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Review: Les Parisiennes

Female faces of wartime Paris

Le Rêve, fashionable hat created by Maison ERIK of Paris in 1940, echoing military headgear.
Le Rêve, fashionable hat created by Maison ERIK of Paris in 1940, echoing military headgear.

By Anne Sebba
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

Anne Sebba's tour de force of research and reflection, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s is a testament of silk and sacrifice; of choices to resist or collaborate with the Nazis; of dalliance, defiance, and survival that turned on a concierge's random kindness or a stick of gelignite strapped to the chest.

Sebba sources first-time stories of wartime women, and records tales of collaboration horizontale with real sensitivity for the "moral ambiguity" of those who exchanged sexual favours for privileges - or survival. "Right and wrong are not always clearly defined," she reminds us. Who would judge the child Marceline, who survived the camps digging burial trenches, which she passed off afterwards as vegetable patches? Who would denigrate a Jewish mother for taking the risk of handing her children over to a stranger promising, for payment, to spirit the young away to rural safety?

Sebba never lets us forget that the city Hemingway called a moveable feast became, under Nazi occupation, a place "where nobody could be trusted, denunciations were rampant and bellies were filled with foreboding and fear."

Against this backdrop, with women queuing four hours a day for food, it's amazing how many found strength for even minor acts of heroism. Femmes de nuit who serviced German soldiers would also hide allied airmen in their brothels. The Comédie Française actress Beatrice Bretty carried messages for de Gaulle under her bouffant coiffure. Rose Valland, an assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume Museum, secretly recorded the comings and going of all looted artworks. Gallery owner Jeanne Boucher broke the law to exhibit "degenerate" cubists and surrealists.

Edith Piaf - sung for Germans but helped Resistance
Edith Piaf - sung for Germans but helped Resistance

Anti-fascist activism sometimes went unsung. Chanteuse Edith Piaf was later vilified for entertaining German audiences but Sebba recounts how the tuneful "sparrow" had herself photographed with dozens of prisoners of war inside the Reich. The Resistance then used these images to create false identity cards, which Piaf secreted back to them on her next visit.

Coco Chanel, by contrast, famously holed up at the Ritz with her German intelligence officer lover yet deflected retribution by handing out perfume to liberating GIs.

In occupied Paris, style suffered, along with the women, yet endured as a mirror of their siren psyche. As war broke out, one magazine urged women to maintain their glamour for the sake of their fighting men: "You must stay how they would like to see you. Not ugly." Lanvin created star-studded cylindrical bags to carry gas masks.

German officers moved in on the couture shows but there were still enough women of the gratin (upper crust) for Balenciaga sales to rise by 400 per cent mid-war. By 1944, one patriotic Résistante had grown so thin that her culottes fell down.

Back in Paris, Sebba remarks: "Having family cutlery melted down in order to create a stylish bag or brooch, or buying leg-paint to simulate stockings, was sometimes more important than buying food."

Keep this extraordinary and evocative book close by, and you will never lift a lipstick insouciantly again.

The Jewish Chronicle

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