When we were in Chicago a couple of weeks ago we caught a great exhibition at the Chicago History Museum. The exhibition focussed on American fashion in the 1930s and 1940s, especially styles influenced by Hollywood, although there was a good cross section of French couture, high-end Chicago labelled garments, as well as humble frocks made from patterns at home.
Curated by Columbia College professor of fashion design Virginia Heaven, the show consisted of about thirty garments, as well as shoes and accessories. As Chicago was also a centre of the department store catalogue fashion world, there is also emphasis placed on the clothes available during that time from companies like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. It’s a great show and will be on until January 2020.
Yesterday I was the guest speaker at Todmorden Mills Museum 3rd annual Fab Forties day. It was a bit of a time-trip for me to begin with because I worked at the museum from August 1985 to March 1987. When I was there, the two original houses on the site were an 1838 house interpreted as an 1850’s mill-owner’s home, and a Regency-style cottage thought to have been built in about 1817, and restored to the late 1830s. However, now the mill owners house has been re-interpreted. The house has been duplexed to represent two 1890s mill workers residences (as it actually had been in the 1890s), and with further research it was discovered the ‘Regency’ cottage was built in 1851, and has been made over to represent a wartime 1940s interior.
The 1940s kitchen
The museum site is beautiful – a little piece of the country in the middle of the city. This was an industrial community from the 1790s until the 1940s. Most of the original buildings are gone but for the two houses, Canada’s oldest paper mill (which is now a community theatre and art gallery), and part of a brewery, (which is now administrative.) Appropriate with the wartime 1940s theme, the back parking lot was once the site of a German POW camp.
It was a perfect setting, and perfect weather, for a trip to the past. Visitors were encouraged to bring picnics and then enjoy the activities which included: the theatre converted into a Victory dance hall, complete with live dance band, wartime food ‘treats’ offered from the 1940s kitchen (warning, skip the mock fudge – its AWFUL!), vendors of 1940s vintage items, my lecture on fashion in the forties, a costume contest, vintage cars, and my favourite – a popsicle vendor (with updated organic flavours for today’s palate.) This is an event to keep your eye out for next year — I think the soccer game and Father’s Day drew some of the crowds away from this year’s event, but there is no reason this shouldn’t become hugely popular in coming years.
Contestants for best costume. The man in an original 1942 uniform won best male costume (more men came in costume but were too shy to compete.) It was a tough call for best female costume but in the end the woman in the brown dress and Victory roll hairstyle took home the prize.
Thierry Delettre with costumes from A French Village
The past few weeks I have been binge-watching Un Village Français – a French television series (in French with English subtitles) that originally aired between 2009 and 2016. The series was filmed in various locations around Limousin, but set in the fictional town of Villeneuve in eastern France, located somewhere around Besançon near the Vichy demarcation line, during World War II. Currently available on MHz in Canada and Netflix in the U.S., two or three episodes of this series have been filling my October evenings. I am currently about half way through the series (and thus halfway through the war because, like Mad Men, every season represents a year) and I am consistently impressed by the quality and accuracy of the costuming.
Historian Jean-Pierre Azéma, a specialist in the Second World War, was an historical adviser for the series, and you can tell accuracy was a goal for the production. In the quest for authenticity, costume designer Thierry Delettre explained in an interview with a French newspaper that he referred to Dominique Veillon’s book ‘Fashion Under Occupation’ for his fashion information. I also detect a lot of research in period fashion mags including L’Officiel, which the character Mme Schwartz seems to follow religiously (that’s her above in the grey and white tartan pattern suit, and black and white hat). Delettre was not interested in reinventing wartime French fashions, his goal was to recreate it. “I am a conductor. I have a team with me of dressmakers, tailors, bootmakers. However, the costume designer is not, as in fashion, a designer of clothes. He provides the silhouettes for the characters and participates in the artistic development of the film” explained Delettre.
From military costumes and couture to guerrilla armbands and yellow stars, Delettre recreates a wide swath of characters who all struggle with their ‘shades of grey’ moral involvement with the war, from collaboration to resistance. If you liked Mad Men and Foyle’s War, you will like Un Village Français.
Rosy the Riveter by Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover, May 29, 1943
Mary Doyle Keefe was 92 when she passed away today. Keefe was 19 when she was paid $10.00 to pose for two mornings in Arlington, Vermont for the artist Norman Rockwell. Working as a telephone operator, Mary had no idea that when her image was printed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, on May 29, 1943, that she would become a wartime symbol of the American woman on the home front.
Image often incorrectly identified as ‘Rosy the Riveter’.
“Other than the red hair and my face, Norman Rockwell embellished Rosie’s body, I was much smaller than that and did not know how he was going to make me look like that until I saw the finished painting.” Keefe said in a 2012 interview with the Hartford Courant.
Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” is often confused with the popular image created to sell war bonds of a woman flexing her arm with the slogan “We Can Do It.”
I ran across this fascinating story from a local history blog and couldn’t wait until November 11 to post it… Jim Alexander was a resident of Hespeler, Ontario and a Corporal with the Lincoln and Welland Regiment in WWII. In March 1945 he was in Veen, Germany when he was ordered back to England to be decorated by the King for bravery.
Although greatcoats were supplied to soldiers when needed, Alexander’s regiment was awaiting supplies, including greatcoats, and so he gave his coat to a fellow soldier before leaving for England. Upon arriving in rainy, cold Aldershot, Alexander went to a Red Cross Centre where he picked out a khaki, hand-knit wool sweater. After receiving his medal for bravery, Alexander rejoined his regiment and was given a new greatcoat. The sweater was packed away in his kit.
When Alexander returned home to Hespeler in January, 1946, his mother found the sweater as she sorted through his clothes for laundry. She recognized it as one she had knitted herself and proved it by snipping the seam between the double collar to reveal a two dollar bill with a hand written note in her hand requesting the recipient to write her to let her know how he was doing. Apparently it was common for women who had knitted socks, scarves, and sweaters for overseas to include money and notes in the hems and seams of their garments. It was pure coincidence that Alexander had picked the sweater his own mother had knitted and yet never looked inside the collar.
Added 19.9.14: Here is a similar story about a note found in WW1 kilt.
An interesting snippet I discovered yesterday from the Montreal Gazette, August 29, 1968:
“Women who carry heavy handbags sometimes suffer from unpleasant finger tingling… Dr. Ronald Barber, a diagnostic expert, told a group of physiotherapists heavy handbags can cause women to walk slightly off kilter. The result is pressure on certain nerve paths that causes the unpleasant sensation in the fingers… It was prevalent among women in Britain during the Second World War because they were forced to stand in queues for hours with heavy shopping bags to buy goods in short supply…”
Christian Dior (back left) and his family in c. 1920 Catherine is sitting on the chair between her parents
An interesting tidbit about Christian Dior’s family re-surfaced recently when the C.E.O. of Christian Dior took the stage a few weeks ago before a Dior fashion show to talk a little about Dior’s family during the war. Dior’s sister, Catherine, had been in the Resistance. Although her wartime work had no direct bearing on today’s Dior fashion brand, this bit of history was obviously brought up in a continuing battle for damage control after Galliano’s unfortunate comments.
In late 1941, Catherine Dior became a member of the ‘Massif Central’, a Resistance network focused on gathering and transmitting intelligence about German troop movements and weapon production. In June 1944, Catherine had used Christian’s Paris apartment to meet with members of the Resistance while her brother was away. Some of Christian’s friends were staying at the apartment at the time and did not realize how dangerous the scene was until afterwards when they learned that Catherine had been arrested by the Gestapo.
Catherine Dior was put on one of the last trains out of Paris, which departed on August 15, just days before the liberation of the city. About 2,600 people were packed into the cattle cars of that train, the men destined for Buchenwald, the women for Ravensbruck. Only eight-hundred and thirty-eight survived – most of the rest died from Typhus.
Between the time of his sister’s arrest and her deportation, Christian used every contact he had to seek her release. Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul-general who was expert at mediating on behalf of prisoners and the Red Cross secured a promise on August 18 that Catherine would be placed under the protection of Sweden if she was still in France, but the train was already in Germany.
Luckily, Catherine had been put to work in a munitions factory and survived the war. She was liberated in April, 1945 and returned to Paris the following month. Catherine was awarded the Croix de Guerre as well as the Combatant Volunteer Cross of the Resistance, the Combatant Cross and, in the U.K., the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom. She was also named a chevalière of the Legion of Honour. She died in 2008.