Book Review – Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler

51izOOSKulLThis book was an accidental discovery I made while looking for stock for the museum’s gift shop. I took the opportunity to read it while I was at the front desk this weekend whenever there was a lull, although I was so engrossed at times I ignored the visitors.

This is a fascinating memoir by Trudi Kanter that was recently rediscovered and reprinted for the first time since its 1984 release. Jewish Trudi Kanter, who was called Trudi Miller at the time, had a successful millinery in Vienna until the Anschluss of 1938. A week before Nazi Germany’s takeover, Trudi had been attending fashion shows and buying supplies in Paris but upon her return to Vienna, the mood had darkened in anticipation of the coming nationalistic amalgamation.

Despite the serious times, the book recounts an odd mix of menus from moonlit romantic dinner dates with Walter, her future husband, intimate gossip about friends, detailed descriptions of hats and humorous accounts of her sales transactions – but as the book asserts, even in wartime “Women still looked in the mirror.”

Alongside the frivolous and mundane, a story of desperation grows as Trudi undertakes bureaucratic errands to obtain letters of credit, permissions to travel, passports, visas, guarantees, and other endless paperwork needed to flee an occupied country in an orderly fashion.

With great trouble and a lot of luck, the chic Trudi managed to charm and cajole her way from Vienna to Prague to London with husband in tow and parents not far behind. This true story is made more interesting because of the details Trudi shares – of the clothes she and her friends wore: white linen evening dress with emerald satin bag and headband, or a tight black velvet suit with toque of roses. There are also fascinating stories like the time a hat was set afire by a girlfriend’s careless cigarette, and how for her autumn 1938 collection Trudi used lots of veiling on her hats to hide sad eyes.

The writing is a bit overly sentimental (there are far too many scenes where Trudi bursts into tears) but it is full of interesting stories and descriptions. It’s a quick read and another great story to add to my favourite kind of book genre – ‘I was there’ memoirs.

Book Review – Sleeping With the Enemy

Picture-52Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, is an expose of Chanel during and after World War II. Author Hal Vaughan spent years researching Chanel’s association with the Nazis. When his book came out in 2011 the Chanel company generally avoided comment as much as possible, but when pressed, denigrated Vaughan’s work by suggesting there were more serious books on the topic. Actually, there are no other books on the topic. The books and movies, and even a broadway play about Chanel always focus on her early life and loves, and comeback in the 1950s and 1960s. The gaping hole in her biography between 1940 and 1954 is rarely addressed, until now.

Chanel was involved romantically with Baron Gunther van Dincklage, a known German spy who had already been living in Paris for years when war broke out. She immediately closed her couture shop, explaining that this was ‘not a time for fashion’. This action appears patriotic, but it was the opposite of what was being asked of France’s employers, especially of luxury goods, which brought foreign currency into France that could be used to fund its ability to wage war.

When the country was occupied the following summer, Chanel was living at the Ritz hotel and remained there for the duration. She took advantage of the Nazi seizure of Jewish property and applied for full ownership of her perfume company, which had been financed by the Jewish Wertheimer family. On May 5, 1942 Chanel wrote to Nazi officials: “Parfums Chanel is still the property of Jews… I have an indisputable right of priority…”

Even more damning in Vaughan’s book is how Chanel was actually paid by the SS to become Agent 7124, code name “Westminster” (the name inspired by her former lover the Duke of Westminster– a British peer who was also openly anti-semitic.) In 1943, Coco travelled to Berlin to be briefed about “Operation Modellhut”, a plan to end Britain’s war against Germany. The details have been lost or destroyed but it involved a chain of people that stretched from Hitler to Churchill and Chanel was a vital link in delivering a letter to Churchill via the British embassy in Madrid. Chanel asked British aristocrat and friend, Vera Lombardi to meet her in Madrid to explore the possibilities of creating a Chanel couture house in Madrid. However, the mission failed when Lombardi realized the real purpose of their meeting and reported Chanel as a nazi spy.

After the occupation, Chanel was interrogated but never prosecuted due partly to a lack of documentation but moreso to friends in high places. Churchill himself was thought to have intervened via the British ambassador to France to keep Chanel from testifying at a trial that would have become an embarrassment for many. It was easier to punish unimportant French women who had slept with German soldiers, and shopkeepers who had been nice to German clients.

In a bizarre twist, the Wertheimers renegotiated their financial arrangements with Chanel after the war, making her a very wealthy woman, living in exile in Switzerland for almost a decade before returning to her trade. The cover-up of her wartime actions in France meant her return to fashion in 1954 was applauded, especially in the U.S. where her clothes became the standard of society fashion.

Hair and Make-up – Books by Lauren Rennells

The short list of Oscar contenders for Hair and Make-up awards were released yesterday and although most of the contenders are for special effects makeup (Men in Black 3, Snow White and the Huntsman, The Hobbit, Looper, and even Hitchcock) there are nods to films with period hair and make-up) including Les Miserables, and Lincoln. Although part of the nomination for Lincoln is for Daniel Day Lewis’ believable transformation into Lincoln part of it must be for the careful attention given to recreating authentic 1865 period looks for the rest of the cast.

6a00df3522335a88340120a5674b46970b-320wiOne of my complaints about many period films these days is the lack of appropriate hair and make-up – designed more often to appeal to contemporary audiences (a problem I noted when I blogged about Titanic earlier this year.)

I am just old enough to remember the lacquered and permed hairstyles of the past, and how hats and scarves protected and hid messy dos and black roots.  My mother began to get ready for a party by setting her hair in the afternoon – she finished only as my father stood at the front door jingling his keys, exclaiming “We’ll be late!” Everything changed with Sassoon in the 60s when the cut, not arrangement, of hair became important.

Retro+Makeup+Front+Cover+SmallFortunately, there are two great books by Lauren Rennells, ‘Vintage Hairstyling’, and ‘Retro Makeup’, that define how to recreate past looks from the 1920s to the 1960s. Printed by HRST books, these are really how-to manuals, with historical information made easy for today on how to recreate the perfect look. One problem with period books is that they tend to focus on Northern European fair hair and skin beauties, but Rennells’ books address every skin tone and hair type. These are great additions for any library that collects on the topics of historical re-enactment, beauty, film, fashion, and 20th century culture.


The folios were bound into massive books

We recently received a significant addition for the Fashion History Museum’s archives from Ottawa milliner Ruth Mills. It is a near complete run of Hatvertising Weekly – a newspaper sized folio of  hat advertisements reprinted from various American and Canadian daily newspapers. Hatvertising Weekly was created by The Seymour Mittelmark Organization of New York. They also printed: Dressvertising, Bagvertising, Knitwear Fashions, Coatvertising, Tot ‘n’ Teen Fashions, Footwear Fashions, Sportswear on Parade, Men’s & Boy’s Wear scene, and Foundation Fashions in Review.

September 4, 1941 page from Hatvertising Weekly

Seymour Mittelmark probably began creating these publications soon after the North American fashion industry was cut off from Europe with the start of World War II and the occupation of Paris in June 1940. The first issue of Hatvertising in our run dates from August 1941, and continues with few missing pages until 1967. Hatvertising was being published until about 1972, and compendiums for other garments were being printed until 1983 when Mittelmark closed down. What I found particularly interesting is how many of the advertisements are from Canadian retailers including: Eatons, Simpsons, Ogilvies, Morgans, Holt Renfrew, Fairweather, Creeds and Harridges.

1950s American Fashion: review

I received a very nice review of my 1950s American Fashion book from Lizzie Bramlett. If you read my blog you will likely enjoy her blog as well as it is filled with great information and thoughtful insights into the world of collecting, vintage clothing, and the history of fashion, brands, and textiles. Of course I read it for the fabulous book reviews!  I was especially flattered by her review of my book when she pointed out that: “For such a small book – there are only 64 pages – Walford packs in a lot of information.  So much of fashion history is written about the famous names, and when the emphasis is on American fashion, that usually means New York designers.  But here Walford gives a clear picture of how so much of the fashions being created in the US in the 1950s came from places like St. Louis and Honolulu.”

Book Review – American Menswear by Daniel Delis Hill

There are few books that detail men’s fashion history with any quality of information, but American Menswear by Daniel Delis Hill is one to treasure as a resource for understanding men’s fashion history.

Published by Texas Tech University Press in 2011, the nearly 400 page book with more than 700 illustrations is laid out logically, in garment categories (suits, sportswear, footwear, outerwear…) within a 150 year chronology. The 600 endnotes document the sources of information, making it an academic blessing and easy to use reference guide.

Conservative menswear is glacial in its evolution, but men’s fashion fads come and go in the blink of a season. Hill’s readable text examines American men’s dress and the menswear industry from an historical and socioeconomic viewpoint, finding the causes for change in mens fashion and the influences upon American ideals of masculinity.

American Menswear is a much-needed resource in my library. I recommend it as a text for men’s fashion history in fashion design and merchandising, and it should be in the library of any fashion museum, costumer, collector, educator, or dealer of men’s fashions. I haven’t seen this book in any book store chain, but it is available on Amazon.

New Book – 1950s American Fashion

Today is launch day for my latest book – 1950s American Fashion, by Shire publications. The 1950s was the first decade when American fashion became truly American. The United States had historically relied upon Europe for its style leads, but during World War II, when necessity became the mother of invention, the country had to find its own way. American designers looked to what American women needed and found new inspirations for American fashion design.

Striped cotton dress by Claire McCardell, 1951

Sportswear became a strength, but not at the expense of elegance. Easy wear materials were borrowed for producing more formal clothes, and versatile separates and adaptable dress and jacket suits became hallmarks of American style. This book follows the American fashion industry, from New York’s 7th Avenue to the beaches of California in search of the clothes that created 1950s American fashion.

The 64 page book, illustrated with period advertisements and photographs of garments by American designers, sells for U.S. $9.95 and appears on book shelves today!