“An Inspiration to Watch You Try on a Gown:” Clever Modistes: 1893

An exotic robe from Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon. Image from UCLA. https://blogs.library.ucla.edu/special/tag/lucy-duff-gordon/

An exotic robe from Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon. Image from UCLA. https://blogs.library.ucla.edu/special/tag/lucy-duff-gordon/

A visit to the imposing mansion occupied by two clever modistes is thus described in the New York Sun:

“When a customer drives up to the stately entrance, a liveried footman assists her to alight, and then holds open the heavy plate -glass vestibule doors. Apparently he is the sole masculine element on the place, for no sooner does she enter the wide, lofty hall, carpeted through in crimson, than three or four well-dressed women come forward. Two half-grown maids — bell-girls, evidently — sit about in crisp skirts and smart caps and aprons, ready to run errands at a moment’s notice. All about are evidences of luxury and wealth. Hot-house flowers bloom everywhere, and cheerful wood-fires burn in wide-open chimney fire-places. One of the reception committee takes the visitor in hand, and in five minutes the artless woman is convinced the whole establishment has been on the qui vive for her coming. All these long-waisted, admirably groomed young persons know her by name, a dozen anxious inquiries are made for her health. They are sure months have elapsed since her last visit, during which time she has certainly grown stouter or thinner, as the case and her aspirations warrant. After one of the small waiting-maids has been dispatched and bidden, with great empressement, to say that ‘Mrs. Jones is willing to be fitted,’ the flattered visitor is conducted into a cozy lounging-room.

Here she is relieved of her wraps, is settled in a big arm-chair, has a hassock thrust under her feet, and tea is offered her, together with the latest magazines or a dish of harmless gossip. If in advance of her appointment, she is never suffered to be wearied, for the deferential, but loquacious, attendant talks cleverly and is a genius at listening to personalties, no matter how dull. Accounts of Maud’s toothache, the butler’s impertinence, or Mr. Jones’s ill temper apparently thrill her with interest, and when the bell-girl begs madam’s presence in the fitting-room, she has absolutely to tear herself away.

However, one fails to appreciate the triumph of the system until a gown is to be tried on. Here more bows, and smiles, and sugar-coated inquiries await the visitor. Her basted lining is produced, and just as she is about to slip it on, the woman begs a thousand pardons, envelops madam’s bare shoulders in a fleecy wrap, and taps the bell sharply. She then explains that the senior member of the firm, Mme. A., made it a special point to be called when Mrs. Jones should be fitted. ‘She says the lines of your figure are a poem,’ adds the adroit flatterer, ‘and it is an inspiration to watch you try on a gown.’

By this time Mme. A. appears in a trailing robe of scarlet crepe de chine, bringing with her a perfume of violets. She is an elegant consummation of the methods that dominate her establishment, all suavity and smartness. She talks entertainingly as the work progresses, then breaks off to advise a slight lowering of the waist line, warns the fitters to remember they are handling the handsomest figure in New-York city, and she (Mme. A.) will permit no carelessness or marring of its symmetry. To prevent tedium she orders a number of Parisian novelties to be shaken free of their tissue paper and sacheted cases, catches up a sumptuous golden-brown velvet, holds it near her customer’s rosy cheek, and is filled with speechless admiration at its becomingness.

This sort of thing simply coins gold for the firm. It is as much a part of the business as meeting due notes, employing expert hands, or charging exorbitant prices. There is plenty of hard, shrewd sense, thriftiness, and superior ability behind this flummery, but women dearly love to be hoodwinked, and there are some people with wit enough to take advantage of this knowledge.”

The Argonaut [San Francisco CA] 6 February 1893

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  The two modistes sound as if they were precursors to Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, famed Edwardian couturière. Here is how one of her biographers describes her salon:

Reclining in a flowing tea-gown upon a chaise longue in the showroom of her Swiss-gray salons, her trademark bandeau encircling a mass of copper locks and rows of pearls sweeping past her knees, Lucile held court for her flutter of worshipful minions, directed her legion of assistants and received her august patrons. Here, chattering and animated, she smoked monogrammed, scented cigarettes perched in a long, straw-tipped holder, wielded a diamond-studded lorgnette and intermittently lavished silken-gloved caresses upon the ubiquitous swarm of pets which lay contented across her lap or sat protectively at her feet.

Lucile: Her Life by Design, Randy Bigham

The Rose Room, image from http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org

The Rose Room, image from http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org

Lucile also had a special display area for her line of startlingly sensuous lingerie–The Rose Room.

“Its walls were hung with pink taffeta, over-draped with the frailest lace and the pink taffeta curtains at the windows and around the day-bed were caught up with garlands of satin, taffeta and jeweled flowers” The day-bed, a focal point of the Rose Room, was of carved, gilded wood, upholstered in rose-pink.  It was a replica of a day-bed Madame de Pompadour had owned and was in keeping with the rococo theme of the room.   [Source: The IT Girls: Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, the Couturiere ‘Lucile’, and Elinor Glyn, Romantic Novelist, Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher,London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986.]

Mrs Daffodil has previously reported on “The Queen of Saleswomen,” a talented lady with a clever line of patter to induce a customer to buy. Salesmanship is all about the Psychology of the Individual.  And, perhaps, about an atmosphere where anything, including the most intimate dreams of the client, may come true.


One thought on ““An Inspiration to Watch You Try on a Gown:” Clever Modistes: 1893

  1. Pingback: Marie Antoinette and the Fortune-Teller: 1782 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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