Representing the nation

Catherine E. Clark

Paris Liberation: the visual borders of national identities

This paper explores the differing photographic representations of the Liberation of Paris at the end of World War II in France, England, and the United States during the fall of 1944. It looks at how the myth of the Liberation as a populist, unified French victory crossed national borders and how, even as the US and English press celebrated the restoration of the French capital’s freedom they reinterpreted the events and France’s history of revolution.

While the D-Day battles have become the iconic battles of the Liberation of France for the American and English public, the Liberation of Paris remains one of the most important symbolic battles for the French. After four years of occupation by the German army, fighting between members of the French Resistance or FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieure) and German soldiers finally broke out in Paris in August 1944. It began with a series of strikes by metro workers and the French Police on August 18 and 19 and ended after allied troops – led by General Leclerc’s 2nd armored division – entered the city and Charles de Gaulle triumphantly paraded down the Champs-Elysées on the 26th. Although Paris’s popular uprising was made possible by the fact that the Allies’ arrival was imminent and the majority of the German forces had already retreated, the myth of the Liberation that developed events during and after this week stressed this as a Franco-French victory. As de Gaulle intoned on the 26, this was “Paris liberated, Paris liberated by itself!”

Despite its secondary status in military terms, the Liberation of Paris was sold across France as the iconic battle of the war, the founding myth of the postwar nation. It was sold as a particularly visual spectacle would be furthered through that fall and winter by the circulation of photographs as a sort of ‘instant history’ in a flood of illustrated publications. With titles such as – Seen during the Liberation of Paris, The Liberation of Paris: the Historic days from August 19 to August 26, 1944 Seen by Photographers, The Liberation of Paris Seen from a Police Station, and Eyes Peeled in Insurgent Paris – these books and pamphlets stressed the events as visual and photographic, while the pictures that illustrated them inscribed them in a longer history of revolution in the capital. French publications marveled at how, as François Mauriac enthused: “for the first time, it was not a question of fratricidal struggle, for the first time, all of the French found themselves on the same side of the barricade” (Mauriac, Paris Libéré, 5.) These publications thus smoothed over the fact that not every French person fought on the same side of the barricade in 1944.

This paper looks at how the prints, photographs, and paintings of Parisian revolution that accompanied British and American accounts further flattened the historical particularities of the Liberation. By manipulating larger historical narratives as this myth crossed national borders in the weeks that followed August 1944, the American and British press, I propose, used this narrative to create their own nations’ mythology of the Liberation of Paris and define France’s place in the postwar world. 


Elodie Nowinski

Fake Parisians For Real New Yorkers: nationality claims in global fashion business

Once upon a time, fashion was called couture and only happened in Paris. Then came London, somehow New York appeared, then Milan, Tokyo and all the other ones, all claiming to be fashion capitals. These city queens of fashion were cohabitating in a flourishing market and were all keeping up with their initial characters: Paris was expansive and chic, London was cool, punk and weird, New York relaxed avant-garde and Tokyo… well, was Tokyo.

But the market went global. I mean, somehow, fashionistas were everyone, including normal people, and mass fashion, fast fashion, high street fashion started to blur the lines in an unthinkable way. Fashion went viral and everyone was contaminated.

But if Paris was still walking the line of couture, global groups bought all the famous houses –except for a very small number –, from the Gucci group to LVMH, Richemont and all the Kerings of the world. And suddenly, New York Brands were walking the runways financed by the same money as Milan’s or London’s. Character differences were getting harder and harder to identify and ready-to-wear was all mixed up with couturiers and designers brands. But loosing character, which is loosing brand identity, is a capital offence in fashion territory. You sell because you are different to the eyes of the consumers.

Once the frenzy of global fashion business and globalized brands was over, marketers suddenly realised that the geographical identity of brands was central and needed to be stressed out in any kind of way to regain the credit attached to historical brands to make them identifiable again on a saturated market.

Then Yves Saint Laurent was rebranded Saint Laurent Paris… Prada re-engraved Milano on all its banners and the rest of the pack seemed to follow that path. Borders – magical one course, marketing magic I mean, were reinstalled in the global fashion business.

But that magic had only one goal, to make brands more distinctive from one another and to sell to foreign and emerging markets more easily.

These marketed borders have nothing to do with a national identity forged by fashion history. Even less so with some national aesthetics linked to the country history. And on top of this, markets from emerging countries were admittedly buying the concept of Paris or New York but were not prevented from inventing their very own borders launching their own national brands. Hence, many questions are to be discussed: How can these returns to national claims in fashion be analysed in terms of aesthetics and in terms of business? How can former non-creative countries develop brands using these national claims as a marketing tool? And finally why fashion culture can only survive by recreating borders even though it is probably the most globalized business in the world?


Amah Edoh

Black skin, white hands, and the cloth of many colors: Designing textiles in Holland for West Africa

The typical reaction when I mention my dissertation topic in the US and Europe is surprise: the cloth my interlocutor had pegged as “African”—wax cloth, also known as “African print” cloth— turns out to not be indigenous to Africa at all, but rather, a 19th-century import from Europe, via Indonesia. The cloth, a mechanically printed imitation of hand-blocked Javanese batiks, was introduced to the west coast of Africa by European traders in the 1870s, and due to both consumer preferences and colonial trade policies, was adopted by local populations and integrated into existing uses for textiles as not only dress, but also currency—specifically, as female wealth (see Steiner 1985; Sylvanus 2007).

Is it printed in Africa? Are the designs African? Are the designers African? Such is typically the ensuing line of questioning. The first and last questions are easiest to answer: Wax cloth is also printed throughout the continent, as of about 50 years ago, and it is also made in China. But Dutch Wax remains the most prized variety in many countries. As for the designers, no, they are not African. Throughout the company’s history, they have primarily been Dutch, with a handful of other Europeans, and, today, one Dutch-trained Central American. The story of the designs’ origins is slightly more complicated. Since the 1870s, tens of thousands of Dutch Wax designs have been printed in the Vlisco factory in southern Holland. Some are copies or derivatives of Indonesian batik designs; others are based on sketches by West African traders, conveyed to the company by representatives of European trading houses like UAC and CFAO; some came from sketches the designers made of African art objects displayed in European museums; others are of a subject of particular interest to the designer; and others yet, “simply” the product of doodling.

What does it mean that the designs printed on this cloth and taken by West Africans and others to be part of West African cultural heritage are created by non-West Africans? In other words, what is the significance of the conditions of Dutch Wax cloth’s production, and of its consumption as a West African cultural object? Does the fact that the designs are created by Europeans have special significance, given the rather tenuous history linking the two regions? Cross-cultural commodities—goods produced in one cultural context for use in another—are far from unusual, and have long been of interest to historians and social scientists (see for example Curtin 1984; Howes 2002; Straight 2002; Plankensteiner 2013). But do the origins of maker and user in the case of Dutch Wax cloth designed in Holland for West African markets hold special significance in a critical analysis of the cloth’s trade? If much of the colonial project was implemented through efforts to shape colonized bodies, what is the significance of the nature of the commodity in question—wax cloth, which is not only used to adorn bodies, but whose designs, in Togo, for instance, can signal social status, taste, womanhood, and even national identity?

My ongoing dissertation fieldwork traces the trajectory of a collection of Dutch Wax cloth through five stages—design, marketing, selling, buying, and using—between Holland, where the cloth is produced, and Togo, where it is highly prized. Scholars in science and technology studies (STS) have argued for studying socio-technological phenomena by tracing the actions that bring objects of interest into being. Rather than taking system components—“social forces,” people, and objects—as given and static, this approach not only grants them equal analytical purchase, but also sees each of these elements as continually produced by the webs of relations within the system (see Callon et. al 2002; Latour 2005; Law 2009). Applying this heuristic to the case of the Dutch Wax cloth trade thus helps to elucidate the interactions among designers, users, the cloth itself, historical relationships, and other elements in the makings of the cloth.

Based on six months of ethnographic research in Vlisco’s design studio, my paper for the Borders workshop describes the Design stage in Dutch Wax cloth’s trajectory. I discuss: how designers envision their practice and their relationship to the prospective users of their designs; the significance of the cloth as a West African cultural object in the designers’ process; and how the political, economic, and historical ties between Holland/Europe and Togo/West Africa intervene throughout this process.



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