Nazi-occupied Paris conjures up images of food rationing and scarcity in a climate of fear and repression. It was also a time of garish hats and clunky wooden-heeled shoes.
For the first time, a Paris museum is offering a glimpse at the world’s fashion capital during World War II through some 400 accessories: handbags, scarves, shoes and even telltale buttons from those troubled years.
The exhibition tells the story of women struggling to maintain a sense of aesthetics during trying times, said Fabienne Falluel, chief curator at the Galliera museum of fashion in Paris.
“Each of these objects bears witness to history, she said of the collection that the Galliera museum has been acquiring since 1981.
Thriftiness was the order of the day, with women making use of old fabrics or leftover strips of material that were restyled, such as a Duvelleroy handbag made in 1942 from old cashmere shawls supplied by customers.
After leather and wool were requisitioned by the Reich, shoe manufacturers turned to wood and cork for soles or easy-to-come-by rabbit fur for winter boots.
Struggling fashion houses made creative use out of all sorts of materials: a brown coat with matching vest made from worn-out upholstery, a hat from wood shavings, dog hair mixed with synthetic fibers to make gloves.
In terms of trends, the minimalist style of the late 30s gave way to extravagance – big hats, big bags – partly to compensate for the misery of the times.
“There was this exaggeration that became quite gaudy, said Marie-Laure Gutton, one of the curators at Galliera.
“But at the same time there was a quest and a desire to be beautiful, to overcome the constraints of the time.
Turbans – easy to wear, warm and practical – became all the rage.
With beauty salons running out of products, the turban was the perfect accessory to cover up an untidy mop of hair, said Gutton.
Handbag tailored to carry gas mask
Sewing and knitting underwent a revival, with two-page spreads in Marie-Claire and Elle magazines on how to make your own handbag from leftover fabric or raising rabbits at home for fur.
For those still able to afford finery, there was a navy one-piece bomb shelter outfit from the fashion house of Elsa Schiaparelli or a sleek handbag tailored to carry a gas mask.
The Resistance movement was alive in fashion, with some women braving a Nazi ban on tricolor articles by wearing blue-white-and-red buttons or belts.
A brown leather handbag with a secret compartment known to have been used by several female Resistance fighters is on show.
On the other end of the spectrum, silk factory Colcombet produced propaganda paraphernalia with Marshall Petain scarves including “The Marshall’s Voyages, a busy print of drawings depicting his travels through the country.
The darker side of the Paris occupation comes to life through the story of Fanny Berger, a Jewish milliner who lost her shop off the Champs Elysees and was deported to Auschwitz where she died in the gas chambers in 1943.
Three of her hats – all that is known to be left of her creative work – are on display in the exhibition.
To celebrate the liberation of Paris, the Manoukian and Di Mauro houses produced leather shoes displaying the allied flags.
Brooches showing small US army jeeps were a hot item.
The exhibition however seeks to steer clear of the controversy sparked by a Paris museum last year over a photo show that was harshly criticized for allegedly glossing over the dark side of the occupation.
Critics complained that the photographs of smiling Parisians taken by a journalist for a Nazi propaganda magazine failed to give the context to the 1940-1944 occupation of Paris.
“We are trying to be as explicit as possible, but we are not polemicists, said Falluel of the focus on fashion during the occupation.
“We just wanted to show how it was.
The exhibition at the Marechal Leclerc Memorial-Jean Moulin Museum runs until Nov. 15.