Paris hairstyles, 1944

These production tests from the film Falbalas are interesting because the film was shot in Paris in early spring 1944, before it was liberated. The film revolves around the couture fashion industry, and shows the sharp contrast between Paris couture and its extravagant use of fabric and the real world of fabric rationing. I think the hair is also interesting for its use of permanents!

Canadian Fashion Connection – Brampton Knitting Mills

We were recently offered a spool of labels from the Brampton Knitting Mills. I had not heard of the company before but with a bit of googling came up with a pretty complete history:

John McMurchy founded J.M. McMurchy & Sons knitting mill on March 18, 1913 in Brampton, Ontario. The company specialized in hosiery but did other knitting as well. The mill was sold on May 14, 1925 to Abdo Aziz and was expanded in May 1934. On September 18, 1952, the company was renamed The Brampton Knitting Mills. The company survived until 1995 but was not officially dissolved until 2004. The former building is now a Brew Pub.

I also found an interesting quote about the company from the book Canada’s Greatest Wartime Muddle: National Selective Service and the Mobilization of Human Resources during World War II – by Michael Stevenson:

“In February 1943, A.K. Aziz, manager of the Brampton Knitting Mills plant, protested that many of his employees, both male and female, were leaving his employ to work at the Victory Aircraft plant in nearby Malton… In April, Aziz reported that all five of his experienced male knitters had either quit or handed in 7-day separation notices. This action has created a production bottleneck that forced the company to cancel its war order with the DMS. In the same vein, officials of Penman’s Ltd. of Paris, Ontario, reported in April 1943 that their outerwear department had been reduced from 120 to 44 employees. At the same time, the Penman’s plant in Brantford had been reduced to a staff of 210 from a normal complement of 375…”

The maker of the tape was P.P. Payne, an English company based in Nottingham, U.K., that has specialized in making labels for companies since they were founded in 1911. They are still in business but were renamed in 2013.

Hitler’s hat


Marowitz holding his souvenir in 2003

An article caught my eye yesterday about the late Richard Marowitz who was with the reconnaissance unit of the 42nd Infantry Division during World War II. When his unit was in Munich cleaning out Hitler’s apartment he came across the former Führer’s top hat and “smashed the hell out of it” Marowitz told the Associated Press in 2001. It was April 30, the day Hitler died in his bunker in Berlin. “When he heard some skinny Jewish kid stomped all over his favourite hat, he committed suicide,” Marowitz joked in the 2001 interview. The story was featured in the 2003 documentary “Hitler’s Hat”. Marowitz died earlier this week in Albany, New York. His family will be donating the hat to a museum.

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.

Film Costume Review – recreating World War II fashions in film

I have a weakness for films set during World War II, especially if they are about civilian life during the war. I wrote my book Forties Fashion to clarify the differences in national styles during the war, because women in London, New York, Paris, and Berlin all had very different wartime experiences and wardrobes, but those differences often aren’t apparent in films that recreate the period. Although, some films do a better job than others.

One of my favourite costume designers of 1940s films is Anna B. Sheppard. Her Polish background has given her insight into wartime continental fashion. She became so proficient at the job that she got into a bit of a rut doing 1940s films including: Band of Brothers (2001), Schindler’s List (1993), and The Pianist (2002), all of which are extremelly well done, as well as Inglorious Basterds (2009), which I didn’t see but assume the costuming is equally as good.

Another of my favourite costumers who did several films that took place in the 1940s is Shirley Russell. Her work included: Yanks (1979), Hope and Glory (1987), and Enigma (2001). Costumer Sandy Powell often takes on historically set films, including several that were set partially during the war, including Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), and The End of the Affair (1999).

Also worthy of seeing are: Swing Shift (1984) Joe Tompkins costumer; A League of Their Own (1992) Cynthia Flint costumer (but don’t look too closely at the extras); The Land Girls (1998) Shuna Harwood costumer; Rosenstrasse (2003) Ursula Eggert costumer; Valkyrie (2008) Joanna Johnston costumer; Charlotte Grey (2001) Janty Yates costumer; Radio Days (1987), Jeffrey Kurland costumer (a bit uneven but mostly very good); Bon Voyage (2003) Catherine Terrier costumer; and Black Book (2006) Yan Tax costumer (although there are a couple of dresses and one pair of shoes I really don’t like, otherwise the costuming is well done.)

The British television series Fortunes of War (1987) and Foyle’s War (2002-2009) are both great series for their stories but not always the best when it comes to civilian costuming for the period. (Added April 15, 2013 – I just rewatched 4 of the Foyle’s War, and I have to say I was too hasty in my judgment – the costuming is very well done. There are a few small errors here and there, but the costumer did an excellent job on what must have been a shoestring budget.) However, outweighing any indiscretion by any film made in the last thirty years are the slew of war films aimed at the postwar veteran audience such as: From Here to Eternity (1953), Battle of Britain (1969), and Tora Tora Tora (1970). These films rarely even attempted period costuming and have aged badly because of their lack of attention to recreating the period. Unless you want to see them for the war campaigns, they are generally not worth watching.

Added August 22/11: Just discovered another worthy film – ‘Cristabel’ – a 1988 television movie about the true story of an English woman, married to a German lawyer, who lived in Germany for the duration. The costuming was done by Anushia Nieradzik.

Making Do in 1942…

(Originally blogged November 11, 2010)

Remembrance day is intended to honour the memory of those who died in service but civilians also paid a very high price, especially during World War II – the first war where more civilians died than soldiers.

As an honour for Remembrance day here is a snippet I had lurking in my files. This is a picture of a page from an English women’s wartime magazine I found online a long time ago. The magazine gives creative ideas for using military surplus parachute cords for trimming an old dress or hat, or even a lampshade! It may seem silly, but articles like this gave civilian women a distraction by offering a bit of fun, which improved the home front morale.

I wanted to include this illustration in my book on Forties Fashion but I never could find an original copy, so if you have this publication – let me know!

Book Review: The Little Coat (it could also have been called World War II’s Last War Bride)

(Originally blogged May 19, 2010)

Cover of the book depicting the real little coat made for Sussie Cretier , Christmas 1944

Yesterday I picked up a book at the library about the true story of a little Dutch girl who received a gift of a winter coat from a Canadian soldier for Christmas 1944. The story is charming, sad, funny, tense, and poignant, and serves to prove that truth is stranger than fiction.

The Canadian soldier was 19 year old Bob Elliot – part of the Canadian division that secured the southern Netherlands in autumn 1944. Stationed near the town of Alphen along the Maas River, Bob Elliot and his fellow tank crew befriended a 10-year-old Dutch girl named Sussie Cretier. Sussie’s family were from Rossum, but her father was discovered by the Nazis to have been working with the Dutch underground and the entire family narrowly escaped with only the clothes on their backs to nearby Allied-held Alphen. The soldiers ‘adopted’ Sussie as their good luck mascot, treating her with chocolate and gum. They even allowed Sussie to sit inside their tank while they fired shells across the river. On Christmas Day 1944, Bob Elliot and his crew presented Sussie with a khaki wool coat made from an army blanket by a local seamstress; one button was donated from the tunic of each soldier in the squad.

In 1981 Bob Elliot returned to the Netherlands and reconnected with Sussie and her family. They unexpectedly fell in love and Sussie moved to Canada, bringing with her the coat she had kept all those years as a memento. They married and moved to Edmonton and it was there in 2004, when the coat was on display at the Royal Canadian Legion that author Alan Buick became intrigued by their story and began writing a book about their experiences during the war and the little coat. In 2006 the coat was donated to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

This is a charming story, it would make a great movie, and its all true. If you want a quick, uplifting read I highly recommend this book. The Little Coat was published in 2010 in honour of the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. Copies can be purchased through

Images, War and Remembrance

(Originally blogged November 8, 2009)

Buying images for a publication can be prohibitively expensive. I wish I had known about the Library of Congress image archives when I wrote my book Forties Fashion. They have a phenomenol collection and it’s copyright free! In keeping with Remembrance Day here are some superb images of women in factories during World War II from the Library of Congress archives. These are American images, but of course, scenes just like these were occurring around the world during the war and on both sides of the conflict.