NEW YORK — WHAT they did with nothing! People have always been creative when faced with disaster. But maintaining a sense of style while one's country is at war? That's what French women did during World War II. While all the accouterments of women's beauty and fashion were unavailable, they took what amounted to a vow of beauty, and channeled their creativity through different forms.
Some might view it as vanity taken to ludicrous shifts. But morale is built out of tiny things, even a scrap of cloth used with imagination. Attiring themselves in flamboyant and loud creations was a form of psychological armor; the women flouted the Germans and their strictures, and in doing so, achieved a moral strength that got them through the war.
Two exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute (through April), an exhibit of miniature post-war French fashions, called the Theatre de la Mode, and a series of archival photographs that accompany it, demonstrate the will to survive.
The photographs showed the creative ways women dealt with wartime conditions. The necessity of using bicycles brought in short skirts and shoulder bags. After Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940, and France shortly thereafter, this once-abundant society experienced restrictions and black markets. Natural fibers, leather, and makeup were hard to find. Without shampoo, women couldn't wash their hair often. But did hair salons close? Mais, non! Stylists took customers outside to have hair and nails done in the sun. Or they hired men to ride bicycles that ran generators to power dryers. Women wrapped fabric around their heads, turban-style, to cover up dirty hair. And the hats, my dear, the hats! They were high and wild, made with hoarded scraps of pre-war satins and silks.
In 1939, France produced 60 million pairs of shoes; in 1940, 8-10 million, 6 million of which were sent to Germany. But women weren't about to go shoeless. So cobblers started making platform shoes out of wood and cork. Despite being hard and noisy, they were worn as if high fashion. Like salons, the fashion industry persevered, cutting quantity in order to maintain quality. In addition to maintaining morale, keeping the fashion infrastructure intact made economic sense: The French had a foundation to revitalize the economy after the war.
In the US, women also adapted. Rosie the Riveters made hard hats out of scrap metal and called them "Scraparelli," after the French designer Schiaparelli. The government regulated the use of materials, so American women made "Victory Suits," unadorned but stylish suits made out of synthetics.
After the war, women of both countries were left with a hunger for beauty and luxury. That was partly answered with Theatre de la Mode. This collection of 200 miniature fashions was organized to show the world that French haute couture could emerge triumphant from the rubble, and to raise money for relief agencies.
Milliners, jewelers, hairdressers, and furriers joined in. The 30-inch mannequins sported everything from beachwear to ballgowns: buttons buttoned, tiny gloves were made of real leather, and pockets were useable. In the most lush exhibit (women at the opera) gowns are yards and yards of satin and tulle. One can catch a glimpse of the triumph the French must have felt. The exhibit toured Europe and America in 1945-46 and ended up in San Francisco - the lack of funds preventing its return to France. The s ets and dolls, believed to be lost or destroyed, were found in Washington in 1983 and returned to France for restoration.