Hats Against Hitler: How Headwear Became Part of the Resistance

Green sketch of 3 women wearing turbans and leaning on bicycles

In August 1939, with German forces hovering, Time magazine predicted, somewhat matter-of-factly, that “whoever runs the world, Paris intends to go on making his wife’s clothes.” However, it was evident that the German government had its own ideas about how Paris would influence fashion. What was to evolve out of this situation was a hybrid yet distinct style borne from necessity and infused with secret and symbolic aspects of a defiant national identity – a quiet rebellion within France that would threaten the Nazi occupation.

This rebellion came to a head when, in 1943, the Nazis were forced to single out “fantastically voluminous” hats for censure. Though unlikely fashionistas, the Nazis sought to control every aspect of women’s lives, and the iconically stylish, “liberated” women of France were incompatible with the German regime’s ideal of robust, athletic young wives and mothers they used in their propaganda. But why were, of all things, ladies’ hats singled out for special regulations? It wasn’t due to material shortages or rationing, but rather, an acknowledgement that hats have the power to be a psychological and political weapon.

Hats, maybe more than any other accessory, are able to confer a certain presence on the wearer. As much as hats are an expression of individuality, they are also often an expression of group identity. The Germans recognized this power that hats have to inspire pride and loyalty, as well as resentment and rebellion. The political power of headwear was seen in 2016 in the sea of knitted pink hats worn by American protesters; this message was as strong as the one French ladies offered to German occupiers in the 1940s.

Hitler Says No to Paris Fashion

Five uniformed German soldiers in front of the Arc de Triomphe
German soldiers pose in front of the Arc de Triomphe, Paris 1940

Hitler once claimed, “‘what I like best of all is to dine with a pretty woman,”’ knowing it reflected well on him to be surrounded by stylish, attractive ladies. But Hitler hated Paris fashion. In 1933 he asserted that he wanted “no more Paris models.” The styles pioneered by designers like Coco Chanel (herself later a Nazi collaborator) encouraged an unnaturally slender silhouette and slim hips, anathema to the German ideal of prolific child-bearing.

A master of insignia and symbolism, Hitler established a German Fashion Institute, the Deutsches Modeamt, with full governmental support in 1933. From then on women could only wear clothes made by German designers, with German materials. German, of course, to him meant Aryan, thus eliminating the vast majority of the existing textile merchants and high society designers. But with the occupation of Paris, he gained France’s valuable treasure: the haute couture industry, which he wanted to relocate to Berlin or Vienna, though neither city had any significant tradition of high fashion.

Now that Hitler had control over French fashion, it became yet another tool of propaganda. Though Hitler disliked the French influence over the German fashion industry, he still needed Germany’s women to look good: “Berlin women must become the best dressed in Europe.” Yet his proclamation came with very strict rules of conformity. He hated make-up, often remarking that lipstick was composed of animal waste. He also disapproved of hair dye. Perfume disgusted him and he found women smoking to be revolting. Trousers he saw as unfeminine and found fur horrific because it involved killing animals.

Three months after the German occupation of France began, the country was already stripped bare – no heat and restrictions on nearly everything. The French people starved and shivered while the Nazis took the majority of French natural resources for their own use. The fashion industry continued production – but under new German rules. Prompted by the scarcity of materials, the fashion-conscious Parisiennes improvised, developing a distinctive silhouette of high hemlines, towering headdresses, and clattering wooden- soled platform shoes.

While British and American women could wear military uniforms to show they were resisting evil, French women, after the occupation of Paris, had no way of showing they were on the side of the morally righteous. But from the moment war was declared, magazines urged French women to “stay how they (their menfolk) would like to see you. Not ugly… The men want to think of you looking how you did when they said goodbye, pretty and soignée.” They argued that the Germans might be running the country, but they could not destroy the pride and the sense of superiority in fashion that the French considered was theirs.

Hats Against Hitler

A back view of a white woman on a Paris street
High hats, stacked shoes, and short skirts. A fashionable woman photographed for the German propaganda magazine, Signal.

The Germans made various attempts in France to regulate dress to German standards through fabric restrictions and by forbidding extravagant styles. Hats seemed a particular point of contention. During the Occupation, the only true way for a woman to flaunt her extravagance and add color to a drab outfit was through headdress. But hats had already become scarce and costly as materials used for millinery were seized by Germany for their war efforts.

Milliners resisted, however, using scraps of fabric and salvaged materials like old newspapers, wood shavings, and feathers from barnyard animals. From horror came beauty. French women began to wear fashionably ridiculous hats and short skirts with large power sleeves as a form of resistance.

Further, during the 1930s, the turban had become one of most popular types of headwear for women. The softly folded turban created a shape as elegant as it was practical, one that had endured for many centuries with hardly any alteration. The turban, adopted in various colonial contexts throughout the history of modern Western fashion, often represented an “exotic” form of dressing with seductive connotations.

With the Nazi-imposed restrictions on fabric, the turban was easily made, even at home, from small amounts of any material. Decoration was optional but easily improvised. Furthermore, soon after the occupation the French were left with soap that made their skin peel. It became nearly impossible to wash hair. Those who did wash their hair couldn’t dry it due to lack of heat in their homes, and neuralgia from wet hair became a common malady. Women began to wear turbans and headwraps to hide their dirty hair as well as improvise a hat from the limited materials available.

A Trend Becomes a Movement

Paris, ca 1944

In 1941, French milliner Paulette found herself unprepared for dining out and created a turban by “wrapping a black jersey scarf around her head and fixing it in place with gold pins.” Compliments from fellow diners that evening suggested there was a demand to be met. With bicycles now the only means of transport in Paris, the turban was ideal: protective, stable, easily pocketed, and – crucially – new, chic, and cheap.

After this feedback, Paulette launched a turban collection, which she touted as “very modern, as the high drape pulled the turban back off the face and the back section was extremely high.” The so-called turban bicyclette caught on, not only on bicycles but also for social occasions. Elegant women could easily slip on a fabulous turban which had been concealed in her bag, or stored on her bicycle, and then wrapped around the head for a triumphant entrance. Turbans, which carried the additional practical responsibility of concealing impossible-to-maintain hairstyles, became enormously popular.

By 1942 the French turban had transformed into a provocative statement of defiance against the Germans. While the headdresses were hand-made from fabric scraps and ribbon, and often stuffed with paper or wood shavings, their multiple pleats and folds suggested an extravagant use of rationed materials. For the bolder wearer, turbans were created from bleu-blanc-rouge tartans or ribbon, a forbidden combination of nationalistic colors selected specifically to offer defiant contempt towards the occupier.

The turban became the French woman’s badge of passive resistance. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor in 1944, a soldier said, “The women of Paris wear their turbans with a pride and courage, as if they were made of the tricolor.” In order to quash these small acts of French defiance, in early 1943, Nazi authorities instated a rule that Paris’s leading milliners had to pass their upcoming spring models before a German commission, who would then moderate the designs by limiting brims and trims. In quiet rebellion, the French milliners made special models that complied with these requirements to show the Germans, and then redid their designs for sale to the public. The occupying German authorities threatened to close down every milliner’s shop, setting an example by closing Balenciaga’s millinery department and Alix’s dress house in February of 1943 for six months on the charge of exceeding yardage limits.

Two women on a Paris street. One wears a yellow star of David
Of course, even this form of resistance wasn’t available to all French Women. The Vichy government participated in sending over 75,000 French Jews to concentrations camps.

The Power of a Collective Movement

Of all fashions, what made the Germans so sensitive about these hats? It seems as if the Nazis felt threatened, believing that hats influenced and assisted in sustaining French morale, as well as symbolizing dangerous rebellious alliances. Hitler, who designed his party’s own distinctive uniform, clearly recognized the power of unification that fashion can bring.

Hats, placed close to the wearers eyes, are a particularly powerful symbol of belonging and rank, bringing people together and giving an instant connection. Hats have always been a strong visual symbol which places the wearer as part of a collective identity and often indicates a person with power. Being more affordable than other forms of clothing, they often provided an ideal opportunity for “blurring and transforming . . . traditional class boundaries.” During WWII, even the United States Millinery Stabilization Committee equated hat wearing with symbolism in its slogan, “Fashion Builds Morale: It’s Smart to Wear a Hat.” Visit any sporting event today to see the crowd bonding together, flaunting their team’s logo on their hat. Hats are also still symbols of rebellion, protest, and what you believe in. In 2016, wearing a pink Pussy Hat divided many women from those wearing red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps.

Four years into the German occupation of France, in June of 1944, the fields and beaches of Normandy were strewn with the debris of the Allied invasion, amongst which could be found the distinctive camouflaged silk canopies of the American paratroops. Using fallen parachutes was illegal; however, the bountiful arrival of a long unavailable textiles prompted local housewives to scour the fields for material. They then refashioned this new material into clothing and turbans, the colorful print of which became a symbol of liberty.

Resistance is often comprised of small acts or statements that, when organized against oppression, can congeal into a representative whole. It was with hats – artful, improvised, hand-crafted symbols – that the citizens of 1940s France declared their independence from those who had sought to extinguish fashion – and liberty – from their country.

Works Referenced:

Ahead of Fashion: Hats of the 20th Century by Dilys E. Blum

Hats by Clair Hughes

Hats an Anthology by Stephen Jones

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba

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