Category Archives: World War II

Currently Reading: Sleeping With the Enemy, Coco Chanel’s Secret War

In preparation for making my “French Couture” jacket, I decided to reread my books about Coco Chanel, and I bought a few new ones as well.  One that I’d been meaning to read was Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War.

If you have read any of the hundreds of books about Chanel, then you know that she closed her couture house before the Nazi takeover of France, and that during World War II she lived in the Ritz Hotel and took a Nazi lover.  But for the most part the years between 1939 and 1954, when Chanel reopened her house, are just sort of skipped over in writings about her.

This book by Hal Vaughan attempts to fill in the blanks.  Vaughan spent years studying documents in England, France, Germany, Spain and Russia.  What emerged from his research is a pretty sorry tale.

Though the book is primarily concerned with the war years, Vaughan starts with Chanel’s birth in 1883, and follows her rise to fame.   He takes a close look at the influences of her life in an attempt to explain (but not justify) the actions she took during WWII.

Chanel was born to poor peasant parents.  When she was twelve her mother died and her father took her and her sisters to a convent to be reared by nuns.   According to Vaughan this is where Chanel first encountered anti-Semitism, as she was taught that it was the Jews who had killed Christ.   These beliefs were strengthened through several of her relationships, including those with her lovers the Duke of Westminster and artist Paul Iribe.

She was also quite bitter about an arrangement she made with Pierre and Paul Wertheimer in 1923.  The Wertheimers were Jews who were in the perfume business.  Chanel entered into a legal relationship where she pretty much signed over the rights to make Chanel *5 in return for 10% of the profits.  Even though the arrangement made her wealthy, after a while she began to feel that she had been cheated by the brothers.

In 1936 Europe was in turmoil.  The Nazis were gaining strength, the Spanish were at war, and in France the government seemed to be moving toward Communism.  Many labor unions organized strikes, closing down industry, services, and shops.   In June all of Chanel’s employees closed down her shop and atelier.  Chanel was infuriated, and to a large extent blamed the French Prime minister, Leon Blum, who was Jewish.  After a standoff that lasted several months, Chanel gave in to the worker’s demands.

In 1939, after Germany invaded Poland and France declared war on Germany, Chanel abruptly closed her business.  She declared that war was no time for fashion, but Vaughan proposes the idea that this was Chanel’s way of getting even with her workers who had gone on strike three years earlier.  The closing of a couture house might not seem like a big deal, but the closure meant that 3000 workers lost their jobs.

As the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, Chanel took another lover, Nazi agent Gunther von Dincklage.  Vaughan suggests that Chanel first became involved with Dincklage because her nephew, Andre Palasse had been captured by the Germans.  She needed help getting his release from a German camp.  In 1941 she made a deal to obtain Andre’s release.  It involved Chanel going to Spain as an agent for Germany in return for his release.

After the occupation Chanel also tried to get back control of her perfume business, claiming that the Jewish Wertheimers could not be the legal owners under German law.  But the brothers had foreseen Chanel’s move and had signed over the company to an “Aryan”business associate.  After the war they had to fight him to regain control and were successful.

Throughout the war Chanel continued to made trips on the behalf of the Third Reich.  She was even involved in an effort of some Nazi officers to get a message to Winston Churchill, hoping to save their skin as it became obvious that Hitler’s regime was doomed.  During the years that Chanel had been the lover of the Duke of Westminster, she had become great friends with Churchill.  These officers attempted to exploit this relationship.

After the Liberation, life became quite difficult for those who had collaborated with the enemy.  Thousands of French citizens, including Chanel, were arrested.  In Chanel’s case, she was interrogated and released, possibly with the help of her old friend, Churchill.  She quickly fled Paris, going to live in Switzerland.  For a while she looked to be in the clear, but in 1946, her involvement was again questioned.  This time she denied all the charges, even though there were documents that contradicted her testimony.

For some years Chanel lived with Dincklage in Switzerland, but by 1951 she was by herself and at loose ends.  In 1953 she decided the time was right for her to return to fashion.  Her comeback show was in February, 1954, and was met with a lukewarm reception in Paris, but it was acclaimed in the Unites States.   Her company was in deep financial trouble, and an unlikely savior appeared to save it.

Pierre Wertheimer offered to buy the business, the Chanel name, and her real estate.  In return all  of Chanel’s expenses would be paid by the company and she would retain control of the couture house.  At 71 years of age, it was too good a deal to pass up.  It was a money maker for them all.  Chanel spent the rest of her life in comfort, and the Wertheimers became fabulously wealthy.  The family still owns Chanel.

This is a greatly simplified account of Vaughan’s research.  The evidence against Chanel is pretty clear – she was not just sleeping with the enemy, she was the enemy.   While Vaughan gives a convincing case for Chanel’s guilt, the writing is at times disjointed and hard to follow.  There is a lot of skipping back and forth in time, and so it helps to have a good grasp of the larger events of the 1930s and 40s.

It might be easy to say that Chanel lived a charmed life, that she escaped justice and instead of punishment, spent her later years in luxury.  But the truth seems to be that she was one unhappy individual for most of her life.   Her lovers never stayed, but instead, married others.  Her last years were spent in what she feared most, being alone.


Filed under Currently Reading, Designers, World War II

Ad Campaign – Active Modern Shoes, 1943


Fascinating… inspired detail… perfect cut – all help Active Modern Shoes cast a real spell of loveliness upon your feet.

And with the built-in comfort that only Selby Arch Preserver hidden features can give, you won’t want to fly through the air – you’ll love walking.

I imagine that ad writers had a really hard time when it came to pushing the merits of wartime women’s shoes.  Due to the  scarcity of dyes, by 1943 American shoe manufacturers were limited to six colors: navy, black, white, and three shades of brown.  Shoes were made in sturdy styles that were  meant to last and to provide support for the feet of the female workforce.

I know that there will be some disagreement, but to me these are old lady shoes, possibly because in the 1960s old ladies were still wearing similar styles.  I can imagine that the older woman stuck with this style because as the ad points out, they were comfortable.  Look at all that toe room and the nice sturdy heel.  But I really do fail to see the this style would “cast a spell of loveliness” on anybody’s feet.

And is it just me, or does that black model actually look a bit like a witch’s shoe?


October 16, 2013 · 8:03 am

Glamour, May, 1943

From the cover notes:

In previous years, necks this low were usually seen on evening dresses.  Now they come right out in broad daylight and, combined with the briefest of sleeves, signal a new type of day-or-date dress that is this summer’s favorite.

In 1943 it was becoming increasingly necessary for the clothing budget ( and ration coupons) to be stretched as far as possible.  Clothing was often advertised as being multi-purpose, much like this “day-or-date” dress.  And while not exactly office-appropriate, it does seem like just the thing for an afternoon out shopping  or for a  casual dinner date.

This issue of Glamour was full of wardrobe stretching ideas:

* To save wear on your work clothes, change into slacks or hardy cottons when you arrive at home after work.

*  Keep your clothes repaired and clean.  “A stitch in time saves nine.”

*  Cover up the moth holes in your old wool swimsuit with flower appliques cut from colorful cotton.

*  Make a sturdy housedress by adding a skirt to the bottom of an old shirt.

*  Fasten a bunch of fresh flowers to a plain hat.  It’s like a new hat every time you wear it!

Photographer:  Lemus

Model: Not credited

Copyright: Condé Nast


Filed under Fashion Magazines, World War II

Fashion Correspondence, 1940s


One thing I’m always on the lookout for is old paper that pertains to the textile or fashion industry.  Here in North Carolina, I usually find things about cotton mills or denim manufacturing or hosiery production, but last week I found a nice collection of letters from sportswear and dress makers.  All the letters were to a Mr. William Teague of Greensboro, NC, and all were dated between 1943 and early 1947.

Standing in the flea market, shuffling through the letters, I was amazed at the letterheads, many of them from companies with which I’m familiar.  It was too good a find to pass up, and the seller just seemed pleased that someone actually wanted the things.

Yesterday was cold and rainy, so I got out the box of letters and began reading and sorting.  As it turns out, Teague was working as a sales representative for clothing manufacturers.  He would receive samples which he took to stores, hoping they would place an order with the company.  From the commissions he made his living.

It was a tough time to be in that business.  Many of the letters refer to wartime fabric shortages, and how the makers couldn’t expand into new territory because they simply did not have the goods.    The shortages did not stop with the end of the war.  It took several years for manufacturing to return to normal.

Teague was evidently a real go-getter.  There are dozens of rejection letters, often three or four from the same company written over a period of as many years.  It seemed that he would represent several companies at a time, tailoring his merchandise to the type of store, being careful not to sell the same dress to every store in a small town.

At least once this practice of representing more than one company  got him into trouble.  In 1946 the Debby-Lou Sportswear company of Boston terminated his services because he:

“…violated the terms of your understanding with this company.  As you well know, it is the policy of this company, and you agreed to adhere to this policy, that no other lines were to be carried by you without first obtaining the express consent of this company.”

I’ve got to wonder how they found out, them being in Boston and him in North Carolina.  Could it have been a jealous competitor, or maybe it was a store owner who was unhappy with his style of salesmanship?

The letterheads are quite interesting.  Many of them feature the same logos that were found on their labels.  And there is a lot of information about where companies were located, the official name of the company, and often, the name of the owner.

I was happy to see several letters from Lady Alice since I had written about this company recently.  There were also two promotional posters from Lady Alice.

Some of the letterheads are simply cute.

It’s an interesting look at one  little aspect of how the fashion industry operated in the 1940s.


Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, World War II

Ad Campaign – Lady Alice – 1943

Wear Your Own Secret Heart Code!

Lady Alice International Signal Flag Shirt

Your heart condition will be a secret to your sisters, but every service man will know how he stands, when you wear your Lady Alice code flag shirt.  One glance and the International Flag Code will subtly send your message.

It’s not unusual to see military themed garments and fabrics in ads  from the WWII period, and here is a prime example.   Lady Alice took the plain open neck blouse and added a touch of whimsey.  There was an “authentic colored signal flag” embroidered on the breast pocket.  Each flag had a actual meaning, but it is easy to interpret them in terms of Girl meets Boy: “Man overboard”, “I require a pilot”, and “I require assistance”.

And I find the Lady Alice interpretation of “I require assistance” – “You’re just a helpless little girl who’s looking for a big strong man to protect her”  to be not only grammatically confusing, but really ironic seeing as how  the very helpless little girl this was being marketed to was most likely working in a factory producing weapons for that big strong man to use in fighting the war.

Lady Alice was part of the California garment industry that emerged in the early 20th century.  It was founded in 1925 by an immigrant from Iceland, Krist Gunderson.  He also started the Lil’ Alice label.  Both labels were used until sometime in the 1960s when the company became known as Alice of California.


Filed under Advertisements, World War II

Currently Reading: Slacks and Calluses

Slacks and Calluses was the result of two high school teachers who decided to spend their summer vacation in 1943 helping out the war effort by working in an aircraft factory.   Constance Bowman Reid was an English teacher, and her friend Clara Maris Allen taught art, and in their spare time that summer they worked together to produce this delightful little book.

When I found this book, I assumed it was a  memoir, written by the pair many years later, but instead they  put the finishing touches on their work after they returned to school that fall, and they were lucky enough to get the book published the next year.  As a result, the book has a freshness and humor that goes with the very recent retelling of a story.

Along with the amazing descriptions of how a giant airplane assembly line actually worked, Slacks and Calluses has a lot of insights as to the fashions of the day.  Most interesting are the attitudes toward women wearing what was still considered in most situations, men’s clothing.

It was bad enough being tired all the time and dirty most of the time, but worst of all the first week was having to go to work in slacks – down Fourth Street where people who knew us acted as if they didn’t, or down Third Street where people who didn’t know us whistled as if they did.

The two friends found that clerks in stores ignored them, other women on the street scorned them  and men on buses would not surrender their seats to them like they did to women wearing skirts.

It was a great shock to C.M. and me to find that being a lady depended more on our clothes than upon ourselves… This summer we found out that it was not out innate dignity that protected us from unwelcome attentions, but our trim suits, big hats, white gloves, and spectator shoes.  Clothes, we reflected sadly, make the woman – and some clothes make the man think he can make the woman.

Some women in the factories, the “women’s counselors” and nurses, were allowed to wear skirts. Constance and C.M. “hated” those women.

On the positive side, the two did not have to worry about their figures that year, as all the walking just getting to their spot on the assembly line was sufficient exercise, and then the job itself was quite physical.

Slacks and Calluses is a light, fun read that gives a view of WWII that is rather hard to come by.  In the updated version, Reid wrote an epilogue, in which she says she was a bit embarrassed by the book.  That is because she went on to write books about math and number theory and became quite renowned for this work.  She died in 2010 at the age of 92.


Filed under Currently Reading, World War II

Ad Campaign: Matson to Hawaii, 1951

Forgive me for a moment so I can indulge in a little wintertime fantasy.  It’s a cold, rainy, gloomy day, but on the seas to Hawaii all is sunny and bright.

It took the cruise lines a few years to get back up to speed after WWII, as most of the ships had been used in the war effort.  Matson was operating four luxury liners in the Pacific before December 7, 1941, and all were converted into troop carriers.  Together, the four Matson liners carried a total of 736,000 troops and covered one and a half million miles before the war ended in 1945.

The transition back to cruise service was difficult and costly for Matson.  They ended up selling two of their liners so that the S.S. Lurline could be remodeled and relaunched in 1948.  By the late 1950s Matson had four liners making the route between California and Hawaii.  Today Matson is still in business as a container ship operator on the Pacific.  I’m sure it is more profitable than running cruise ships, but it could not be as romantic.


Filed under Advertisements, Travel, Vintage Travel, World War II