Pouillard, Véronique. Paris to New York: The Transatlantic Fashion Industry in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021.
Reviewed by Lauren Laframboise
If you’ve bought clothes in recent decades, chances are that they’re products of a dizzyingly complex supply chain, involving hundreds of different people’s labor across several distant towns and cities. Although the current scale of globalization in the fashion industry may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, Véronique Pouillard proposes an earlier timeline of internationalization that foreshadows the now truly global nature of clothing in Paris to New York.
Following the ebbs and flows of fashion and design, Pouillard takes a chronological approach to the transatlantic history of haute couture in the twentieth century, beginning with its early international roots at the turn of the century. She then traces how fashion design and consumption interacted with global political and economic developments throughout WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. Through successive waves of internationalization between Paris and New York, the two cities developed distinct roles within the international fashion landscape. New York was the historic site of mass production in the early to mid-twentieth century, whereas Paris was the location for luxury craftsmanship, design, and creativity. These divergent roles meant that the linkages between the two cities were often circuitous and fraught. For example, differing intellectual property regimes in France and the United States were sources of contention as New York-based manufacturers pirated Parisian designs.
While this book is firmly rooted in business history, urban historians will nonetheless find insights into how Paris and New York were made into fashion and design capitals. In New York, this process was largely facilitated by successive city administrations, who saw the fashion industry as a major source of economic development for the city. Fashion and garment manufacturing was first championed by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who in 1943 inaugurated the Fashion Institute of Technology. Just a few years later, the first New York Fashion Week further solidified fashion’s place in New York City. In the meantime, Paris’s haute couture firms struggled to maintain their relevance in the postwar era, and the French government supported them through grant programs with strict eligibility requirements that aimed to preserve the craftsmanship and luxury status of Parisian clothes.
It is the second half of the book that offers some of the most interesting analyses. As the scale of internationalization in the fashion industry expanded to truly global proportions, not only were other cities like Milan and Florence added to the list of world fashion capitals but the geographies of production shifted away from the older garment and textile centers in North America and Western Europe to developing economies in Eastern Europe and Asia. Haute couture was caught up in the processes of deindustrialization, as manufacturers in New York and Paris, and the textile firms on which the industry relied, closed or relocated to increasingly distant locales. However, as the global division of labor shifted, the geographies of capital accumulation largely remained constant. Pouillard points out that most of the profit generated by the global fashion industry remains in Europe, not only showing the persistent centrality of cities like Paris in the global fashion landscape, but also that the profits made at the expense of poor working conditions in the Global South are retained in the Global North.
Fundamentally, Paris to New York is a business history of the luxury fashion industry, with a very specific focus on haute couture brands like Chanel, Dior, and Balenciaga. This framing is political, and prioritizes boardrooms, design studios, and entrepreneurs over the much larger number of people who made up the industry’s production workforce. Nonetheless, this book gets at some of the more elusive forces behind the fashion industry that differentiate it from other manufacturing sectors, shedding light into the black box of style and design that dictates the volatility of the clothing industry. This book will certainly be of interest to historians of New York and Paris who are looking to explore the cities’ histories at the intersection of design and capitalism.
Lauren Laframboise is the Associate Director of the Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time SSHRC partnership project and is currently finishing her MA at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling in the Department of History at Concordia University. Her work focuses on deindustrialization in the apparel manufacturing industry in Montreal, with particular attention to organizing against closures, as well as the intersections of social reproduction, immigration, and the long-term health impacts of traditionally gendered industrial work.
Featured image (at top): “Workers in a Large Shop with Many Windows,” n.d., International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985), Kheel Center, Cornell University, Flickr.