In honour of “Hat Day” (Celebrated, apparently, in the States. One wonders who thinks of these things…) a piece about a “lyric” Parisian hat. The narrator is a young man waiting for his new mistress, who is at her toilette. He is watching the milliners in the shop opposite.
A MAGASIN DE MODES
There were present eight young and handsome girls,— some carelessly reclined, as if half asleep; others standing, with flushed cheeks and flashing eyes, laughing unrestrainedly, singing, and talking wildly.
As for the various stuffs with which the table was covered, no one was busy about them — no one seemed to think of them. No doubt these young ladies had just dined; — for these grown-up children it was the hour of recreation and repose,— as, for the little boarders, at the convent, after luncheon.
In the midst, however, of these fair girls, so wild and careless, there was one pensive and thoughtful. From the place which she occupied at the upper end of the table, near the casement, and still more, from her air of distinction and superiority, she was easily recognized as the premiere demoiselle.
Here, necessarily present themselves certain considerations, which are by no means to be taken as a digression, but which, on the contrary, result essentially from the subject. In the first place, this is an axiom: —There are marchandes de modes everywhere : there are modistes only at Paris. A true modiste, be it observed, is not a workwoman who fits corsets or makes embroideries, by the day. She is one who works only at her own time — a modiste is a poet.
A hat is not, like a handkerchief or a gown, a work of calculation and of patience. It is a work of art and imagination; — it is poetry!
It is, however, important to distinguish; —There are different kinds of hats.
There is, in the first place, the hat made to order;— that which is made for customers. That hat, undoubtedly, requires talent and skill. To execute it well, however, a modiste has need only of observation and cleverness. All that is required, in fact, is to adapt it suitably to the character and physiognomical habits of the person who is to wear it. That is not the true poetic hat!
But, there is the impromptu hat,— the hat which should not and cannot fit any other than one head,— a head which the artist has never seen, but of which she has, nevertheless, dreamt. Oh, that hat! — That is indeed the hat of inspiration,— the lyric hat!
It was one of these hats that the premiere demoiselle of our Magasin de Modes was in the act of meditating. One arm, resting on the table, sustained her inclined head; — her other arm fell carelessly over the back of her chair. She was in an attitude nearly resembling that of Corinna, at the Cape of Mycenum. She, too, in fact, like Corinna, was busy with an improvisation. But, assuredly, it was not intended to be a mournful one. Quite the contrary!
A careful observer of the expressive physiognomy of the young modiste might read there all the early symptoms of a poetical creation; and that approaching creation was certain to be of an elegant and graceful character, —for, assuredly, at that moment, the thoughts of the young woman were, themselves, smiling ones. The brightness of all her features betrayed her inward satisfaction. Oh, yes! Some fair project gave her the assurance of deep happiness for the close of that evening. The thought which was working in her, under the influence of those precious inspirations, was about to produce itself starred and coloured with all their rays. This meditation lasted several minutes.
At its close, the modiste turned suddenly towards the table; and seizing, with energy, a large piece of lilac gauze, which lay before her, measured several times its alnage [Alnage was a law regarding standardization of fabric. “Yardage” is probably what is meant.] upon her arm, from the forefinger and thumb to the shoulder. She examined it in all ways, turned it, folded it, puckered it several times and in several shapes ; and, finally,— its dimensions well considered, — spreading it on her knee, she suddenly snatched a pair of scissors, and boldly cut right into the gauze.
‘Twas done! She had said, ‘ This shall be a hat!’ — It was a hat!
That the work might be finished before the night, it was necessary to lose no time. There was but one hour more of daylight to reckon upon. In an instant, recalled to order by the voice of the premiere demoiselle, all the young girls betook themselves obediently to work; each one busying herself ardently with the share which was allotted to her. To one was entrusted the brim, to another the form, — to this one bows, and to that one rolls — to a fifth the lining, and to a sixth the trimmings.
It was a fine spectacle to behold these active workwomen emulating one another in the dispatch of their task, — tilting with their long needles and long scissors. For it may not be useless to remark, in passing, that, — distinguishing themselves, also in that matter, from the common herd of workwomen, as the cavalry are distinguished from the infantry, by their long sabres and tall lances, — the modistes use only scissors and needles of a prodigious length.
At the end of a quarter of an hour, the main works of the hat were brought to a termination. For, into the construction of a woman’s hat — frail, gentlemen! as that slight edifice may appear to you, — there enter more solid elements than you imagine. The coarse lawn, the thrice-stiffened tulle, the pasteboard, the edging, and wire, which form its skeleton and scaffolding, — are not these, truly, carpentry and locksmith’s-work!
Be that as it may, these different preparations were successively laid before the premiere demoiselle. It is she, the architect, — she, the real artist, — she alone who is destined to unite them, and form them into a whole. She only who had conceived this hat could give it breath — life, — and realize in it her own dream!
On a pasteboard doll, which she held between her knees, the skilful modiste had quickly, by the aid of pins, adjusted to one another the form and the brim of the hat. The long needle concluded the indissoluble union of these two principal parts of the structure. Then, in a few minutes, under the light fingers of the artist, the gauze inclosed and covered the vivified skeleton of the hat, and folded over it in graceful plaits. Some twists of straw were added round the brim and round the form ; and a pretty bavolet [a species of headdress worn by country women] was placed behind, above the border. All this had been performed with great rapidity, and with incredible energy.
The young ladies, who had, each, finished her particular task, sat watching, with curious and attentive eyes, the interesting labour of applying their various preparations. The modiste, wholly absorbed in her creation, smiled calmly on its progress. She raised the hat in air, on one hand, turned it lightly round, examined it under all its aspects, inclining the crown to the right and to the left, and from time to time, with her other hand, pressing the edge of the brim in divers places, rectifying some of the folds of the gauze, and giving, thus, harmony and perfection to the ensemble of the work.
This was not, however, all. The most difficult and most important part remained yet to be done. The point was, now, to place the bouquet. Every one knows that this is the decisive moment; and that on the fixing of the bows, the flowers, or the feathers, depends the whole fate of a hat, however well it may have succeeded up to that point.
The deepest silence reigned in the work-room. A lively anxiety was depicted on the faces of all those young girls, gazing on the hat, which was drawing towards its accomplishment.
But our artist was not abandoned of her inspiration. Under her hand, the corn-flowers and the wild-poppies mingled with the knots of gauze, and grouped themselves in an enchanting manner, divinely inclining to the right of the form of the hat, and reposing on its brim.
The last bow fixed, the artist set gently down the frail head-dress at the edge of the table; and with folded arms, leaned back in her chair, to contemplate her work. A satisfaction not to be described beamed on the features of the young woman; it was evident that she was saying to herself—’1 am content ; behold my idea expressed !’
But her reverie was not of long duration. Rising and approaching the glass, she called to her one of the young girls. Then suddenly sprang forward one of the most arch and roguish faces of a young girl ever seen at the Grande-Chaumiere, or at Tivoli. The hat was placed upon her pretty head, to be definitively proved. It was the final trial. Nothing could be better! One burst of enthusiasm filled the work-room. The hat had universal success. Indeed, it became the lovely girl enchantingly. And so pleased was the giddy thing with the head-dress, that she would not part with it; but, holding it to her cheeks, with the ends of her fingers, danced with joy before the glass, in admiration of herself.
She was obliged, however, to give it up—the dear hat! — as soon as the strings were attached to it, it was taken down into the shop, where it was immediately placed in the show-glass, on the first rank, on one of the mahogany stands.
Our beautiful modiste had been busy repairing the disorder which her labour had produced in her dress. She had carefully re-curled her hair — she now took her bonnet and shawl, and went out.
I followed her with my eyes, as far as the Rue Colbert. There stood sentinel a tall and good-looking young man, wearing spurs and mustachios. She took his arm familiarly, and they departed together. Did I not tell you that she reckoned on some happiness, for the close of that evening?
Her work completed, let us leave her, satisfied with herself, to go where she pleases, with her friend so true to his rendezvous. Assuredly, she has earned her walk and her happiness.
But, what will now be the fate of our hat? —
It was still daylight, the modistes had closed the window of the work-room. I opened mine, and looked out into the street. At that moment, I observed approaching, from the direction of the Palais Royal, a couple whom I at once singled from the crowd of passers, and who soon attracted all my attention.
They were evidently man and wife, and had been so for about the period of twelve moons, including that one which, no doubt, had been of honey for them. The husband, a personage of an appearance sufficiently ungainly and slovenly, was apparently a clerk in some office. Having probably spent the whole day stooping over papers and registers, he was in a hurry to reach the boulevard, for the purpose of getting fresh air, and breathing a little. It was, however, by no means an easy undertaking for him. His wife, a charming creature, well formed, well dressed, but certainly the most giddy and curious wife in the world, rendered that task truly arduous and painful. For, that head of hers turned incessantly to the right and left, on her pretty neck, like a weathercock. And then, if she happened to catch sight of the shop of a linen-draper, or Marchand de Nouveautes, it became absolutely necessary that she should approach it and make a pause. It was, however, before the Magasins de Modes that she stopped, in preference to all others. They are, as everybody knows, infinitely numerous in the Rue Vivienne, and every one of them was a Calvary, to which the poor husband was compelled painfully to carry his cross.
Thus, they came forward slowly, — he pulling with all his might, like a free and generous thill-horse, [yoked cart horse]— she not suffering herself to be drawn along without a vigorous defence, and disputing the ground valiantly, foot by foot. It was a regular joust, and of the most obstinate kind. In this manner, they had arrived under my window, and opposite the Magasin de Modes which faced it.
I ought to declare, here, that I really make no pretence to more penetration than has been bestowed upon me! — but scarcely had I seen the restless and capricious face of that young woman, before, at one, and the first, glance, I had discovered the secret relations and affinities which existed between it and our hat of lilac gauze. There was, in both, the same coquetry, the same lightness, the same fantasy. Assuredly, at the very first moment, I thought to myself, ‘behold the foolish head which must have appeared to our modiste when she conceived her foolish hat! And you, Madam,’ I added, ‘ you are looking for your head-gear, are you not ? — Oh ! come quickly, then. It is ready, — it is waiting for you.’
Every thing happened just as I had foreseen. In spite of the resistance of her husband, the young wife had stopped before the Magasin de Modes; and, in an instant, she had distinguished, in the show-frame, amongst all the other hats, the one destined for her, — the one which had been created expressly for her.
There, then, at the very door of the shop, a contest speedily arose between the two spouses, — very different, in point of gravity and seriousness, from the little skirmishes which had preceded it. The young wife, this time, did not confine herself to looks of admiration and envy. She insisted upon entering the shop, — she was determined to try on the hat, and ask the price of it. On his part, seeing the danger imminent, and judging, like a man of sense, that if the threshold of that door were once passed, the cursed hat would not only be tried on, but bought, at the expense, probably, of a whole month’s savings, the husband stood firm, and defended his purse, like a desperate man.
Unfortunately, two of the modistes, who happened at this moment to be in the shop, having observed the struggle, readily divined its object. Whereupon, without regard to the law of non-intervention, the malicious creatures came to the assistance of the young wife, by opening the door, the handle of which they saw her grasping and endeavouring to turn. The fight was no longer equal. Without making a scene in the street, there was no escape from entering. — The husband resigned himself to his fate. As he had but too justly apprehended, — in a few minutes the purchase was made, and the hat paid for, with seven beautiful five-franc pieces, all new, — which I saw glisten through the glass of the shop door, and could count gradually, as the unfortunate husband reckoned them mournfully into the hand of one of the marchandes de modes.
I think he was a little consoled and cheered to the endurance of his destiny, by perceiving how slight would have been his chances of success, even if he had endeavoured to struggle longer against the inclination of his wife. It was evident that she had, herself, yielded to a powerful and irresistible temptation; — for, it was not enough for her that she had bought the hat, but she must carry it away on her head. It was necessary to her that the enjoyment of it should commence on the instant. Leaving, then, in the shop, the straw-hat which she had brought with her, and which, though simple and modest, was certainly by no means deserving of disdain, she departed with the new one, all smiling and glorious. In truth she had a good deal of cause for pride, — for, really, she looked adorable in it!
Her husband himself, it was evident, however great his wrongs from her, could not resist the seduction of this magic head-dress; — for, as he pursued his path up the Rue Vivienne, towards the Place de la Bourse, with his pretty wife on his arm, I saw him cast upon her, frequently enough, glances of complacency and reconciliation. I would not answer for it, however, that, in the midst of the disenchantments of the sleeping-room, he did not experience, that night or the next day, a re-action against these good feelings.
However, that is not our affair. We are writing the history of a hat, and not of a household.
This frail head-gear, — that we have watched forming, thread by thread, ribbon by ribbon, flower by flower, — behold it, then, launched into the world, on a very charming head, but endowed with very little more brains than the dolls of our modistes! I pray that, in the keeping of such a fool, no evil happen to this rare child of genius!
Paris: or, The Book of the Hundred-and-One, Volume 2, 1833
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: This is an excerpt from a much longer piece, “The History of a Hat,” by an unknown author. It well illustrates the way in which a hat was designed by the modiste and then manufactured by a team of young women. The entire story also shows, according to the narrator, the fleeting nature of both fashion and woman’s love. Mrs Daffodil has previously written about a ghost who ordered a hat, and a hoodoo hat.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.