“The Paris Dressmaker” by Kristy Cambron is a captivating tale of French resistance to Nazi ideology and occupation throughout the duration of World War II. It is a story of two young women — Lila, a seamstress for high fashion designers, and Sandrine, a mother who works for an art museum — as they navigate their roles as public Nazi accomplices and private Résistance fighters. Cambron tackles topics easier left alone with striking insight into both history and human nature, and she weaves together women’s narratives to deftly portray the heartening and harrowing decisions made by a people under attack.
Women’s narratives are often sidelined in war stories. The focus is usually on the male soldiers, codebreakers and politicians, with women occasionally sprinkled in as nurses and love interests. There are certainly male fighters in “The Paris Dressmaker,” brave men who abandon every comfort and risk their lives to take down the Nazi regime, but the women they leave behind do not just wait for their return. They fight too, in whichever ways are available to them.
These women are not made out to be heroes. They are not the smartest, nor the bravest or the strongest. They are just average people — a museum curator, a publisher’s daughter-in-law, a seamstress, a baker, a college student studying art history — who take it upon themselves to wage whatever small, unglamorous rebellions they can. This story could have been written about hundreds of women. Thousands. Each with a sense of pride and a belief in right and wrong.
Cambron explores how this desire to fight clashed with the gendered reality of their lives. Unlike men, women did not only have to stand up to Nazi ideology — they also had to weather the gendered oppression and violence born from Nazi occupation. For example, Sandrine walks a constant tightrope with a Nazi officer whose eye she inadvertently caught.
She has to be professional enough to protect herself without being so standoffish that she offends him; friendly enough that he trusts her without seeming open to his advances. She has to endure his touches, comments and demands in order to protect her son and aid the resistance, while also enduring the scorn and aggression she receives from her fellow Parisiennes for the attention she’s shown by the enemy. She lives in constant fear that he will get tired of waiting for her to concede and take what he wants by force. It is not an unwarranted worry — there are plenty of women who are taken by Nazis as mistresses, whether they want to be or not, and then face the additional trauma of being cast out of their own society for collaboratrice horizontale.
Our media usually overlooks the everyday suffering of women in these situations in order to focus on the exciting stories of battles and glory. Cambron faces it head on.
This does not mean, however, that no women were willing accomplices. Not all Parisiennes were so opposed to Nazi ideology, and many even turned their backs on their countrymen to support it. There are hints of this at the beginning of the story: absentminded comments, fears brushed aside and, most importantly, apathy. Nazi ideology was designed to infiltrate apathy, to warp a general disregard for others — perhaps mixed with mild displeasure for one’s circumstances and a notion toward anti-Semitism — into a terrible, deadly weapon. It could (and did) turn average people into ardent supporters of genocide.
Cambron does not shy away from portraying this in all its heartbreaking, infuriating truth. At first, it manifests as a friend casually saying that “war will never come,” as though genocide is of little consequence so long as the armies are only marching down other people’s streets. Within a few months, with war fast approaching Paris and beginning to affect life there, it becomes, “The sooner this Jew problem is fixed, the better it will be for all of us.”
A couple of years later, it becomes an active collaboration. It becomes betraying Jewish neighbors. It becomes, “There is a collection soon to happen, my dear, a roundup of little Juifs across the city … And within the hour, they will be picked up and packed off to some work camp in the east, where I hope they rot.”
The person saying these things was a friend — a frivolous, shallow, childish friend — at whom both Lila and the reader initially laughed and rolled their eyes. It seems impossible how they could become so brainwashed and turn so evil. And yet it happened then, and it happens now.
Cambron is not afraid of laying out the ugly truth of how “good” people become “bad” people, and how they’re not always all that different from one another.
“The Paris Dressmaker” is an enthralling tale of bravery flourishing in the face of an indomitable enemy and hope persisting through trauma and tragedy. Based on true stories of women’s resistance, it is a testament to what people can accomplish even when (and sometimes because) they are underestimated and overlooked. It is also a warning of what can happen when indifference and prejudice are left unchecked by those who know better, but do not think it necessary to intervene.
In such a highly saturated genre, “The Paris Dressmaker” stands out for its skilled handling of women’s narratives and the complexities of humanity’s proclivities and choices.
Daily Arts Contributor Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.