Sunday, February 25, 2024

Two massive French fashion rivals with two very different battles to survive WW2: How ‘ruthless’ Coco Chanel became a Nazi mistress and spy… while Christian Dior reluctantly made clothes for Nazi wives and let the Resistance use his flat

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Perhaps it is no surprise that there was a lifelong rivalry between Christian Dior and Coco Chanel: the great French fashion designers sprang from different worlds.

Dior, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman, was brought up in middle-class comfort. Chanel, daughter of a laundrywoman, was born into poverty and was taken into an orphanage, aged 11, when her mother died.

The iconic looks the two designers created from the ashes of World War II were as different as their background. Dior’s ‘New Look’, with its rounded shoulders, cinched-in waists and full skirts was hailed as a break from wartime austerity. The simple lines of Chanel’s elegant but formal tweed suits were inspired by the comfortable clothing worn by men.

Chanel passionately disliked Dior’s aesthetic, because it feminised women — she believed her clothes empowered them.

Juliette Binoche as Coco Chanel in Apple TV+’s new show The New Look

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel was the daughter of a laundrywoman, was born into poverty and was taken into an orphanage, aged 11, when her mother died

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was the daughter of a laundrywoman, was born into poverty and was taken into an orphanage, aged 11, when her mother died

Ben Mendelsohn plays Christian Dior

Ben Mendelsohn plays Christian Dior

Chanel passionately disliked Dior’s aesthetic, because it feminised women

Chanel passionately disliked Dior’s aesthetic, because it feminised women

When the New Look launched in February 1947, Chanel said, disparagingly: ‘Look how ridiculous these women are, wearing clothes by a man who doesn’t know women, never had one, and dreams of being one.’

She later declared that ‘Dior doesn’t dress women. He upholsters them’, and that a woman sitting down in a Dior dress looked like ‘an old armchair’.

Dior responded with gentlemany understatement, writing later in his memoir only that Chanel’s ‘personality as well as her taste had style and elegant authority’.

But winning the favour of the elegant — and richest — women of the time was crucial and not just to prove one style of design was more creative or forward-looking than the other. It was existential for their business, which had been hit hard by the war.

And we now know that what set the two apart was far more than a dispute over silhouettes: more important was how they had fought to emerge unscathed from the Nazi occupation of France.

A new ten-part Apple+ TV series, The New Look, released tomorrow, follows Christian Dior’s rise to fashion fame and his relationship with his beloved younger sister, Catherine, a member of the French Resistance and an inspiration for much of his work.

Starring Bloodline’s Ben Mendelsohn as Dior and Juliette Binoche as Chanel, The New Look brings the horrors and compromises of war into vivid focus — inevitably making us wonder what we might have done in Dior or Chanel’s place.

Dior’s early career was surprisingly chequered: his family hoped he would become a diplomat, but he insisted on pursuing his passion for art, opening a small gallery where he sold pieces by artists including Picasso. It was forced to close after Dior’s father lost his money in the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

A newly impoverished Dior started selling fashion sketches, working for renowned designer Robert Piguet until he was called up for military service. When Dior returned to Paris in 1942, he was hired by couturier Lucien Lelong (played by John Malkovich), working alongside Pierre Balmain.

It seems extraordinary to think of French couture continuing amid the turmoil of war — but even more astonishing is that the Nazis had a plan to uproot the lucrative French fashion industry and relocate it to Berlin.

Lelong, president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, fought to keep the couture houses in Paris. But the most notable designers — those who hadn’t fled the French capital, that is — were obliged to produce clothing for the wives of SS officers. Jean Patou, Jeanne Lanvin and Nina Ricci all did so.

Dior, as an employee of Lelong, did what he had to do — no more, no less — in terms of pandering to Nazi wives, in order to help keep the French fashion industry alive. ‘Creation cannot stop the bullets. But creation is our way forward,’ Malkovich (as Lelong) says in the series.

Christian was a privileged son of a wealthy businessman, was brought up in middle-class comfort

Christian was a privileged son of a wealthy businessman, was brought up in middle-class comfort

Dior's sister Catherine was a French resistance fighter in World War Two

Dior’s sister Catherine was a French resistance fighter in World War Two

Dior’s sister Catherine’s path of resistance was altogether more risky. In 1941, Catherine (played by Game Of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) fell in love with one of the founders of the French Resistance and joined the organisation herself, setting up office in Christian’s Paris flat. So, Christian would work each day making dresses for Nazi wives, then come home to his apartment, where a hub of resistance was taking shape.

Tragically, Catherine was betrayed by a fellow fighter in 1944. Seized and tortured by Nazi officers, she was deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp in northern Germany. Christian tried to intervene and prevent her deportation through the Nazi contacts he had made through his work but was unsuccessful.

Catherine was subsequently moved to the Torgau military prison, an offshoot of Buchenwald, then forced to work at a factory near Leipzig. She did her best to resist, sabotaging machinery.

In 1945, as the Allies swept across Europe, prisoners were ‘evacuated’ by being force-marched from one camp to another. Catherine was on such a march when she was picked up by the Allies near Dresden and returned to Paris. She was so emaciated that Christian failed to recognise her at the train station — and too sick to eat the celebration dinner he had planned.

Coco Chanel’s approach to the Nazi occupation could not have been more different. On the surface, her actions look much more questionable — she has been accused, convincingly, of being a Nazi spy. But war and the desperate need to survive it often create moral ambivalence. We know something of what the designer did during the occupation of France, but very little about why.

Unlike Dior, Chanel was already well-known by the time war broke out — she had revolutionised women’s cumbersome Victorian wardrobes in the 1920s with the invention of the ‘little black dress’.

Her growing fame as a designer gave her an introduction to Europe’s elite. She became the mistress of Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster, and through him, friends with Winston Churchill.

During the spring of 1940, after the Germans entered Paris, Chanel first fled south to Corbere to stay with her nephew Andre’s family. There, she learned that Andre, a soldier in the French army, had been captured and was being held in a prison camp Germany. Chanel returned to Paris, determined to return to Paris and use her connections to free her nephew.

Shortly afterwards, she became the lover of a Nazi intelligence officer, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Whether that was through attraction, a need for protection or a ploy to secure her nephew’s release, we can’t be sure.

She moved into the Ritz hotel, where she had stayed from time to time since 1935 — but rather than just a luxury hotel, the Ritz was now the Nazi headquarters in Paris.

Some argue that Chanel’s affair with von Dicklage and her fraternising with Nazis was all to do with winning Andre’s freedom (and so determined was she to achieve this, that some biographers have theorised that Andre was, in fact, Chanel’s son by her first lover Etienne Balsan and not her elder sister’s child.)

But it seems she went much further — perhaps to the point of collaboration. Most accounts of Chanel’s life dance around the issue, but The New Look doesn’t scrimp on dramatising this part of her life. It also portrays an undeniably ruthless side to her character.

Early in the war, Chanel closed her business, putting 4,000 women out of work. That may have been a practical decision, given the uncertainty of the immediate future, but it was thought by some to be revenge for a strike for higher wages that took place in 1936.

She also took full advantage of ‘Aryanisation’ laws that forced Jews to give up their businesses. In an attempt to wrestle control of the perfume sector of Chanel from the Jewish Wertheimer family, with whom she had a business deal, she wrote to the government claiming the Wertheimers had ‘abandoned’ the business. But the family outflanked her, having secretly signed over the stewardship of the company to a Christian friend who, it was arranged, would hand it back at the end of the war.

In secret papers only released in 2014, Chanel was apparently shown to be a Nazi spy, registered in 1941 as Agent F-7124, with the code name ‘Westminster’, after her former lover. She seems to have acted as a go-between, feeding information as dictated by the Nazis to her powerful, high-society friends in England.

The New Look launches on Apple TV+ on February 14

The New Look launches on Apple TV+ on February 14

That same year — 1941 — she was sent on some sort of mission for the Nazis to Madrid, in neutral Spain. No papers pertaining to the journey survive, so historians are unclear as to what she was doing — but her nephew was released shortly after she returned to Paris.

Two years later, in 1943, she was sent to Madrid once again, this time in possession of a letter written by Heinrich Himmler, for delivery to Winston Churchill. Travelling from Paris to London to hand over the letter directly would have been nigh on impossible, but as Spain was not involved in the fighting she hoped to be able to pass the letter — believed to contain a proposal for a truce — through the British embassy and thence to Churchill, by the diplomatic mail.

The plan collapsed when a fellow Nazi spy was caught and named Chanel as an informer.

When France was liberated, in 1944, Chanel was arrested and interrogated by the Free French Purge Committee, but she was not names as a collaborator. She wriggled her way out of trouble, partly by saying she had acted to secure her nephew’s release — and, some say, through an intervention by the British Royal Family secured by her faithful friend, Churchill.

To confuse matters further, a recent exhibition about Chanel’s life and work included two recently discovered new documents claiming she was also part of the French Resistance.

The first is a certificate allegedly showing her membership in the Resistance between January 1, 1943 and April 17, 1944, in which Chanel is described as an ‘occasional agent’. The other shows her affiliation with the ‘Eric’ underground resistance network and lists her code name as ‘Coco’.

These documents have been verified by the French government, but a distinguished historian of the Resistance doubts their authenticity — so Chanel’s real role may remain forever a mystery.

After the war, she went into exile in Switzerland for a decade and paid off the general who was her commander during Operation Modelhut to keep her out of his memoirs. In Switzerland, she kept her head down, only returning to Paris to re-establish her fashion house once enough time had elapsed for murmurings about her wartime associations to have quietened down.

Chanel herself claimed she returned because ‘Christian Dior said a woman could never be a great couturier’. In the drama, played by Juliette Biniche, she declares: ‘Monsieur Dior ruined French couture and I’m coming back to save it.’

Dior, by contrast, triumphed in the decade after the war. He founded his fashion house in 1946 with the encouragement of his mentor Lelong and it was an immediate hit with Parisian society, hungry for beauty.

Scenes in the series portray in all their skirt-swishing beauty what Dior’s first shows might have looked like.

It was Carmel Snow, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who dubbed his hyper-feminine combination of accentuated shoulders, nipped-in waists and impossibly full skirts the ‘New Look’ — one which restablished Paris as the world’s fashion capital and reignited the fantasy of fashion after six long years of frugality.

‘People need to feel. Dream. They need to live again. We can create a new world for them,’ Dior says in the series.

Fashion was a kaleidoscope through which people imagined the possibility of a new, peaceful world.

In 1947, Dior also launched the Miss Dior fragrance — named for his sister, Catherine. With its creation, Dior seemed to say to the Nazis: ‘I quietly made dresses for your wives to ensure Parisian fashion’s survival, but I tricked you and have now named the most famous fragrance in the world after my Resistance fighter sister.’

German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno once said that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, but both Christian and Catherine Dior saw things differently, believing that continuing a pursuit of beauty after the barbarity and devastation of war was the most rebellious act possible.

Dior summarises it thus in the series: ‘For those of us who lived through the chaos of war, creation was survival.’

Catherine became a florist and eventually bought a rose farm in Provence. She was awarded innumerable medals of honour for her resistance, including a Croix de Guerre (usually only awarded to members of the armed forces) and the Legion d’Honneur.

For her part, Chanel can perhaps be summarised in one word: opportunist. You don’t go from impoverished orphan to the Duke of Westminster’s lover and pal of Churchill’s without an eye for the main chance.

In a final irony, she died at the Ritz in Paris in 1971, where she had lived during the war with her Nazi lover. By that point, of course, the fashion house of Chanel was well and truly entrenched as an iconic brand and byword for Frenchness.

A woman whose name is synonymous with France is only known today because her ruthless behaviour ensured the survival of her brand. ‘Chanel can be very treacherous,’ Malkovich’s Lelong warns Dior in the series. Not that Coco would have cared. After all, this is the woman who said: ‘I don’t care what you think of me. I don’t think of you at all.’

The New Look series has hit written all over it, not least because it is a sumptuous visual spectacle: the beauty of its exquisite costumes, designed by Karen Muller Serreau, is only amplified by the grey, dismal wartime backdrop.

But the drama’s appeal is more than skin-deep. ‘Everything that has been part of my life, whether I wanted it to or not, has expressed itself in my dresses,’ Dior once said.

And, beyond rivalry, this is a story of triumph over adversity — and that’s a theme that doesn’t date.

The New Look launches on Apple TV+ on February 14

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