*** French boys' clothing : regional differences -- Alsace Lorraine Elass Lothringen

French Boys' Clothing: Regional Differences--Alsace-Lorraine

Figure 1.--This boy was from Saargem�nd or St. Avold. (The photographer had two studios.) Both towns are located in Lorraine. Historiand relate how the German seizure of Alsace-Loraine in the Franco Prussian War (1870-71) became a major national issue with the French people, poisoning relations with Germany and eventually leading to World War I. Less well studied is how the people in Alsace and Loraine felt about becoming German. The boy here looks to us to be quite proud to be German, holding a banner in the imperial colors. We don't know just who he was. Perhaps his parents were the Germans recruited to Germanize the population. or perhaps his parents were part of the local population before Germany annexed it. Saargem�nd and St. Avold are situated just next to the modern German border. The portrait looks to have been taken during the 1890s. THe card mount style was popular in the 1880s and early 90s, but the bot's short-length knee pants look more like the 1890s than the 80s to us. Click on the image for a fuller discussion.

HBC is unsure to what extent boys' clothing differed in Alsace-Lorraine with the rest of France, especially to what extent smocks were worn in Alsace-Lorraine. These two border provinces in northeastern France were an issue of dispute between Germanic and French rulers beginning with the division of Charlemange's Empire in the 9th century. Alsace as part of the largely German Holy Roman Empire first became French after the Thirty Years War (1618-48) during which the population was descimated. French jurisdiction was confirmed by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The Thirty Years War was one of the most decisive and destructive conflicts in European history. It desestaed Germany and retarded the development of a German nation. France was confirmed as the dominant European power. This allowed the extension of French influence north and west into Alsace-Loraine. Germany did not reexerted jurisdiction until 1871 as a result of Prussian victories in the Franco-Prussian War. German control from 1871-1919 presumably meant that smocks were not commonly worn, but HBC has few details at this time. The northern situation of both Alsace and Lorraine may have also been a factor affecting clothing.


Alsace-Lorraine is a region in northwestern France, bordered by the west bank of the Rhine River and both banks of the Mosselle River. It is north of the Vosges Mountains. The chief cities are Strasbourg, Comar, Mulhouse, and Metz.


HBC has grouped the two provinces together, in part because they were both seized by Prussia/Germany in the Franco Prussian War of 1870-71 and thus indelibly joined in the French mind. The two are however, quite destinct. The first usage of the term "Alsace-Lorraine" only came after the German annexation in 1871 as the issue became a major issue in the French press and among French authors.


HBC has collected more information on Alsace in part because there as a large German minority in Alsace. The province is located on a linguistic and ethnic frontier. In this region Celts, Romans, French, Helvetii (Swiss) and Teutons have intermingled. Many city and town names in Alsace look quite German--Strasbourg, Colmar, Mulhouse, Gubweiler! Pronouncing them in the French way sounds comical! The family names, too, are a mix of German, French, and other backgrounds. I think this is where Groucho Marx's family came from also. The Rhine separates France, Germany, and Switzerland. On the German side of the Rhine is a valley and then the Black Forest; on the French side, a valley and the wooded Vosges Mountains. In effect we could say that the two sides are mirror images of each other!


Lorraine always has been more French than Alsace. A large portion used to be French-speaking, although German control after 1871 affected thus. According to the 1910 statistics published by the Germans, and this somewhat suspect, 500,000 people spoke German at home and 160,000 French. The capital, Metz, in spite of its German name, has always been predominantly French-speaking. The Dukes of Lorraine used to have their residence in Nancy, the capital of the Departement Meurth et Moselle and that has been as French as roquefort cheese. However, the border region south of Luxembourg and the Saar as well as west of the Rhine River is still German-speaking, although the official language is French. Lorraine is more industrialized than Alsace, especially in the northeastern corner where before World War II sizable numbers of Poles and Italians had settled. Lorraine also is more catholic than Alsace, where many villages are protestant (think of Kaysersberg, where Albert Schweitzer was born) and it seems to be more conservative. That fact might reflect the way people dress, although HBC has little actual information on provincial dress trends


Both Alsace and Loraine have important local dialect. Alsatian is a largely German dialect. It is a an Alemannic dialect (related to the language of the Alamans) similar to that which one finds in Switzerland and accross the Rhine in the Black Forest. A French reader tells us that there are many difference between German and the Alsacian dialect. He says that he has much difficulty understanding Alsasian even though he speaks both German and French. In recent years the Alsatian dilalect like non-standard dialects throughtout Europe has declined in usage with young people increasingly using French. There is also a long-established dialect in Lorraine. The part of Lorraine that was annexed by the Germans after the Franco-Prussian War was called the department of the Moselle (as in the river). In this department a minority of people speak an Frankish dialect (related to the language of the vast tribe known as the Franks--a Germanic tribe) similar to that which one finds in Luxembourg and across the border in the Palatinate region of Germany. [Haegeli] Television and other mass media have been a major factor in the decline of these and other regional dialects in both France and Germany.

Famous Alsatians

Most "real" Alsatians (families who have lived many generations in Alsace) have German family-names. Four of Napoleon's most famous generals were Alsatians with German names (Marshall Ney, Gen.Kellermann, Gen. Kleber, Gen. Rapp. Albert Schweitzer was Alsatian, as was Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel who designed the Parisian tower, and Emile Waldteufel, the composer of the famous "les Patineurs" waltz was Alsatian. Many people in Paris with German last names are originally from Alsace (Brasserie Lipp comes to mind). In the times before the French occupied Alsace in 1681 there were many great Alsatian painters like Martin Schongauer and Matthias Grunewald, the creator of the Isenheim Altar in Colmar, and of course the builder of the Strasbourg cathedral, Erwin von Steinbach, but these artists represent German art, not French.

Historical Background

These two border provinces in northeastern France were an issue of dispute between Germanic and French rulers since the division of Charlemange's Empire in the 9th century. Control passed back and forth between the two national groups. Both provinces were incoropratd into the French Kingdom in the mid-17th century as part of Louis XIV's military expansion. They remained a part of France even after the defeat of Napoleon and the redrawing of much of the European map. Both provinces had both French and German populations with much of the German population in Alsace. French speakers predominated and the general sentiment by the 19th century was largely French. Despite the two language groups, the culture of the two provinces is largely uniform being comprised of both French and Germanic elements. A French reader with family from Alscace tells HBC, "I must say that the Alsace Lorraine population has never considered itself as a Germainc people, although some of their costumes and the language are a bit similar to German." Other readers insist that before Louis XIV's military adventures seized Alsace that it was more of a German province. Strasbourg, like the rest of Alsace, was part of the Holy Roman Empire until the Treaty of Westphalia, in 1681, awarded France sovereignty over Alsace and the neighboring region of Lorraine. Many Germans, however, in the 19th century as German moved toward unification continued to view Alsace as a German province.

Cultural Orientation

HBC readers have addressed the question of the national orientation of Alsatians.

A HBC reader reports, "No matter what some of your (French) readers say about Alsace, the German stamp on that province is still so enormous that no attempt to make it French will succeed. With the German stamp I mean the weight of history, culture, language, the way cities and houses were built, the names of rivers, mountains, towns, villages and family surnames. Don't forget that Alsace became part of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations in the year 834. This German period lasted till 1674 when Louis XIV annexed the cities of Strasbourg and Metz into France. That most Alsatians became French and felt happier under French than under German rule, is another matter. In spite of that they never are able to escape their German heritage. And why should they? They still can be good French citizens and keep speaking their Germanic dialect. I have seen a video where an Alsatian youth group is singing and dancing in their traditional costumes, the boys as well as the girls. Must have been a rare occasion. I sometimes wonder if some of the great French champagne makers like Roederer, Heidsieck, Mumm, Bollinger, etc. were Alsatians or Germans who settled in the south of France?"

Another HBC reader writes, "There are many books with many points of view. In the national climate that took hold in 1945 and continues to this day, it is, of course, fashionable to speak of the horrors of anything and everything done by Germany, regardless of the facts. Today's Alsatians go on and on (as did my grandmother and great-grandmother) about how French Alsace was, but it simply was not a French-speaking place and was not inhabited by Frenchmen. My main factual point was that the indigenous language of Alsace and eastern Lorraine was German, even before 1871, and that the French state authorities of the time recognized this by not running the schools in French. After 1918, the French began to Frenchify the people by denying them education in their native language. It has worked. As for whether Lorraine was mostly German, it wasn't, but then the Germans did not take all of Lorraine. They took only the German-speaking eastern part. For strategic reasons, they added French-speaking Metz to that." [Peaseley]

Modern Political Experience

Alsace-Lorraine has in the 19th and 20th century been at the center of the animosity and wars between Germany and France. Notably there were never any plebecites or referendums in Alsace or Lorraine asking about the desires of the local population. Such plebecites were held in several locations or nationality used to redraw national borders in Europe following World War I. This of course has never ocurred in Alsace or Lorraine.

Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)

Much of these two northeastern provinces of France were ceded to Germany in the Treaty of Frankfurt as a result of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. As a result, when the Third Republic in 1871 mandated smocks in French schools, Alsace-Lorraine were no longer part of France. These were both border provinces and there were already large numbers of German-speakers in both provinces, especially Alsace. During the German annexation the authorities were not brutal. There were none of the forced relacations that were so common in World War II. The principal German interest was economic. Alscase Loraine is a heavily industrialized areas. (One reader compares the German occupation to the French occupation of the Saar after World War I. HBC is not sure this is a good companison as the Saar was occupied by France not incorprated into France. The French did not take over the local schools, for example, and change instruction into French.) The state schools in Alsace Lorraine were taken over by German authorities. In many of these schools the language was already German, we are unsure just what policies the German took here. Some French sources report the language of instruction was changed from French to German. Teachers were replaced. I do not know to what extent French language private and Catholic schools were allowed to operate if at all. The majority French population never accepted the German annexation and continued to see themselves as French. This must have resulted in incidents at school. Presumably the teachers saw themselves as Germans and many if not most would have tried to instill German patriotism in the children. Some French families moved, but most of the French-speaking population remained. School smocks must have been much less common in these provinces than the rest of France, if they were worn at all. HBC does not at this time know just how the children dressed in the Alsace Lorraine schools.

World War I

Presumably this difference continued even after the two provinces were united with France after World War I. The French deported some German families to Germany. Smocks were no longer requited schoolwear, but they were still widely worn by French boys in the inter-war period. I am not sure how common they were in Alscae-Loraine during this period. Presumably nearly 50 years of German control meant that school smocks were not common, but this requires confirmation. A French reader reports that, "Normally in France the church is strictly separeted from the state and get no government funds. Alsace was an exception. The population there pays a tax for the church. HBC is not sure if this is an artifact of the period of German annexation (1871-1919) or if has a longer history. A HBC reader writes, "The ones who changed the language of instruction were the French, after they took Alsace-Lorraine (without asking the consent of the governed) in 1918. Then--for the first time ever--French was made the language of instruction, even though almost no one could understand it." [Peaseley] As during the period of German control (1871-1918), there was continued interest in autonomy after the French regained Alsace in 1918. We are unable to gage the strength of this movement or public opinion. A HBC reader writes, "By the late 1920s, the overwhelmingly German population of Alsace-Lorraine had had it with France and would have gone back if permitted. The French brutally suppressed these popular desires, and pro-German organizers were imprisoned. Some died in prison, and their burial places remain state secrets of France." [Peaseley] [HBC note: We are not sure that it is correct to describe the Alsace-Lorraine popularion as "overwealming German", especially the Lorraine population. As to Alsace I believe our reader is classifying Alsatian speakers as Germans. We do not believe that this is approprite as many Alsatian families saw themselves as French or as Alsatians rather than French or German.]

World War II

The Germans regained Alsace-Lorraine in 1940 and began a process of Germanizing the population with forced relocations and drafts in to the German military. Teachers were replaced or reducated in the Reich. Instruction was now in German and speaking French not permitted. Alsatian is close to German, but French speaking children were facd with the difficult task of learning German. The beret was banned and wearing one was made a criminal offense. One Alsatian boy reported that his first school assignment was to draw a Jew. [Ungerer] Just as the French had not trusted the Alsatians, neither did the Germans. It would seem unlikely that boys going to the NAZI-controlled schools in either would have worn smocks during this era of German control.


France finally regained the provinces with the Allied victories in 1944. Most Alsatians were delighted to see the arrival of the Allies. We have begun to develop some information about the Germans (including German speakers) in Alsace and France.

National Identification

The question of how Alsatians viewed themselves is very interesting. To some extent language was an important aspect of identity. Some German speakers tended to view themselves as Germans and the French speakers as French. This was especially case innthe case of French and Germans who had moved to Alsace and Lorraine fairly recently. Before 1871 both Alsace and Loraine had been part of France for so long that even some German speakers had come to think of themselves as French. In addition there were many bilingual families as well as Gernman speakers who had mairred into French families and visa versa. Especially in the countryside many Alsatians spoke Alsatian and their national identity was even more complex. Whether many of them changed to speaking French or German did not matter, they still were Alsatians and Lorrainers. Thus the question of nationality from 1871-1944 was a quite difficult issue to assess.


Boys in Alsace Loraine dressed similarly to boys in the rest of France. There may have been some differences here based on language. Pesumably the boys from German-speaking families were somewhat influenced by German fashions, especially during the first period of German annexation (1871-1919). Climaric factors also had to be considerd. It much of france ot was quite common to see boys wearing knee pants and short pants during the winter. This was less true in Alsace Lorraine because of the colder more northerly climate. One French reader reports that the Population in Alsace Loraine especially enjoy dressing in folk costumes. He notes, however, that lederhosen were rarely worn by the boys in Alsace Lorraine. Presumably this was because German-speaking boys were a minority.

We have little information on the extent school smocks were worn. Peseumably they were not common during the German annexation (1871-1919). Although we notice boys wearing blue smocks that were a kind of folk costume. A HBC reader has sent us an image of hids father dressed in Alsatian folk costume during 1899. We are less sure about the extent to which smocks were worn after World War I when French officials regained control over the schools. One HBC reader reports that smocks were not commonly worn in Alsace. Apparenly they were not even common in the schools after the French regained control in 1919. One report suggests that they were not unknown in Alscae, but worn much less commonly worn than in the interior (Alsatian expression for the rest of Franmce. HBC believes a similar pattern may have been true for Loraine, but HBC does not yet have confirmation of this.

Individual Experiences

HBC to date has very few personal accounts from French and German readers about Alsace-Lorraine. As Alsace is a border region, these accounts show a considerable variation in family backgrounds and experies. Hopefully our Alsatian readers will add some additional acconts as HBC develops.


Haegeli, Nicolas Robert. E-mail message, November 22, 2003.

Peaseley, Brad. E-mail message, October 9, 2002. Our reader reports, "I am the descendant of Alsatians who were pro-French and evidently French-speaking (they had French given names), but German-surnamed (e.g., Baldensperger, Schley) and Lutheran. These ancestors actually migrated about 1871 to a heavily Lutheran town in Belfort--so they could stay in France.

Ungerer, Tomi. A Childhood under the NAZIs.

Vogler, Bernard. Histoire Politique de l'Alsace, Histoire Culturelle de l'Alsace, and Histoire Religieuse de al'Alsace.


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Created: January 5, 2002
Last updated: 1:25 PM 12/12/2006