled on, but when war was declared on 3 September 1939 the couture houses closed down, some for ever. Mainbocher and Schiaparelli left for America. Vionnet never reopened. Lelong was now president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and, after the invasion, it was his job to negotiate with the occupying German regime. The Nazis wanted to move Paris lock, stock and barrel to Berlin by any means, including violence. On 20 July 1940 five Nazi officers arrived at the headquarters of the Chambre Syndicale on an 'inspection'; five days later they broke into the building and requisitioned the archive.

Under the Nazi plan the Paris ateliers would be moved to Germany or Austria, where they would train a new generation of German dressmakers. The designers would also be moved. Within a generation, the Nazis expected, couture would be German, not French. It was a breathtakingly arrogant ambition to believe that they could appropriate a whole industry.

Lelong pointed out that the plan was unworkable. French fashion was dependent on thousands of skilled artisans in tiny ateliers, each specialising in one small detail of finish, such as embroidery. The skills, he explained, were unteachable. You could not transfer them, and it took decades to reach the necessary levels of craftsmanship. The intransigence of the Germans was nothing compared with that of French couture. Lelong asserted the right of each country to produce its own fashion and argued that it was their home environment that allowed the workers to do what they did. The Nazis backed down and returned the archive, and Lelong negotiated to keep a supply of fabric that would maintain production. The only fall-back the occupiers had was to conscript into the army its labour force. They started by demanding 80 per cent; Lelong got it down to five per cent.

Initially, after the liberation, there were murmurs that Lelong had been a collaborator, though it was Chanel who had spent the war living with a German officer. His case came to trial, but he was acquitted. The judge ruled that Lelong had co-operated only minimally with the Nazis to save France's cultural heritage and the jobs of its workers.


DaisyChain said...

I've spent all afternoon reading through your blog,
It's refreshing to see such an interesting take on things.

Trevira said...

Linda, I love your blog and read it religiously, even if I don't comment much (your regular commenters are so much more interesting and articulate than I am).

But I was always troubled by your featuring Chanel in your header.

I'm pleased to see that you acknowledge that Chanel lived for most of the war with a German officer in your Lelong article, but she was very much a committed Nazi collaborator. She even volunteered to meet Churchill on a peace mission on behalf of the Nazis.

Her activities were sufficient for her to have to have to go into hiding after the war in Switzerland until 1953, and even to this day survivors of the war in Paris despise her.

Of course, ALL the Parisian couturiers had a hard time during the war, and had to make some horribly difficult decisions. Schiaparelli had to flee to America because of her well-known left wing sympathies, but she decided to keep her salon open because otherwise her staff would have been sent to the 'labour' camps.

But Chanel had a VERY comfortable war living at the Ritz with her German Officer lover.

I'm torn because I am a complete fan of her style and her legacy in fashion. She really was revolutionary in pioneering wearable, comfortable, practical and impeccably elegant fashions for women.

But I can't help but feel revolted by the woman herself.

This is not intended as a provocation, because I'm not arguing Chanel's legacy, but just her poisonous allegiances.

Apologies for not discussing Lelong - I'm pleased to hear that he was a goodie, because I've read otherwise in a few sources!

greying pixie said...

I think you often find in history and even today that there are many successful and talented people who come from lowly origins, work hard, meet the right people and succeed, only to pull up the ladder and forget about the ones they've left behind. I guess Coco Chanel was one of those.

It can be very difficult to separate the work of an artist/designer from the person themselves. When you like the work you want to like the person too. And when you like the work inspite of knowing their political leaning and personal values, it's even very upsetting. I think this is especially poignant with fashion, as it is such a personal subject in which we invest so much emotion.

I remember reading somewhere that Chanel knew Churchill from her affair with Duke of Westminster in the 20s or 30s. I think her safe passage to Switzerland after the war was thanks to him, otherwise her fate would have been a little less dignified.

Trevira, if it makes you feel better, my husband often points out to me that inspite of Chanel's brilliance as a designer and the elegance and class of the women she designed for, he feels she never quite pulled it off herself. I'm not sure I agree with him, but it may help you to find a place for her.

And whilst on the subject of pulling up the ladder, I've always had the greatest respect, indeed affection, for the singer Frankie Vaughan as he, for me, symbolized a very successful person who never forgot his roots and helped in his own way to make life better for those he left behind. So imagine my delight to read in Linda's book, Remind me who I am again, that her family has very direct links to him.

Geraldine said...

Interesting. I didn't know about Chanel, but to be fair she was only one of many collaborators in France, wasn't she?

lagatta à montréal said...

Yes, of course Chanel was among many collaborators in France (and in all other occupied countries in Europe; of late there has been a demonisation of France in some circles that is the opposite face of the earlier myth of "le pays résistant". I think I still have one surviving friend who was a partisan as a very young man - he would often say how much more afraid his comrades were of local collaborators than of the regular German army (not the SS or Gestapo, of course).

Evidently the German officer was an SS, which considerably darkens the picture.

I know survivors who loathe her - but there is no question but that her dress revolution influenced the style of every elegant Parisienne, including one friend of mine who had to wear the yellow star as a little girl in Paris (her family's life was saved by an Italian functionary who was formally a member of the Fascist Party, as they had to be, who gave them a "certificate of Aryanity").

But these days Chanel and survivors must bring to mind Simone Veil, as she has been admitted to the notoriously patriarchal Académie française. Veil has always been seen in a Chanel jacket and a chignon, as she broke ground in many ways.

Trevira, your comments were most interesting and articulate!

This is an eternal debate, about artists, their work and their morality - whether this work is diminished by discovering that the creator was a racist or antisemite, or worse still, someone who turned friends over to Hitler's or Stalin's secret police...

greying pixie said...

lagatta, I think. in general, art and design cannot be seen in isolation, just as their creators cannot be seen to work in ivory towers. Designers are influenced by the society in which they live but at the same time have a tremendous influence on that society. I don't think it is wrong or unfair to judge art and design against the values of the creator.

Usually it is quite easy to use this as a basis for condemning certain types of design, eg. the area of Rome named EUR was designed and built by Mussollini and is a perfect example of how ugly Fascist architecture could be; or the dreadful watercolours produced by Hitler himself.

The problem, as Trevira says, is that Chanel was really very talented in an area of design of an extremely personal and emotional nature, ie. fashion. That is very upsetting for us, as women who recognize good clothing design, but it is a fact we have to face. I think of her as the exception who proves the rule.

Trevira said...

Thanks for your thoughtful responses greying pixie and lagatta à montréal.

I'm resolved to be an ardent admirer of her work. Her extraordinary talent and vision cannot be denied.

But her wartime activities and beliefs are a matter of historical record. And they can't help but turn me against the woman herself.

After the war, the American Marshall Plan assisted in the reconstruction of Europe. The revival of the couture industry was particularly significant in France since it was and is such a source of national pride, prestige and identity, not to mention international currency.

I'm sure people such as Churchill intervened to protect Chanel from what might have been gruesome retribution, but this may have been a pragmatic decision to protect valuable future earnings from one of the most prestigious couture houses in Paris.

But they still had to wait 8 years before Chanel herself could return to Paris!

I now realise that Chanel was probably politically naive. She was a snob and a racist for sure, and she used rich/aristocratic lovers throughout her life to claw her way up the social ladder and advance her career. It makes perfect sense for her to climb into bed with the 'enemy,' especially when that enemy appeared to have the upper hand.

She behaved completely consistently with her character, and was probably oblivious to other dissenting views about the situation, considering the circles she move in.

Chanel made an astonishing recovery, but I'm depressed that her wartime activities are often glossed over. They should remain as a testament to a resilient and (in my opinion) deplorable woman.

But long live her fashions!

Anonymous said...

GP's mention of the Duke of Westminster and Chanel in the 20s made me think of Wilde:
to be the lover of one fascist "..may be regarded as a misfortune;" but two of them? A bit more than "carelessness"!

Anonymous said...

P.S. I'm watching the biopic 'Coco' on LMN which is a bit of a "Not Without My Daughter!/Yoghurt!/Spanx channel so I'm worried; but it's Shirley Maclaine as the older Chanel and she can act her way out of most things. Oooooh, first flash-back.

Anonymous said...

I love your article Linda, and the comments it has got are just as good. I feel like I've really learnt a few things here as I have also never been able to reconcile Chanel's personal/public life.

Linda Grant said...

I ran into a friend of mine on the street on Saturday who is embarking on a new biography of Chanel. The last one, published many years ago, was written with the tight approval of Coco Chanel herself, and the house of Chanel is ferociously protective of her name. So I accept there may well be far more than is widely known about her collaboration. Though she is still one of the two great designers of the 20th century. Dostoevsky was an anti-semite, but this does nothing at all to diminish his work.

Ann said...

I am always happy to see a mention of Lucien Lelong, it amazes me that he is so often forgotten, considering his contributions to modern fashion, the business aspect of the indusrty, and of course the designers to come out of his salon, including Dior and ?Balmain. In 2006 I was able to work Lucien Lelong: Modern Master at the Museum at FIT, the first exhibition to focus on Lelong. My research focus in preparing for the exhibition was his muse and second wife, Natalie Paley, who is a fascinating figure in French fashion and is well worth looking into.

California Dreamer said...

I was well into my adulthood before I recognized the truth that all people have both good and evil qualities, although the proportions vary. I have since stopped expecting my friends to embody every virtue, and my enemies to be without redeeming qualities.

This strategy can also be applied Coco Chanel, Dostoevsky, President-elect Obama, and Mel Gibson. But it does make it harder to pigeon-hole people.

Trevira said...

Despite my pompous (and over long, sorry) pronouncements I would love to see the biopic with Shirley McLaine, Arabella! Just for the pleasure of being able to tut self-righteously at how much they got wrong or evaded, probably!

Linda - can't wait for the new Chanel biography. An academic of my acquaintance spits feathers at the mere mention of her name, and a clear eyed view is long overdue.

Ann - I agree that Lelong is overlooked these days and is due a reappraisal.

In an effort to make up for hijacking this comment stream (for UK residents only - apologies), there is a wonderful short film about Parisian couture available for download at Put '1213.04' into the Film ID box in the advanced search to download a lush, full colour report of early 1950s couture fashions. With a deliciously ripe French-accented commentary too. There's plenty of 'lost' couture names featured, such as Manguin, Bruyere, Jeanne Lafaurie, Reynard and Desses.

phyllis said...

Caroline Weber is also writing a book about Chanel’s WWII history. Her last book was "Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution"; a really terrific book and superb analysis of the meaning of fashion on personal, social and political levels viewed through the royal life of Marie Antoinette from the time she became Dauphine to her execution. It's a wonderful, engrossing book and I highly recommend it. I can't wait o see what she does with Chanel. Carline is an associate professor of French at Barnard, but “Queen of Fashion” is not in the least stuffy or academic.