Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Learning is Cool

I've spent the past few months studying fashion history (which is essentially the merging of two of my favourite things.) I wrote a paper on fashion in New York during the Second World War, and learned that it was because of the war that designers in New York finally got notoriety for their work and, for the first time, they were able to design clothes without having to depend on Parisian trends.

This semester I'm writing about the collaboration of French fashion designers in Paris during the Second World War. One thing I learned is that in the 1920s Coco Chanel signed a contract that had two investors, Jewish brothers named Wertheimer, pay into her perfume company, but it soon transpired that they made a lot of money off of the sales of Chanel No. 5.  When the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, Chanel took advantage of the anti-Jewish laws and attempted to retake her company from the Wertheimer brothers. She didn't succeed, however, because the Wertheimers relinquished their shares to an "aryan," Felix Amiot.

More than this, however, I've recently learned that despite Chanel's less than honourable dealings with those she believed screwed her out of her own perfume company, she also had an affair with a Nazi named Hans Gunther von Dincklage (actually, this I had read before) but, none of this really mattered. Chanel closed the doors of her salon during the war, believing that no one would be selling couture during the war (they did) but the sales of Chanel No.5 continued to thrive. When the Nazis first occupied Paris, German soldiers lined up outside of the #31 Rue Cambon boutique to buy a bottle of the famous fragrance. When the stock sold out, they simply bought display bottles to have something to send home to their wives and girlfriends as souvenirs from Paris.

When the Allies retook Paris after the D-Day landings, American GIs took their turn to line up outside #31 Rue Cambon to buy Chanel No. 5 for their wives and girlfriends. Chanel's wartime lover was forced to retreat back to Berlin and, having lost touch with him, Chanel allegedly paid a German-speaking American GI with a duffel-bag full of Chanel No. 5 in exchange for the promise that if he heard anything of a von Dincklage or happened to come across the man in a camp he'd have him write Chanel a postcard. With a bag full of perfume, the GI essentially carried a fortune around with him--he could buy nearly anything on the black market with this unlikely currency.

So, despite her wartime dealings, Chanel's brand became bigger than she was. She put herself into exhile in Switzerland until 1952 and was not greatly loved when she returned to Paris, but her brand sold well all around the world. Chanel meant more than just Coco.

The questions I'm looking at with my current essay include first, what constitutes collaboration? Does Chanel sleeping with a German mean she collaborated? Did Lucien Lelong holding meetings with Nazis in order to keep the Parisian fashion industry in Paris rather than allowing it to be moved to Berlin mean he collaborated? Did Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior (allegedly) crafting gowns for the wives of Nazis mean they collaborated? I don't know. It's hard to say what we might do in those situations and there are a lot of factors to be considered.

Perhaps even more interestingly, this also speaks to the memory of the war. Do we judge Chanel more because she actually slept with the enemy, and do we judge women differently than men? In the context of the Second World War, women who slept with Germans were paraded through the streets having had their heads shaved and often their clothing taken. They were humiliated or even killed. The French have a difficult time in remembering their wartime experiences because collaboration was so widespread, and when we talk about fashion within that context, it leads to the question of whether we remember people like Chanel or Lelong more because they were famous, or less because collaboration was somewhat common. At what point do we begin to see collaboration from their point of view, within the contexts of their lives?

Anyways, that's what I've been working on lately.

Posted by Carla

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