With the D-Day 70th anniversary celebrations just past and the post-WWII Paris souvenir handkerchief below settling into its new home, I find myself with some nagging questions about it:
As you can see, it bears a Galeries Lafayette tag and depicts a young woman being courted by two uniformed GIs who present their hearts to her like nosegays (and it looks as though she may be clutching a previous floral offering to her chest). The hankie has two text captions on it, the identifying phrase “Souvenir de Paris” and the question/answer “Which? Both!!”
Jonathan Walford, author of “Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look”, kindly deciphered the hankie for me a few weeks back, explaining that the English text on it, together with the woman’s Phrygian cap and the French flag colors (red, white and blue) of her outfit, suggest that it would have been marketed to souvenir-hunting American soldiers at the end of the war. It does indeed seem to capture the jubilant mood of post-liberation Paris. But…
Who was the intended recipient of this slighly quirky bit of printed silk? The GI’s mother, sister or sweetheart, like other WWII–era souvenir hankies (often embroidered or printed with the helpful designation “mother”, “sister”, or “sweetheart”, like these examples from the Handkerchief Heroes blog)?
That doesn’t seem likely. Would a soldier’s mother or sister really be inclined to cherish a representative image of young men like their family’s hero spending the final phase of their overseas service skirt-chasing? And wouldn’t a GI’s sweetheart be downright offended by a “token of affection” that was essentially graphic “proof” of his cheatin’ heart?
The sentimental underpinnings of this WWI-era camp hankie, in contrast, are perfectly clear: The pain of separation, the nobility and necessity of the soldier’s (and loved one’s) sacrifice. No doubt its crystal clear message has to do with it being commissioned by the US government it for sale at military base stores (in a precursor to the expanded textile propaganda of WWII, as an essay in Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Homefront” points out).
I suppose one could view the Galeries Lafayette hankie as presenting an allegory for green-around-the-ears America coming under the spell of French culture, with the bumpkin-liberators wearing their hearts on their sleeves. But that seems like a stretch, and besides, I can’t help seeing a potential connection to the revelations in Mary Louise Robert’s “What Soldiers Do” of widespread post-war fraternization by GIs with French women, with much of it less-than-gentlemanly if not downright criminal. After all, what may be shocking news to us in 2014 was no secret to the citizens of Paris in 1945.
Among those citizens were two of the three Jewish owners of the Galeries Lafayette. The founder (Theophile Bader)
had died during the war, one son-in-law and partner (Max Heilbronn)
had been sent to–and survived–Buchenwald after fighting in the Resistance, and the other (Raoul Meyer; sorry, no picture!) returned from hiding just before Paris was liberated to help organize the Maquis. (Interestingly, the Galeries Lafayette had remained open through the war, run by Nazi collaborators; the day of the liberation, Meyer apparently strode into his office and threatened to toss the quisling at his desk out the window should he not high-tail it through the door).
And it’s worth noting that the Galeries Lafayette mostly sold merchandise they themselves manufactured (within a year and a half of repatriation, when the store had tripled its pre-war levels of production, the exact figure stood at 80% of their stock). That makes it very tempting to connect a souvenir hankie churned out during this period of great productivity as reflecting, in some measure, the nuanced and even ambivalent views of the owners (and employees) towards all the upheaval (and, yes, the liberators) in their city.
So…is it possible that the hankie is not quite as lighthearted a souvenir as it appears to be? Could there be a bit of cynical observation informing the situation it depicts, and even a bit of mockery of the GIs it was marketed to, as if it were a kind of political cartoon?
Which one? (Maybe) both!