High Fascism, by Rhonda Garelick

From NY Times

Fashion is more than business in France: it’s a mythology, a secular religion, a source of national pride, especially during Fashion Week, when the country recalls its history as the birthplace of haute couture.

In recent days, though, in response to the anti-Semitic diatribe by Christian Dior’s creative director, John Galliano, the French have been recalling a far more ominous chapter in their history.

According to witnesses, a drunken Mr. Galliano exploded at a woman seated near him in a Paris bar. “Dirty Jewish face, you should be dead,” he is said to have told her. “Your boots are of the lowest quality, your thighs are of the lowest quality. You are so ugly I don’t want to see you. I am John Galliano!”

France is highly sensitive to such matters, and reprisals came quickly. Dior fired Mr. Galliano, who now faces charges of using a racial insult, a crime in France. But beyond the spectacle of one man’s abhorrent politics, the episode invites consideration of the curious relationship between French fashion and fascism.

During the Occupation, the Nazis and their French allies recognized the power and national prestige of the French fashion industry and sought to harness it. When the collaborationist Vichy government took over direction of the French lifestyle magazine Paris Soir, it announced in its pages a “summer of couture … and shopping.” The Nazis were so enamored with fashion’s place in French culture that in their plans for postwar Europe, they stipulated that, unlike other industries, the fashion sector would remain in France.

“Every woman in Paris is a living propaganda poster, the universal function of the Frenchwoman is to remain chic,” wrote one fashion journalist in the early 1940s. “Frenchwomen are the repositories of chic, because this inheritance is inscribed in their race,” wrote another. And as Vichy continued to toe the Nazi line about Aryan physical fitness, more French fashion magazines began focusing on exercise and diet for women.

At the root of the whole system is the most elusive myth of all: the impossible promise that fashion can vanquish physical inadequacy and aging, conferring the beauty and youth we see on the runways and on every page of Vogue — a cult of physical perfection very much at home in the history of fascism.

And although we insist on the racial diversity of fashion’s current standards of beauty, the fascists’ body ideal has persisted and expanded far beyond Europe. The hallmarks of the Nazi aesthetic — blue eyes, blond hair, athletic fitness and sharp-angled features — are the very elements that define what we call the all-American look, still visible in the mythic advertising landscapes of designers like (the decidedly non-Aryan) Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

Last week the French daily Le Monde declared that by firing Mr. Galliano, Dior had sounded the “death knell for the myth of the omnipotent designer.” That may be premature, given the myth’s deep roots. But the drunken ramblings of one man in a bar may have set off an important discussion about a less pretty undercurrent in a multibillion-dollar industry. Happy Fashion Week.

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Rhonda Garelick, a professor of English and performing arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is working on a cultural biography of Coco Chanel. Image by Jillian Tamaki.

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