Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Remembering I'm Jewish: 40s Fashion and Remembrance Day

I had a lot of fun putting together this early 1940s outfit and doing the photo shoot to go with it. Trying to look authentically of the period was like a game to me. I am almost ashamed to admit that, as I did it, I really forgot the reality of the time period I was emulating. I just thought of 40s glamour and pizazz. 

It was only when I looked at this photo later and saw my eye that I remembered, really remembered: I'm Jewish, well, actually just a tad over half Jewish, and mostly secular, but that sure as hell wouldn't have made any difference to the Nazis. If I actually had been alive in the early 40s, I probably would not have lived to see 1946. 

It is a luxury to forget your ethnicity or race, one that many do not have today, and one that I would not have had in the 1930s and 40s. I decided to release this post for Remembrance Day, because the photos of me in this outfit forced me to remember a part of who I am and the fate that would have befallen me if I had been alive to wear the fashions of World War II.

Let's go ahead and enjoy the clothes and the interior decor. I'm sure such things gave some comfort to those trapped in Europe during World War II. But let's also remember the reality of that war and what it would have meant to each of us if we had been there.

Shoes: Aldo; Dress: Reitman's; Brooch, earrings, handbag, and sunglasses: vintage; Engagement ring: Britton Diamonds; Pinkie ring: my grandmother's engagement ring from 1936
I had a good time trying to make this outfit look as period perfect as I could. During the war, there were rations on virtually everything, including fabric, so hemlines got higher and skirts narrowed to a modest a-line, which didn't require much fabric. It just happened that this style was actually quite attractive. 

It was also fairly practical and functional, especially when paired with lace-up walking shoes, as was often done. As many women worked during the war while the men were away, there was a simplicity and pragmatism to fashions, just as there had been during World War I.

It has been speculated that hairstyles got so high during the war because there wasn't much fabric available for fancy hats. The belief is that women used to wearing nice hats with their outfits got creative with their hair instead.

It is precisely because I am Jewish that my hair so easily duplicates the odd hair trend of the day. It's very curly so just kind of locks itself into the style and stays there. I don't even own hairspray.

If I remember correctly, I built the outfit around this brooch which I think is from the 1940s and is, in my opinion, extremely pretty. War time fashion was not particularly feminine but this little spray of flowers adds a pretty, delicate touch, in a time when pretty things were in very short supply.

For some women, women like me, such things really do brighten a bleak day. I'm sure there were women who felt the same way during the war. Silk stockings, for example, were highly sought after. The soldier who gave them to his gal as a present was a popular soldier indeed.

I was particularly keen to take photos of my outfit in my living room which we (okay, I) have furnished mostly in 1930s style, though many of the pieces are a bit older still. The (faux) Tiffany lamps, for example, were probably out of style by the early 1940s and would have been much more to an older generations' tastes. After the impoverished 1930s and during World War II, it seems likely to me that people would not have been buying all new furnishing but would, instead, have mixed and matched, old and new.

The schoolhouse across the street from me adds even more authenticity, does it not? Please ignore the modern SUV. Verisimilitude can't be achieved completely, not on my budget anyway. Leave it to Spielberg to manage that.

I discovered this 1932 Edward Hopper painting, Room in New York, after I bought my vintage red chair and matching sofa. The similarity between this chair and my own helps confirm my sense that the set was made in the 1930s.

The credenza in the background, with its Art Deco touches, is probably from the 1920s. The radio is a reproduction but a fairly convincing one, I think.

Our overstuffed bookshelves include many books on fashion history, naturally. Notice that the women on these pages are wearing turbans for want of actual hats. 

Speaking of which, when we moved into this house, I mentioned to Beau that we really needed a hat rack. A few nights later, he showed up with this one. He'd found it in an alley.

When we were taking these photos, I wasn't thinking of the war. I had a different narrative in mind. I was imagining that we were a newly wed couple, circa 1943. I would come home and put my hat on the rack ...

... and maybe pose playfully for my new husband ...

... looking, I hope, a bit like Simone de Beauvoir, author of the 1949 feminist bombshell, The Second Sex. 

An intellectual match, my new husband and me, in the early 1940s ...

... with our home strewn with books and papers of Great Intellectual Merit.

My gentle scepticism would challenge him, as any good intellectual likes to be challenged ...

... but my playful good spirit and love would see us through.

What could be sexier than a true meeting of the minds in intellectual Europe? As Shakespeare said, "Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment."

But, of course, there would have been impediment, plenty of impediment. A gentile married to a Jew, in Europe, in the early 40s? That was not a love story likely to go well.

Don't my lips and Kathryn Grayson's look alike in these two photos? Doesn't she look glamorous in her uniform, all ready to entertain the troops stateside? This is a still from the 1943 film Thousands Cheer which was, let's face it, just another propaganda film, glamourizing war and encouraging young lads to join the military. Maybe they'd even get to kiss lips like Grayson's

Of course, this was not the reality of the war at all, not even a little bit.

I posed for this photo pretending to be listening intently and nervously for more news of the war.

But, even then, I didn't really feel the reality I was mimicking, not until I looked at the photos later and saw how Jewish I look, and remembered what that would really have meant.

This is the reality, a marriage made in Heaven, right?

This is the reality, yellow stars and all.

And this. This is Paris, so, even marked as they are, the women are still fashionable. I wonder if they felt some defiance in this: "I may be 'just' a Jew to you, but I still have my dignity."

Even here, the woman in the front has her hair done in the style of the day. Even here.

Of course, such dignities could not be maintained forever, not in the face of shaved heads, starvation, disease, forced labour, and a thousand other degradations of the body and spirit.

But I have read over and over again that, even here, even in the concentration camps, women tried, in their own small ways, to keep just a little sense of self. I wonder if this woman insisted on wearing a scarf, fashionably turban style (and religiously appropriate), before she would allow the photographer to snap pictures of the American soldier tending to her wounds.

I feel sick looking at these photos.

If I had been there, slightly more than half Jewish, and I had been listening to the news, I would have been more than just sickened. I would have been terrified. 

Would I be next? Would I too be rounded up like an animal and sent to a hell of human design?

Of what use would my intellect, my books, my pride, my love, and my finery be to me then? Would all of that come to naught?

One can only put on a brave face for so long.

It does me good to remember this from time to time. It does us all good to remember the reality of war, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Only if we remember it, really remember it, in our hearts and in our guts, can we ever hope to stop it.

(I'm linking this up with Not Dead Yet, Not Dressed as Lamb, Happiness at Midlife, and Sydney Fashion Hunter.)


  1. I love your posts, Charlotte. I read "The Second Sex" when I was 17. It blew my mind. These photos are so wonderful. I actually think that the clothing is very feminine. Skirts, jewelry, all girl stuff, but sensible shoes and no nonsense jackets. And I love the look of absolutely no make-up except red lipstick. Powerful. My kids are half Jewish. I often think about what our lives would have been like during the war. I also think about the flack that they got from some of their evangelical Christian school mates when they were in elementary school. Damn it. What a world, eh?

    1. I haven't actually read The Second Sex, not yet anyway, but I think I'm pretty familiar with the ideas it introduced. My undergraduate minor was in Women's Studies.

      Until I met my partner, I hadn't known how powerful and powerfully cruel that right wing Christian scene is. I have had MANY people read my blog and then try to convert me to their particular brand of Christianity. Their motives may be kind but I don't appreciate it. I have a faith and, even if I didn't, that would be my business. I know lots of great Christians but I'm not fond of that evangelical scene.

      Lipstick with no other makeup. I've just kind of fallen into that habit. I've never worn much makeup. I'm not even sure why. Generally, people say I look better without it. The lipstick in this post is actually Burt's Bees "lip shimmer" in plum. It's mostly a lip balm so I love it.

  2. What a skillful blend of beautiful fashion, and horrifying history. You have a way of bringing it all home to your readers, and making us think and feel. Thanks for sharing with Visible Monday, xox.

  3. Wonderful post, you did a excellent job of recreating the time period, warts and all! Your dress and hair are the best. My parents were newlyweds during the war, they both worked in the bomber factories in Seattle for a time. So this time period is special to me. :)

  4. Beautiful brooch! Love your chair and couch. You hit the nail on the head about the privilege to forget your racial heritage. We don't know we're alive! xo JJ

    1. Isn't that brooch amazing?! I just love it. And I'm very proud of my vintage furniture.

      Generally, it's white folk who get to forget their racial/ethnic heritage. Jews are in a weird category: white but only provisionally so. When the racists are around, we're not considered white. I have some of the whitest skin I've ever seen but I'm not white? Race is such a slippery, socially constructed concept. That's why I used the word "ethnicity" instead, but even that word is terribly fraught.

  5. The photo of the women and children being herded by the nazis makes me shudder. Thanks for reminding us what Remebrance Day is about. And kudos on the lovely 40's styling.

    1. I felt really sick as I looked for those images of the Holocaust but I felt it was really important to juxtapose them with images of my playful retro outfit.

  6. You did a wonderful job recreating the period. From the fashion, to the horrors of the war.

    I do find the fashions of the era very feminine. The outfit in the photo you posted that has the dark points at the waist...oh how it draws your eye to her waistline, how much more feminine could you get? Yes the sensible shoes may not be seen at feminine to most, but I love the shoes, always have. I still think they hug the foot in way that makes it beautiful, and there were shoes then for other times. My grandmother had "dressy" shoes too, for the dance hall, to dance with the soldiers.
    My mother always only wore lipstick, too. That's all she ever needed. Funny....I'd rather wear mascara than anything else. haha

    and you summed up what we should be remembering..."Only if we remember it, really remember it, in our hearts and in our guts, can we ever hope to stop it."
    Oh...if we could only stop it....if we could stop hate.

    wendy from the Chronic Pain Photo Project. Thank you so much for sharing so much with all of us.

    1. You're welcome. Come to think of it, my grandmother wore only lipstick too, and she too wore lace-up shoes with skirts and dresses. I'd forgotten that.

  7. Great post to your Jewish heritage. It breaks my heart when I see these photos are imagine that theres atrocious things happened not that long ago. On a lighter note, you did beautifully dressing to the era, the brooch is stunning.

    Thank you for being a part of TBT Fashion link up and hope to see you Thursday.