Pining for the West

Fashion | June 4, 2009

Angelique Chrisafis of Paris had an article published in The Guardian on Saturday, 30th May, in which she reported on an exhibition at the Jean Moulin Museum. Apparently the exhibition shows how women reacted to the Nazi occupation, using clothing to boost their self-image, amongst other things. It explores the ingenuity of ration book fashion. Of course, much the same things were going on in war time Britain, although admittedly we didn’t have the added problem of the Nazis requisitioning materials such as wool and leather.

We’ve all heard the stories from mums and grannies of gravy browning used to dye legs (very popular with dogs) and beetroot to dye hair. No wonder the Americans were so popular, with their nylons and lipsticks.

Fabienne Falluel seems to think that French women don’t necessarily know how to sew nowadays. However she believes that this will change during this recession, and that people will soon start learning to sew again.

It was a surprise to me that the French seem to be so far behind the times. In Britain, over the past couple of years the sales of sewing machines have increased enormously. I know that young girls here have always customised clothes to make themselves a bit different and add some of their own personality to their style. I know that I have a dread of meeting someone at a ‘do’ who is wearing the same outfit as me, and I’m pretty sure that that is a universal horror for women.

Well, it just can’t happen if you make your own things or at least customise them. The Gok Wan fashion programmes are giving people the confidence to have a go themselves too.

Part of the attraction in sewing is the fact that you can take something that is quite worn out and turn it into something new. It’s all very green and good for the environment, and it saves you money too.
It can be taken too far however. My mother-in-law was a Make-Do and Mend teacher during the war and she carried on with that same attitude to everything for the rest of her life. Like many people of that generation they just got into the habit of saving everything like string, elastic bands and wrapping paper.

Sending the kids to school in patched clothes shouldn’t be an option nowadays as the whole thing gets too Dolly Partonish for words. (See the video below.)

But there surely comes a time for every piece of fabric when the best thing you can do with it is turn it into a cleaning or polishing cloth.

Getting back to the subject of fashion. Just why do the French have such a great reputation for being well dressed? The last time I was in Paris I only saw one well dressed woman the whole time I was there, and she was a lady of a certain age, harking back to that era when no lady would open her front door unless she had her lipstick on, at least.

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