Monday, March 25, 2013

Lucien Lelong: a timeless genius of fashion

When you think about famous French citizens who outmaneuvered the Nazis, fashion designers don't usually jump to the fore. He's not as well-known nowadays as his pal Coco (with whom he's shown at left), but for nearly half a century, being à la mode in France meant wearing a creation from the house of Lucien Lelong. Not only that, but he was married to a 40-carat Russian princess. Lelong's longtime model and muse, Natalia Romanov Paley was depicted wearing his gowns by great fine art photographers like Horst, Cecil Beaton, and Man Ray. Because fashion history focuses on the "revolutionary" years of 1905, 1925, 1947, and 1966 (Poiret, Chanel, Dior, and Courreges), other dominant and influential figures like Lelong have often been obscured. But his sophisticated, exquisitely draped creations are timeless works of couture that are now collected in the major museums, and the large-format, beautifully printed book Lucien Lelong really brings them up close, as well as telling the fascinating story of his life and times. 
Natalie Romanov Paley (Mrs. Lucien Lelong from 1927–1937) wearing one of his black sequined evening gowns; photo by Man Ray, 1934. During her marriage she also had a relationship with Jean Cocteau.
And so, back to L.L. vs. the Third Reich. When the Germans entered Paris in June of 1940, many couture houses fled to southwest France. Lelong kept his part of this vital French industry in Paris and encouraged the press to report on its survival. The Germans banned exports, appropriated the files of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture (with its files on American buyers), and proposed that all of French haute couture be integrated into a German organization in Berlin or Vienna. As its spokesperson, Lelong flatly refused, and they eventually backed down. In 1942 he organized a fashion show for clients from neutral countries, without prior approval from the Germans. Despite retaliations such as increased conscriptions, a ban on marketing, and rations on raw materials, Lelong did a masterful job of keeping French fashion alive during the war, boosting both morale and the economy in the process.

1928, McCord Museum
 Related reading: Americans in Paris: Life & Death Under Nazi Occupation; A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS.


  1. I hope la mademoiselle sur la Tour Eiffel got hazard pay for that photo shoot.
    La reve: challis, shantung, voile.
    La realite: broadcloth, denim, duck. (sigh).
    In this weather, one cannot bare one's shoulders!

  2. That was quite a photo shoot, bien sur! I share your dream ... esp. as regards the shantung!