Paris after the liberati.., p.30
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949, p.30

           Antony Beevor

  The exhibition opened on 27 March 1945 at the Pavillon de Marsan of the Louvre, and was accorded such importance that the Garde Républicaine, en grande tenue, formed a guard of honour on the opening night. Over 100,000 people came to see the exhibition over the following weeks. Most of them had had no new clothes since 1939 and haute couture was way beyond their means. Yet the numb, grey years of the Occupation had made them thirsty for colour and luxury, and the effect of these beautifully dressed wire dolls in their fantastic settings was magical. Some of the sets were Surrealist, but most were firmly Parisian. The centrepiece was Christian Bérard’s theatre, the stage and boxes of which were thronged with dolls dressed in the most elaborate evening gowns, sparkling with jewels by Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Underneath the satin and chiffon, some of the dolls had even been given silk underwear.

  To go with its fashions, ‘Paris always has to have a current beauty who is the rage,’ wrote Bettina Ballard of Vogue. Gloria Rubio arrived in Paris in the summer of 1945, and was immediately ‘the rage’. She was Mexican, and was dressed by Balenciaga, a designer known for a certain dramatic elegance that bordered on the vampish. For the next year she was very much on the social scene, and had the added attraction of being between husbands. She was in the last stages of divorce fromher German husband, Count von Fürstenberg, and was engaged to the Egyptian Prince Fakri. (She later married the English millionaire Loel Guinness.)

  The importance accorded to those in fashion came as a revelation to Susan Mary Patten when she planned one of the first charity balls in post-war Paris in the summer of 1946. Dark and pretty, Susan Mary was intelligent, entertaining and very well read. She and her husband, Bill Patten, had a great many friends, both Parisians and among the diplomatic community.

  The ball was to be in aid of the orphans of war-torn Lorraine. She booked the Pré Catalan, a restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne, hired an orchestra and sent out tickets for a masked ball, thinking that people would willingly buy them for such a good cause. One of her French friends told her she was mad: ‘No one is going to come to anything in this city for a good cause unless it’s fashionable, and you aren’t fashionable.’ Aghast, Susan Mary begged Diana Cooper for help. Diana said she would talk about it everywhere and they would visit the dressmakers. ‘Reboux, Schiaparelli, Lanvin, Balenciaga were our first stops,’ wrote Susan Mary. ‘At each one Diana asked, “Could I please see the models for the masks for the ball at the Pré Catalan? I’mterribly sorry to be so late; you must be running out of materials already.”’ No couturier dared admit he had never heard of it and ‘the bluff paid off. Two weeks later we were oversold and a nice little black market in tickets had started.’

  Gambling had always been one of France’s most lucrative tourist attractions, whether on the sea at Cannes, Biarritz or Deauville, or at the inland spa towns, where the casino was compensation for the austerities of a health cure.

  All gambling clubs had been closed during the war, both in the occupied and unoccupied zones; and after the Liberation casinos in France were refused materials for repair, as priority had to be given to housing. Ironically, one of the first to apply for a return of its gaming licence was the casino at Vichy. Its application was based on the grounds that a certain number of its former staff, prisoners of war and deportees, were in ‘urgent need’.

  Most casinos did not open until the spring of 1946, and then only after mayors, members of the National Assembly or prefects had written to the Minister of the Interior begging for his intervention to save towns whose only natural resource was tourism. The time was ripe, for the devaluation of the franc in December 1945 had acted as a powerful incentive for foreigners to come and spend money in France. Couture had never been so reasonable, and what they saved on clothes they would spend at the tables. The country’s desperate need for foreign exchange was the best argument against Communist attacks claiming that ministers were in the pockets of casino owners.

  The most enthusiastic, and the most silent, supporters of the revival of gambling were the big black-marketeers. Casinos offered the easiest way to launder large amounts of money. Before French casinos reopened, these men and women would travel to Monte Carlo with a suitcase full of grubby notes, and return with a pristine cheque from the Société des Bains de Mer and an unbreakable story that their fortune came from a lucky streak at the tables.

  In the years following the Liberation, racing was more controversial than gambling, since it attracted the rich French in a very public display of money and fashion while casinos catered more to foreigners. The racing correspondent of one newspaper denounced as scandalous the fact that racegoers – or turfistes, as they were called in the popular press – were running up restaurant bills of 10,000 to 12,000 francs for lunch. He also declared that ‘the paddock is overrun by the cream of the collaboration’. Guy de Rothschild recorded in his memoirs that ‘the owner of an important racing stable had his face publicly slapped at Longchamp by a man who was, moreover, not entirely irreproachable himself. A few years after the war, the same owner had the luck to win the Arc de Triomphe two years running; fearing the hostile reaction of the crowd, he didn’t even dare to leave his box.’

  The first presidential inauguration of the Fourth Republic took place on 16 January 1947. Nobody wanted to be president more than Vincent Auriol, the Socialist from the south-west who joked about his Languedoc accent. Auriol had been so nervous about the outcome of the election by the Assembly that he had hardly stopped touching wood.

  It was freezing on the day of the inauguration, but the sun was out. That night the Élysée Palace was illuminated, and the floodlit tricolour above it was flown for the first time in seven years. On 11 February, President Auriol gave the first large reception held since the war. The palace was brightly lit, some thought too brightly; the women wore very formal dresses, but the men were in dinner jackets rather than tail coats. The most crowded room was the dining room.

  Auriol was a bon vivant Socialist who took such pleasure from the trappings and the traditions associated with the office of president that the Communist minister François Billoux dubbed him ‘l’intoxiqué de l’Élysée’. He had a strong sense of the dignity of his new position. At the first meeting of the Council of Ministers, Jules Moch, an old companion-in-arms from the Socialist Party, turned to him and addressed him by the familiar tu.

  ‘Allow me,’ replied the President of the Republic, drawing himself up in his chair, ‘to make the observation to Monsieur le Ministre des Travaux Publics that…’

  The new President was also passionately fond of shooting and trout fishing, and whenever ambassadors arrived to present their credentials the talk soon turned in that direction. He was determined to improve the presidential shoot at Rambouillet, which for him was one of the most enjoyable perks of his position.


  February marked the start of the spring collections. It was always an exciting time, and the shows at the different maisons de couture were announced in the press in far larger letters than any opera or exhibition. And 1947 saw the emergence of a new designer, Christian Dior, who was to change the direction of fashion overnight.

  Bettina Ballard described Dior as a ‘pink-cheeked man with an air of baby plumpness still about him, and an almost desperate shyness augmented by a receding chin’. On 12 February 1947, the day he was due to present his first collection, he arrived early at 30 Avenue Montaigne, a beautiful hôtel particulier with an ornamental doorway which framed an awning on which his name was written in discreet black lettering.

  The house was in a frenzy of activity. Workmen were still tacking down the carpet, and people ran around with armfuls of fresh flowers for the reception rooms. Behind the scenes, the mannequins tried to calm their nerves by concentrating on their make-up. The main salon and the little one beyond were crammed with gold chairs. On each chair was a name card, every one of which represented hours of minute adjustment so that every fashion editor and important guest should feel not only that they had be
en correctly placed, but also that they were sitting next to people of equal rank with whom they were on good terms.

  No attempt had been made to drum up publicity, but Dior had powerful friends such as Comte Étienne de Beaumont, Marie-Louise Bousquet, Christian Bérard, and Michel de Brunhoff of Vogue. All had recognized Dior, from his work at Lelong, as a designer of prodigious talent. This had stirred up a great deal of excitement and curiosity about Dior’s new fashion house. The crush was so great that some people even attempted to get in through the top of the house with ladders.

  At half past ten, with the salons full to overflowing, all was ready. Having greeted his guests, Dior escaped to the sanctuary of his office to endure his agony of nerves as far from the catwalk as possible. The very first model to step out was so agitated that she stumbled; and once off-stage she dissolved into mascara-blackened tears and was incapable of making another entry. But as each new dress appeared it was greeted with gasps of admiration and applause. Members of Dior’s staff kept bursting into his office to report each new success; but he could not quite believe what had happened until he emerged, to be given a thunderous standing ovation. Among the most enthusiastic was Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar. ‘Your dresses have such a new look!’ she exclaimed – and so the name was born.

  The clothes looked simple, but they were extremely complex in construction. The most famous dress of his first collection was ‘Bar’: a white shantung jacket, nipped in at the waist and exaggerating the curve of the hips, above a wide black pleated skirt. Dior’s favourite dress in the collection, however, was called ‘Chérie’: beneath a tight bodice and tiny waist, the skirt consisted of yard after yard of white faille. A rumour went round that Dior’s backer, Marcel Boussac, actively encouraged Dior’s extravagant use of cloth to boost his textile sales. Dior always hotly denied it, and pointed out that Boussac dealt mainly in cotton – a material for which he had very little use.

  The impact of the show was astonishing, and reached far beyond the world of fashion. One old regular of the Jockey Club, M. de Lasteyrie, remarked that he had never heard a couturier’s name mentioned on the premises in the forty years he had been a member, but now ‘on ne parle que de Dior’.

  Balmain, like Dior, had spent the early part of the war in the unoccupied zone, in his native Aix-les-Bains, where he had met Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. After they had returned to Paris, Balmain and Dior worked side by side, designing all the clothes that the house of Lucien Lelong produced, for Lelong himself never pretended to be a designer. Dior wrote: ‘Neither Balmain nor I will ever forget that Lelong taught us our profession, in spite of all the restrictions of wartime and the constant fear of sudden closure.’

  In 1945, Pierre Balmain left Lelong to found his own maison de couture. His first collection was pronounced fresh and imaginative. Although not particularly avant-garde, the opening show was graced by the presence of his friends from Aix: ‘Gertrude Stein with her familiar cropped head, and Alice B. Toklas with her dark moustache, sitting in the seats of honour watching the pretty striped numbers go by, noting them meticulously on their cards with the same intensity of interest as they had noted the Matisses or Picassos that had passed through their lives’.

  Susan Mary Patten went to Dior’s first collection, and, as one of the vendeuses had become a friend of hers, ‘I was allowed into the fitting-rooms afterwards to try on some models. This was more dangerous than entering a den of female lions before feeding time, as the richest ladies in Europe were screaming for the models, shrill cries of “WHERE is ‘Miss New York’? I had it and someone has stolen it right from under my eyes!”’

  Daisy Fellowes, on the other hand, did not have to fight with the crowd in the Avenue Montaigne – the clothes which everyone desired so desperately came to her at the Ritz. ‘She is living in the most magnificent apartment on the first floor,’ wrote Duff Cooper, ‘and there vendeuses from Dior were showing her dresses and drinking her champagne. It was an exhibition of great wealth.’

  The conspicuous extravagance of Dior’s clothes was offensive to those for whom the war had meant five years of misery. ‘People shout ordures at you from vans,’ wrote Nancy Mitford to Eddy Sackville-West, ‘because for some reason it creates class feeling in a way no sables could.’ Just how offensive was proved by a photographic session organized in March 1947, which was designed to display Dior’s clothes in typically Parisian surroundings. Among the obvious settings such as the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées someone thought of a street market in Montmartre.

  The clothes were dispatched to Montmartre in great wooden packing cases on board a camionette. The models changed into them in the back room of a bar. But when, proud and graceful, the first one walked out into the rue Lepic market, the effect was electric. The street sank into an uneasy silence; and then, with a shriek of outrage, a woman stallholder hurled herself on the nearest model, shouting insults. Another woman joined her and together they beat the girl, tore her hair and tried to pull the clothes off her. The other models beat a hasty retreat into the bar, and in a very short time clothes and models were heading back to the safety of the Avenue Montaigne.

  Even in the conservative confines of the 7th arrondissement Dior clothes provoked some hard stares. Nancy Mitford was wearing her Dior suit when ‘a strange woman said would I excuse her asking but does it come from Dior? This was in the bistro I go to – and of course everybody knows about Dior’s prices. So I made up a sort of speech about how I saved up the whole war for a new coat etc.! But I know mine will soon be the same fate of l’élégante de la rue Lepique [sic]. Between the Communists and the ménagères one’s life is one long risk.’

  But despite the disapproval of the great and the good, and the outrage of the poor, there was no turning back: the New Look was in such demand that it represented 75 per cent of the total export sales from France’s fashion industry for 1947. It was also relentlessly copied. ‘The London New Look made me die laughing,’ wrote Nancy Mitford. ‘Literal chintz crinolines. Apparently Dior went over: and when he reflected on the fact that he was responsible for launching it, he was ready to kill himself.’


  A Tale of Two Cities

  The Communist view of Paris was not just of a city of stark contrasts, but of two different cities juxtaposed. ‘There is the Paris of banks, of boards of directors, of ministries, of American films, of insolent GIs, of American cars from the embassy of which the government is an annex; the Paris of nauseating luxury, of town houses inhabited by elderly dowagers who are lost in the labyrinth of their rooms.’ Then there was ‘the other Paris… at the same time much older and much younger’ – the working-class Paris of ‘Belleville, La Chapelle, la rue Mouffetard, Charonne, Ménilmontant…’

  Political rhetoric aside, the stark division of Paris between beaux quartiers and quartiers pauvres came largely from Baron Haussmann’s drastic reshaping of the city under the Second Empire. The populous slums in the centre were razed after their inhabitants had been evicted by force, and a golden boomof unrestricted property speculation began along his strategic boulevards laid out for the field of fire they offered against revolutionary mobs. Haussmann’s dictum that ‘architecture is nothing else than administration’ made town-planning akin to a military campaign, waged on behalf of a brashly triumphant bourgeoisie. There can be no doubt, as the sociologist J. F. Gravier wrote in 1946, that Haussmann’s cleansing of the lower orders from central Paris ‘strongly reinforced class consciousness’.

  The shift in population created new slums around the northern, eastern and southern perimeter of Paris. This became known in the 1930s as the ‘ceinture rouge’, even though it never encircled the city. The uprooted poor and successive waves of migrants to the capital were to live in cheaply built tenements and houses, which soon began to crumble. At the end of the war over a sixth of all buildings in Paris were in a seriously dilapidated state, and this proportion rose to well over a quarter in working-class districts. The central problem was
that rents were so over-controlled and so low – in 1945 rent took up only 4 per cent of the family budget as opposed to nearly 19 per cent in 1908 – that landlords never spent any money on repairs, let alone improvements to their property. Nearly a quarter of the houses and apartments depended on a tap in the courtyard or on the landing, and nearly half had no inside lavatory. The lack of hygiene extended to cooking, which was dangerous in the cramped conditions. The Prefect of the Seine, in a report to the Municipal Council, spoke of ‘slums which ruin the health and morals of our working people’.

  Some 450,000 people, roughly a tenth of the population of Paris and its suburbs, were defined with bureaucratic euphemism as ‘les plus défavorisés’. Worst of all were ‘les îlots insalubres’, the slum pockets in sunless, narrow streets, with squalid little apartments where a total of 186,594 people lived in 4,290 buildings, often with four or five people to a room. Up to 30 per cent of such inhabitants succumbed to tuberculosis, a record as bad as that of 1918. In one slum, the death rate reached 43 per cent. The Prefect, however, appeared to be most concerned with the moral aspect of parents and children sharing beds. ‘We are faced with a major crisis of disastrous social implications… Family life exists in an atmosphere of disintegration, where the degree of promiscuity is appalling.’

  In the waves of immigration before the war, the ancient and beautiful town of Saint-Denis on the northern boundary of Paris was swamped. ‘One cannot,’ wrote Gravier, ‘forgive the architects, the developers, and the property companies who built the cheap rented accommodation in Saint-Denis, for having changed a lively city full of history into a sordid concentration camp for immigrants.’


Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Add comment

Add comment