Riri and Fonfon 14

By now the brothers’ stock of clothing is running perilously low.  Despite the best efforts of the woman they have employed to wash and mend their stuff, they repeatedly ask their sisters to send them items from their wardrobe at home.  Riri is desperate for shoes. “My pair of light shoes has given up the ghost –  no need for condolences – and Fonfon doesn’t have any at all.  He’s OK for the moment but when the summer comes we can’t wear boots all the time, and anyway what will we do when they need new soles?  At present my boots are at the cobbler’s and I’m running around in a pair of sandals that one of the guys has lent me.   (It is February and snowing!) Fortunately they should  be ready on Saturday.  You may well ask what happened to my shoes, well they simply fell apart and had to be burned, and that after I had spent 130 Francs trying to get them repaired.  Can you see if you can find us a pair each?  I think I have some in the wardrobe in Arlebosc.”

As typical Frenchmen, Riri and Fonfon are anxious to look presentable and Riri writes that the one suit they each have “will not be respectable for much longer.”  The girls wonder whether it would help if they sent a clothing ration card, presumably one left behind when their brothers went to Germany.  Riri replies “No, keep it and do try to use it if you can.  We are not entitled to clothing rations here and there’s practically nothing available second hand, probably less than in France, but you never know what might turn up.”  The brothers have clearly been running through what clothes they remember leaving behind, and there is considerable discussion over the following letters about what exacly the girls should send.  Riri writes:  “Thank you for sending our brown suits.  I’m prepared to give up on the blue trousers if you really can’t send them [?] but in that case please send my golfing trousers [plus fours], and I will need some long light coloured socks to wear with them in the summer.  I only have heavy woollen ones so if you could find some, preferably with patterns, [he goes into details here but I have been unable to discover exactly what he is referring to]  or if you should happen to have a pile of white knitting cotton going spare perhaps you could make me a pair.  And please send my black shoes, I know there is a brand new pair in Arlebosc.”

Quite apart from the actual need to have something decent to wear, we all know that how we are dressed can lift our mood.  Clothing restrictions during these years were particularly frustrating, especially for women.  In Britain, they could wear various uniforms – WRNS, ATS, the Land Army or another organisation – with pride and a sense of active involvement in the struggle against evil but French women had no such possibility and, given the national love of fashion and their desire to present an elegant and dignified front to the occupying forces, they made every effort with their appearance.  

Making the most of very little

Clothing was severely rationed and women could only apply for coupons for a specific item if their entire wardrobe consisted of less than two dresses, two aprons or overalls, one mackintosh, two pairs of winter gloves, a winter coat, three vests, two slips, three pairs of knickers, six pairs of stockings and six handkerchiefs. 

Parisiennes in particular considered it a matter of national and personal pride to look as smart as possible despite the shortages, and concocted elaborate hats, adorned with flowers, fruit and ribbons in defiance of the rules – yes, there were also rules about hats.

Women were encouraged to make do and mend and popular magazines, even the great fashion houses, came up with innovative ideas for pressing any scraps of fabric into use, sometimes with surprising results.  “Welcome to the Free Zone” opens with a passage on just this topic:  “On this sixteenth day of May 1942, Mme Hermelin was wearing a new dress.  It was made from an offcut of mattress ticking, long considered unsuitable for any other purpose following the last renewal of her bedding.  But, after three years of war, in a moment of creative inspiration, it struck her that the blue and grey striped cotton was actually quite attractive, and with typical decisiveness she had immediately had a dress made.  The result was indeed strikingly novel, while suitably understated, as became a lady of her standing”.


Source: Bundesarchiv

As is the case with most totalitarian régimes, the Reich was acutely aware of the politics of fashion and from the early 1930s promoted the perfect Aryan female ideal: a buxom countrywoman with braided blond locks, surrounded by a happy brood of children and dressed in traditional “dirndl tracht” who was celebrated in exhibitions, paintings and propaganda posters. She represented “the link between the bonds of German blood and soil. Her natural looks, unsullied by cosmetics, her physical strength and moral fortitude, her willingness to bear hard work and to bear many children, and her traditional dress, that recalled a mythical, untarnished German past.”*  Throughout the thirties the Nazis condemned French fashion, short hair and the garçonne look, which they identified as symptomatic of the moral degeneracy of the Weimar Republic.  In fact they went further and exaggerated Jewish involvement in the fashion industry so as to introduce a specifically anti-Semitic element into the message.  Only clothing which had been Aryan-designed and manufactured was deemed suitable for females in the Third Reich.

Source: Bundesarchiv

With the advent of war, clothes had to be rationed.  The first clothing card, issued in November 1939 and valid for one year, comprised 100 points covering different categories.  Socks “cost” 4 points, a pullover was 25 points and 100 points for a dress. From 6th February 1940, Jewish citizens were excluded from the clothes rationing scheme.

Severe shortages rapidly developed, particularly of shoes and fabric because textiles and leather were earmarked for the requirements of the German army.  The substitutes available on ration were of poor quality and frequently disintegrated when washed or ironed.  Christabel Bielenberg drily describes meeting a German lady, obviously with friends in useful places who could get her luxuries unavailable to ordinary mortals, in the cloakroom at a tea party: “She was hanging up her Persian Lamb – which smelt delicately of the occupation of Paris – next to my ‘German Forest’ (as those garments were called that were made of synthetic fibre) which had cost me half my clothing coupons.”

By 1943, drastic shortages meant that the clothing card was virtually useless in some areas of Germany and civilians turned ever more frequently to the black market, even though this was a highly punishable offence.  The glory days of idealised Aryan womanhood were long gone and women increasingly wore trousers, which were warmer and more practical for war work than skirts, especially when there were no more stockings and socks to be had.  Most households still had a supply of menswear hanging in the cupboards, left behind when their menfolk marched away to war, just as Riri and Fonfon left their clothes behind when they were sent to Germany.


Having occupied France, the Nazis ironically changed their tune over the degeneracy of haute couture, and made serious efforts to co-opt this highly prestigious industry – an icon of French culture.  In 1943 the order was given to close all the Paris fashion houses and transfer their ateliers to Vienna and Berlin, which was to become the world capital of fashion.  The couturiers only managed to reverse this decision by dint of strenuous lobbying and negotiation. 

Modes et Travaux November 1942

The French fashion industry was able to protect its independence but only at the price of maintaining close relations with the Germans, leading to some houses, such as Chanel and Rochas, being accused of collaboration after the war.  It was a tricky line to tread, particularly for Jewish creators.  In her family biography “House of Glass” Hadley Freeman has some interesting insights into the milieu at this time, writing about her great uncle Alex, who was a celebrated Paris couturier amongst many other things.

Under the terms of the armistice France was required to supply Germany with enormous quantities of raw materials and finished products, leaving her own industry facing severe shortages.  To take one example: in 1939 France produced 60 million pairs of leather soled shoes as against only around 9 million pairs the following year, 6 million of which had to be sent to Germany.  Leather was in such short supply that its use was severely regulated.  Double and triple leather soles were forbidden as were large leather handbags, and belts could be no wider than 4 cm.  By 1942 the scarcity of fabric led to rules governing design.  Skirts were narrow and shorter than pre-war and any unnecessary use of fabric was forbidden.  Out went pleats, gussets, half-belts, appliqué decoration and lace on underwear, hems were restricted in depth.  Men’s clothes were also subject to regulation and Riri’s plus fours were definitely not part of the prescribed look.  Double breasted jackets were not allowed, trousers were required to be narrow, with no pleats or turn ups and only one pocket, on the hip (known in French as une poche revolver).  Pyjamas too were only allowed one pocket.

Necessity is the mother of invention as they say and out of these restrictions the typical Forties style was born.  Women wore sharply tailored narrow suits or simple cotton dresses, painted seams on their legs and improvised turbans when they could not get hold of the materials to concoct a saucy hat.  A narrow belt and tiny handbag, espadrilles in summer or chunky, wooden- or cork-soled shoes, sometimes with the uppers made of plaited straw, raffia or even shredded rubber tyres, completed the look. 

In Paris, fashionable young men interpreted the regulations in their own way and cultivated the zazou look, based on the zoot suit.  Their love of jazz, swing and all things American was a way to cock a snook at the occupant, whilst still apparently following the rules. Through their creative and original responses to restrictions and endless regulations people were able to express not only their individuality but very often their rejection of the régime and a stubborn optimism that their lives would not always be like this. 

I like to think of Riri sporting his plus fours with hand knitted white cotton socks and shiny black dress shoes.  I am sure that they must have made him feel better able to deal with his dreary life far from home in Dresden.

photo: vintag.es

Welcome to the Free Zone. N and L Gara, translated by Bill Reed.  Hesperus Press 2013

The Past is Myself. Christabel Bielenberg.  Chatto and Windus 1968

House of Glass.  Hadley Freeman.  Simon & Schuster 2021

*  Fascist and Nazi Dress. Irene Guenther

Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.

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