Global Fashion in the Twentieth Century: Production and Distribution

: Paris to New York. The Transatlantic Fashion Industry in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA 2021 : Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-23740-7 V, 324 S. $ 39.95; £ 31.95; € 36,00

Taylor, Lou; McLoughlin, Marie (Hrsg.): Paris Fashion and World War Two. Global Diffusion and Nazi Control. London 2021 : Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-1-350-00026-1 360 S. £ 28.99; $ 39.95

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Mila Ganeva, Department of German, Russian, Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, Miami University, Ohio

Browsing through the proliferating fashion pages of Berlin’s daily newspapers from the 1920s, one regularly encounters articles with headlines pointing to the “piracy” of fashion designs, “smuggling of trade secrets,” and “police actions” in France. These articles were reporting on those who were illegally copying Parisian fashion designs and selling them to American as well as German client companies. In 1930, for example, in one of multiple articles on the topic, the Berliner Volkszeitung interviewed a graphic artist working closely with designer Jean Patou, who shed light on fashion piracy and the particular skills required for fashion espionage: a photographic memory and an excellent talent for drawing. This seems to have been a topic of serious concern since it frequently made it to the section of the papers ordinarily reserved for detailed and richly illustrated reports on the new styles created in Paris, then the undisputed center of world fashion.1

This theme – the protection of copyrights, the dynamics of branding, and the vibrant, often tense relationship between commerce and artistic innovation in an international context – is also central to Véronique Pouillard’s monograph Paris to New York, published in the prestigious series “Harvard Studies in Business History”. The book presents a rich historical account furnished by extensive research conducted on both sides of the Atlantic. While the narrative offers some brief discussion of the signature trends in modern couture during the twentieth century such as the removal of corsets, the shortening of hemlines, or the New Look to name just a few, and the associated social effects of these aesthetic revolutions, the principal focus of the analysis is on the business practices, the financial mechanisms, and the institutional forces that moved the fashion world forward. Thus, the famous figures in that world – from Jeanne Paquin and Paul Poiret to Madeleine Vionnet and Christian Dior, from Maggy Rouff to Ralph Lauren – are celebrated not so much as sartorial geniuses but as astute agents of business innovation on a global scale. Their stories, complete with pertinent biographical details, are interwoven into the multi-layered account and are presented as representative case studies. Recurringly, Pouillard also folds into her compelling narrative scrupulously researched facts about the strategic functions of the financiers, bankers, brokers, lawyers, and textile manufacturers as well as the role of the smaller, anonymous players in the industry, i.e. the legions of garment workers, seamstresses, department store clerks, and consumers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The book follows a straightforward chronological path, and the interconnected French and American sides of the story constitute alternating segments within each chapter. The first period of the internationalization of Paris haute couture – covered in the first chapter of the book – started at the end of the nineteenth century and ended during World War I. To better reach their British and American clientele, a small group of couturiers – among them Jeanne Paquin, Gustave Beer, and Christoph von Drecoll – set up shops in London around 1900 and introduced new financing models to fund the expansion of the fashion businesses, which later allowed them and others to branch out even further, to New York. It was during that period that New York, already established as a major center for garment manufacturing, also became a bridgehead of fashion dissemination, where buyers and journalists converged to keep abreast of new trends.

It was after World War I that the branding of haute couture came in full force and the protection of fashion designs as intellectual property emerged as an urgent priority. As she explains the different origins of the American and French laws governing the copyrights of fashion designs, Pouillard zooms in on the fascinating cases of Gabrielle Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet, two of the most successful businesswomen of their time. Through a series of highly publicized lawsuits, Vionnet led the way for Paris entrepreneurs to establish intellectual property rights over their designs and to market their copyrighted brands internationally. But the 1930s were crisis years for Paris couturiers as well as for their clients and competitors in the United States. Along with Chanel, Patou and Lucien Lelong, some new players ascended on the haute couture scene: Jacques Heim and the Americans Main Rousseau Bocher (Mainbocher), Hattie Carnegie and Maurice Rentner. During the Great Depression, the Paris-based fashion companies kept their foothold in the United States by diversifying into branded products: they opened branches that specialized in perfumes and cosmetics produced in the United States under French brand names.

The outbreak of World War II cut short the brief economic upturn at the end of that crisis decade. More importantly, with the fall of Paris in 1940 and the German occupation, France endured supply chain disruptions and was unable to export to many markets, including the United States. Under those circumstances, New York strove to position itself as the world’s new fashion capital and the French couturiers tried to stay profitable by trading with neutral countries and with their occupiers. In the chapters on fashion during World War II and its immediate aftermath, Pouillard focuses her attention predominantly on the activities of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, a professional group within the corporatist structure set up by the Nazi occupation authorities and led by Lucien Lelong. One should note, however, that this fascinating story is not complete without consulting the multitude of German records (including newsreel footage of Paris wartime fashion produced for Die Deutsche Wochenschau), to which this monograph, regrettably, seems to have had no access.

The last three chapters of the book cover the decades from the immediate post-war period to the end of the century. The focus again is on the major structural and institutional changes within the haute couture industry that welcomed the ascent of a newcomer, Christian Dior, in the 1950s, accommodated the rise of ready-to-wear designers (stylistes), and inaugurated unprecedented democratization of fashion consumption; these processes partially reflected the long-term effects of the Marshall Plan and the vast expansion of branding, which was the luxury firms’ answer to the competition of mass-produced goods. Finally, the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s witnessed the outsourcing of fabric and garment manufacturing to countries with low labour costs, especially countries in Asia, and the transformation of high-end fashion businesses into multinational structures such as the LVMH group (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) that dominate the global scene.

The underlying research for Paris to New York is comprised of diverse French- and English-language sources which support Pouillard’s compelling comparative and transnational analysis of fashion as a business in France and the United States. The author demonstrates an impressive ability to synthesize historic information from an extensive body of archival materials and to present it in an engaging, polished, reader-friendly narrative: the sources range from historic press publications in The New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily to legal documentation from court cases to scholarship in fashion and business history. The way in which the sources are referenced throughout the text warrants particular praise: they are grouped together in one footnote placed at the end of a paragraph, which contributes enormously to the pleasant and smooth reading experience. At the same time, this fashion book about the history of the business connections between Paris and New York contains very few illustrations. The ones included are not quite enticing; their primary purpose is to exemplify branding, marketing, and advertising strategies.

If readers are looking for high-quality, colorful, and plentiful reproductions of wartime fashion items (gowns, hats, lingerie, shoes etc.) as well as historic photographs and art reproductions, they will find them in another work, Paris Fashion and World War Two: Global Diffusion and Nazi Control, that covers the years 1939–1947. This volume was put together by Lou Taylor and Marie McLoughlin, both respected fashion scholars from the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom, who are the authors (as co-authors, individually, or in co-authorship with others) of the introduction, the conclusion, and eight of the fourteen chapters of the book. The volume is the result of decade-long coordinated research by dress historians from several countries; among the contributors, there are also scholars from Sweden, Portugal, Brazil, the United States, and Denmark, and these are the countries – with the addition of the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Austria – that comprise the geographic scope of Parisian fashion’s “global diffusion”. Another notable contributor is Dominique Veillon of the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent (CNRS, Paris), whose ground-breaking research was detailed in her much-cited monograph La Mode Sous l’Occupation (1990, made available also in English by Berg in 2002 with the title Fashion under Occupation). Veillon’s chapter in this volume details the extraordinary levels of craftsmanship, creativity and subtle subversiveness found in Paris couture accessories made under the wartime conditions of occupation, material shortages, and rationing. It is preceded by Taylor’s in-depth case study of the various design, manufacturing, exhibition, and import and export activities in wartime Lyon, a city well known as a supplier of silk and other textiles to Paris’s fashion salons. The final three chapters of the book also focus exclusively on Paris as the center of the international haute couture business – prior to World War II, during the occupation, and in the immediate post-liberation period until about 1947.

Particularly interesting is the cluster of essays exploring the continuing links between the worlds of couture in neutral countries such as Sweden, Portugal, Switzerland, Brazil, in occupied countries such as Denmark and Belgium, and Austria, and in occupied Paris in particular. A treasure-trove of little-known archival material is brought to the fore and made available to an English-speaking audience. Two chapters, one by Sophie Kurkdjian and the other by Sandra Stansbery Buckland, respectively focus on the competitive nature of the relationship between Paris and New York in terms of competition for fashion press dominance and the work of maintaining international awareness about the work of French couturiers during the war.

It is understandable that a single volume, even one as expansive as this one is, cannot include all the history of the global diffusion of Paris fashion during the period 1939–1947, yet the pronounced westward orientation of this study is hard to ignore. Central and Eastern European states have had long relationships with Paris couture, which was particularly intensive in the 1920s when these countries became independent nation-states, yet their cases have not been included in this study. Another disappointing aspect of this edited volume is its treatment of the complicated relationships between Berlin and Paris as well as between Vienna and Paris. While acknowledging (particularly in the introductory first chapter) that these historic connections and the internal developments in the German and Austrian fashion industries in wartime are essential to understanding the context of the work in the volume, the editors summarize findings that are already well known from monographs such as Gloria Sultano’s Wie geistiges Kokain… and Irene Guenther’s Nazi Chic?.2 Other German-language sources or newer scholarship are hardly consulted. Yet numeral periodicals, state, municipal, and business archives in German are still out there, waiting to be re-discovered by a new generation of historians and fashion scholars, and, ultimately, to be introduced to a global audience.

Anyone attracted to the rise of fashion as an indelible part of twentieth-century modernity and interested in an informed, analytical approach to the social and aesthetic implications of fashion development will find that both volumes offer much to readers. Unlike the numerous spectacular exhibits on fashion in the last decade that have been candy for the eye but leave the viewer yearning to know more about the complex global stories behind the production and distribution of such beautiful garments, these two books will not disappoint.

1 Auf der Jagd nach den Modell-Piraten, in: Berliner Volkszeitung, 5 October 1930; Pariser Modepiraten, in: Berliner Volkszeitung, 11 October 1925.
2 See Gloria Sultano, Wie geistiges Kokain… Mode unterm Hakenkreuz, Wien 1995, and Irene Guenther, Nazi Chic? Fashioning Women in the Third Reich, Oxford 2004.