We all know that fashion is vitally important to the French economy, pride, and sense of national identity. During WWII when Germany occupied France, the Parisian fashion industry came to an abrupt halt. Materials like wool and leather were strictly rationed and many fashion houses shuttered their doors for the entire occupation. Even if people had jobs there were no clothes or shoes to buy.
This had a demoralizing effect on the population. They were left to "make do and mend." Without leather to re-sole shoes, cobblers started looking for other materials to use for repairs. Old tires, waterproofed cardboard, braided straw, wood, and other odd things were cobbled onto shoes. Have you ever worn a cute pair of cork wedges? Thank an inventive French cobbler! Platforms were also invented at this time, because a thick platform sole would take longer to wear down.
Ever defiant, Parisian fashionistas began inventing larger and more elaborate hats. Hats took attention away from shabby threadbare garments and covered uncoiffed hair. They were also a form of political resistance. It was a way of showing the occupying force that French fashion will never stop expressing itself. Women flaunted this last extravagance in the face of their oppressors. Hats became evermore outlandish and oversized! Viva la Revolucion!
When the war was over and communication was restored, the rest of the world stood agape at the new French look. "An incredible horror," said Schiaparelli of the giant turbans, like "monstrous cobras who had eaten a huge meal and curled up to sleep." Cecil Beaton commented that they looked "suspiciously like domestic plumbing." Guess you had to be there?
The Covid-19 outbreak is a scary time for fashion business owners like myself. I find comfort and hope in stories like this. Many fashion houses closed for years during the occupation. Some re-opened and bounced back, some closed for good. But those closings allowed space for new designers like Christian Dior and his era-defining New Look! Here in 2020, we will also rise to the challenge. I believe it with my whole heart.
To learn more about this time period, listen to podcast episode "At War With Fashion" from Dressed: The History of Fashion.