The Crisis of the Early 1930s

After the 1929 Wall Street crash, panic ensued in 1930 following the US imposition of a 90 per cent import tax on Paris haute couture garments under the new Hawley-Smooth bill. Paris lost its entire fleet of US buyers over the 1930-2 period and costs simply had to be cut. Thus in 1931, Chanel designed the first range of couture evening dress in cotton to bring costs down as her company was hit badly when both commercial and private US consumers stayed away. What on earth was to be done? It was at this exact point, in 1932, that Chanel turned briefly to Hollywood as a source of income and vitally needed international publicity. She accepted a lucrative invitation to work for Samuel Goldwyn, a project that met with signal failure. However, by 1935, as her couture business picked up again, she was employing 4,000 workers, making 28,000 model garments a year and no longer had any need for Hollywood approval or publicity.15

The designer Paul Iribe proposed his own solution to the 1932 crisis in sales. He published a furious and passionate polemic, Defense de Luxe, to persuade wealthy clients, in the name of French patriotism, to keep up their levels of luxury spending on elite French consumer products. 'Defend, as we

13. Nystrom, P., The Economics of Fashion, New York: Ronald Press, 1928, pp. 167-8.

14. Wilson, R., Fashion on Parade, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1925, p. 74.

15. Grumbach, D., Histoires de la Mode, Paris: Seuil, 1993, pp. 35-6.

would the flag, these supreme industries,' he declared, listing specifically French architecture, decorative arts, silk and other luxury textile production, fabric and the manufacture of French carpets, fashion, jewellery and perfume, 'which are our glory and our wealth.' He warned that cles industries Françaises du luxe sont en peril de mort'. Seeing le luxe as sacredly embedded in the definition of the word 'France', he wrote: 'we must defend le Luxe with pride'. He saw it as a bulwark against standardization and mechanization within the design and manufacture of fashion, the decorative arts and perfume. Iribe, who had been well trained by Paul Poiret in such matters in the 1910s, saw these luxury levels of manufacture as 'the symbol of the creative genius of France, her prestige, her strength, her capital and her guarantee'.16

In fact, the economic crisis of the early 1930s forced the great fashion houses into an even closer financial relationship with the ready-to-wear trade, which thereafter became the basis of their business success right through to the 1960s, through the direct selling of toiles to ready-wear manufacturers. Little detail is given on this type of business in the eulogistic accounts of the work of the great Paris couture salons. By the end of the 1930s the reoriented couture trade was once again flourishing. Schiaparelli for example was selling her gloves, jewellery, perfume and scarves from her new boutique and all the major fashion houses had their own perfume lines. In 1938, the Paris couture industry had a financial turnover of at least 25 billion francs. So prestigious was the reputation of France in the international fashion world that spin-off ready-to-wear and accessory manufactured flourished mightily. The Geneva Tribune estimated the total number of pre-war workers in fashion-related areas in France to be as high as 300,000.17 The business situation for Paris couture was therefore promising by 1939 as Paris still dominated international style and exports were strong.

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