Dress History: The story of Corrie in her parachute silk blouse, ca. 1943

A black-and-white photograph captures a young woman posed against a plain backdrop, smiling confidently. She wears a blouse made of a seemingly light-coloured fabric. The blouse’s gathered sleeves end just above her elbows, and its yoke appears to be punctuated by small dots in five horizontal rows. The handwritten caption under this photograph, found glued into an album, not only identifies this young woman, but also ‘identifies’ the blouse by revealing its materials and how it was made. Moreover, it reveals that this woman is both the wearer and the maker of the garment. Originally in Dutch, the caption states: ‘Corrie in self-made blouse with smocking in parachute fabric from English aviator’.

‘Corrie’, short for ‘Cornelia’, is my maternal grandmother. She was born in 1925 as the eldest daughter and the third of six children. Her family lived in a small village in the south of the Netherlands. As a young girl, Corrie learned how to sew. Decades later, I remember Corrie, known to me as my grandmother, as having an eye for the intricate details of clothing – the quality of the material, the cut, the construction and the finish. Her appreciation of and interest in textiles and clothing, and how to make them, must have been hereditary. It runs like a thread through my family, from my grandmother to my aunts and mother, to my younger sister and me.

Before she married my grandfather Nel in 1950, my grandmother completed commissioned pieces in addition to making clothes for herself and her family. However, because of the years of textile rationing during the Second World War, none of her original pieces have remained. The earliest surviving self-made garment is her wedding dress, which after her death in 2011 was passed on to my mother. The blouse she wears in the aforementioned black and white photograph has disappeared. I did not even know about its existence until a few months ago, when I discovered this photograph in a photo album compiled by my grandmother’s younger sister, Nellie.

I brought it to our ‘Documenting Fashion’ seminar on ‘History and Memory,’ for which we had to bring a personal dress-related object. I had read before about garments made of so-called ‘parachute silk’ during and right after the Second World War. For instance, Dominique Veillon, in her book Fashion under the Occupation (2002), writes about the case of Vichy-France (1940–1944). During shortages of clothing and its raw materials, “any piece of cloth or the like was a godsend.” Veillon points to the emergence of a “fairly widespread fashion” for clothing made out of parachute silk among women close to the Resistance, even though this was risky because it revealed one’s links with the Resistance and the Allied Forces.[1] And Julie Summers in her book Fashion on the Ration (2016) about wartime fashion in Britain, writes: “Almost every woman who was alive at the time remembers either acquiring some [parachute] silk or having seen a garment made from it, and it was indeed considered to be a wartime luxury.” [2] However, Summers notes that “[a]lthough so many people claim to have had parachute silk, few can remember how to acquire it.”[3]

After finding the photograph of my grandmother, the stories about parachute silk garments suddenly became more personal. My grandmother, still a young girl during Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands (1940–1945), at some point had acquired parachute silk and made it into a blouse for herself and, as a second photograph of Nellie confirms, for her sisters (Figure 2). A handwritten comment on a piece of paper accompanying Nellie’s photograph states “1943?”, but this date remains unconfirmed.

Photograph of Nellie in a parachute silk blouse made. Foto Middendorp, Hilversum. Ca. 1943

I am currently trying to unravel this history further. The only remaining source is Cileke, my grandmother’s youngest sister. The story goes that the fabric for these blouses was salvaged from the parachute of an English aviator shot down not too far away from where my grandmother’s family lived. Having an uncle active in the Dutch Resistance might possibly explain how my grandmother managed to acquire such material. I would love to learn more about this material’s status in the specific context of the Netherlands during the Second World War. Was it forbidden to own this material? Was it dangerous to wear a garment made of it during the occupation?

The photograph of my grandmother in her parachute silk blouse has evoked many questions; some are broader, relating to wartime history, and others are personal, relating to my family’s personal history. Unravelling dress-related (and family) history can be hard when time has passed and the wearer is not alive anymore, and indeed, even the garment is gone. Nevertheless, this photograph makes me feel connected to my family. And although black-and-white, it adds more colour and depth to a topic that I have been interested in for a while, namely dress during the Second World War.

By Nelleke Honcoop

[1] Dominique Veillon, Fashion under the Occupation (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 137–38.

[2] Julie Summers, Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War (London: Profile Books, 2016), 137.

[3] Summers, 138.

Plenty of Pockets: Pockets as a 1940s Wartime Phenomenon

In her article for COS about pockets, Rebecca Arnold discusses the exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ held in 1945 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. According to Arnold, the exhibition’s curator Bernard Rudofsky signalled a degeneration of functionality in contemporary clothing and “bemoaned the excess of pockets in the tailoring of the time (24 by his calculation), many of which never carried anything”.[1] While spending the last few months doing research on the Dutch woman’s magazine Libelle, in particular its issues covering WWII, I was struck by the abundance of – often extravagantly large – pockets on both haute couture designs, discussed in the magazine’s regular fashion column ‘Libelle-Cocktail’, as well as on patterns for the home dressmaker. Praising their practicality, Libelle presented pockets as one of many “wartime phenomena” in fashion that may signal fashion’s response to immediate wartime conditions.

Unlike other Dutch women’s magazines, Libelle, a popular and still-existing ‘domestic weekly’ first issued in 1934, was continuously published for almost the entire duration of Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands (10 May 1940–5 May 1945). The magazine thus provides us with an interesting insight into Dutch domestic life under the pressing wartime conditions of food and textile scarcity. The Dutch textile rationing system, which was implemented on 12 August 1940 and was only abolished in November 1949, proved to be an ongoing, daily challenge for Dutch women responsible for keeping themselves, along with their families, adequately and, if possible, fashionably, dressed. Responding to the immediate needs of Dutch housewives, Libelle increasingly provided practical yet fashionable ideas on how to mend and make do with one’s wardrobe and make the most of one’s textile rationing card. Numerous sewing and knitting patterns were given, as well as instructions on how to make new garments, often from outworn or unused garments or from unusual materials. Practicality, frugality and diligence did not preclude modishness.

In its 19 April 1940 issue, Libelle mentions fashion’s “latest thing” from America, namely the ‘cash-and-carry-belt’. Resembling the ‘fanny pack’ (also: ‘bum bag’) popular during the late twentieth century, this belt with two large, attached pockets could be used to carry money and other small belongings. Libelle states that Parisian women wear this belt on their daily shopping trips, using one pocket for carrying money and the other for carrying the purchased goods. Providing a pattern and full description on how to make their own version of this wartime-related, American fashion novelty item, Libelle advises women to choose fabric “in accordance with the frock on which the belt will be worn”.

Libelle’s interpretation of “The latest thing: The cash-and-carry-belt”. Libelle, no. 16 (19 April 1940), p. 101.

Pockets were a practical asset to any garment at a time when handbags were increasingly difficult to acquire due to scarcity of materials and rationing coupons. The cash-and-carry-belt, and similarly any type of large pockets integrated in or separately attached to a clothing item, could prove handy at times when citizens, frequently plagued by air raids, had to be prepared to quickly pack and easily carry their valuable belongings with them to bombing shelters.

Illustrations in Libelle of the latest designs by French couturier Jacques Heim. These clearly military-inspired, khaki-coloured, woollen ensembles feature a “[…] brown leather belt with separate pockets, which can be worn at will on skirt or coat.” Libelle, no. 13 (29 March 1940), p. 3.

As the complaint by Rudofsky suggests, the fashion for large pockets did not disappear with the cessation of war. In an article about her trip to London during spring 1946, Libelle correspondent Corry Erkens noticed that pockets, “a wartime souvenir”, were still en vogue, and were sported on coats, dresses, skirts and blouses.[2]

 

A leather belt with an attached bag, which could be worn with all kinds of suits and dresses that did not have enough space to carry one’s necessities. Libelle, no. 18 (3 May 1940), p. 3.

 

By Nelleke Honcoop

 

[1] Rebecca Arnold, ‘On Pockets’, COS website. Accessible via: https://www.cosstores.com/gb/Studio/Projects/On_Pockets (accessed: 16 September 2017). See also: Rebecca Arnold, ‘Are Clothes Modern? Or How to Read A Diagram’, Documenting Fashion blog. Accessible via: http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2017/07/25/clothes-modern-read-diagram/ (accessed: 16 September 2017).

[2] Corry Erkens, ‘De Engelsche Vrouw en Wij’ [‘The Englishwoman and We’], Libelle, no. 6 (17 May 1946), pp. 20-23.

Fashion In Ruins: Luxury and Dereliction in Photographs of 1940s London

Today, Rebecca is giving a paper at the Museum of London’s The Look of Austerity conference.  This is a short extract of her discussion of 1940s fashion photography that used bombsites as backdrops: 

Lee Miller, October 1940 and Cecil Beaton, September 1941

Lee Miller, October 1940 and Cecil Beaton, September 1941, both for Vogue

During the Blitz people’s ability to survive became paramount, and their tenacity was linked to the city.  Cecil Beaton wrote about London for Vogue, where he discussed the city’s fabric as though another family member to be cherished, a community comprising people and buildings held together by collective memories and experience,  ‘In spite of the degradation of bomb havoc, the cold fury and the tedium caused by the raids on private houses, hospitals, Wren churches and children’s playgrounds alike; in spite of the general horrors of war, those who, loving London are not able to be here at such an epic time, are to be pitied.  The menace of danger gives a perspective to life, and in the face of what is happening in world history today, Londoners have reason to be proud of one another.  Despite the methodical ruination, the great Capital City remains.’ His photograph of a model in Digby Morton suit turned to see better the horrid remains of Temple encapsulates this mood.

While the destruction of such a meaningful, historic site dealt a further blow to London, the model’s stance suggests movement and action, and her suit is a defiant marker of traditional Britishness, designed to endure. It is as though the model herself is unable to stay facing the camera from the shock of realising that the ruins behind her are not some fashion studio or film set, but London’s current reality. Vogue’s belief in fashion’s symbolic value, as a manifestation of tenacious spirit in the face of adversity is underscored in the title, ‘Fashion is Indestructible’.  The model is a stand in for all the women looking at the image in the magazine, and, by extension, regarding similar scenes as they walk in their own neighbourhood.  The ruined buildings’ drama draws the eye to its textural excess and dissonance, but focus remains on the staunch tweed suit, and the model, turned from the camera to convey our collective shock at the bomb’s impact.

Like many others, Beaton was only able to comprehend and describe such scenes through art historical references.  At one point he used the phrase ‘Breughelesque’ to convey the twisted horror of the streets. Vogue, however, maintained its focus on fashion’s power throughout, and asserted its strength, even as buildings were falling.

Written as the Board of Trade allotted 66 coupons for clothing in summer 1941, an editorial states that, yes, fashions may have to pause under austerity, in as much as changing trends and the extravagance attached to such constant shifts are not possible: ‘But fashion, or elegance, is indestructible, and will survive even margarine coupons, for it is that intangible quality of taste, that sense of discrimination and invention which has lived on through all the clangour and chaos of the world’s history … It is also the most positive photographic record of the tempo and aspirations of each epoch; a record or indictment, according to the times.’  Fashion as an idea therefore supersedes the crisis, and endures as a temporal and personal record and expression of wartime life.  The magazine also recognises its emotional significance, and the contrary impulses that government dictates concerning rationing and austerity measures might trigger.  The article further asserts that such sumptuary legislation has created ‘a violent psychological stimulus’ by making fashion forbidden fruit, and therefore, will, perversely, encourage further innovation as women search for ways to maintain fashion and beauty.

Vogue, as an institution embodied this stubborn attitude. As seen in Lee Miller’s photographs of Vogue’s building which was itself later bombed, the seemingly handwritten script again refuses to accept the consequences implied by such devastation. Once again, fashion continues amongst the rubble.

Sources:

Cecil Beaton, ‘Time of War: Reflections on the Coming Months of Victory Vigil,’ Vogue, October 1940

Cecil Beaton, Cecil Beaton Diaries: 1939-44 The Years Between (Liverpool: C.Tinling & Co, 1965)

‘We Re-Affirm Our Faith in Fashion,’ Vogue, July 1941