Lucile vs. M. Poiret: The Gauntlet is Thrown Down: 1912

A nightdress by Lucile at the Victoria & Albert Museum

A nightdress by Lucile at the Victoria & Albert Museum

An unfortunate difference of opinion has broken out between the men and the women dressmakers as represented by the chief European exponents of the art. On the one hand we have M. Poiret, that truly distinguished Frenchman who permits himself to minister sartorially to the women of the world, while upon the other side is Lady Duff-Gordon, the chief director of Lucile’s. In this instance the provocation comes from the man, which is so rarely the case as to be remarkable. M. Poiret was actually guilty of saying for publication that “man only can suit a woman in dress. The woman dressmaker drowns herself in details and neglects the outline.”  Now we had supposed that this was unquestionably true. The same thing has often been said before, and so far without any vociferous contradiction, and when a woman does not contradict something derogatory to her own sex it is presumably true. Sometimes it is true when she does contradict it. Every one remembers the explanation once given for the predominance of the male dressmaker. His woman competitor, we were told, refuses to recognize any fraction of the inch less than the quarter, while the male mind condescends to eighths and sixteenths. Consequently man secures a precise fit where the woman fails to do so. This may be a libel. Who are we that we should decide upon such a point.

But the woman dressmaker has found a champion in Lady Duff-Gordon, who has been visited by a representative of the London Daily Express, It is strange how eager are these newspaper men to stir up trouble and to set nations and sexes by the ears. Lady Duff-Gordon listened to the charge of M. Poiret, and like Sam Weller’s mother-in-law she “swelled wisibly” with defiance and indignation. For the moment she became the incarnation of her downtrodden sex and repelled with scorn the insinuation of her Parisian rival.

“Of course,” she said, “the woman dressmaker remembers details, and it is the details, the little touches, that make a dress charming and distinctive. But let me try to explain to you what I mean.”

Now of what earthly use is it to send a man reporter upon such an errand as this? This particular scribe in the grasp of Lady Duff-Gordon was as clay in the hands of the potter. She gave some sort of a signal, waved a magic wand, muttered a few words of an incantation, and in swept a procession of young women of bewildering beauty and so attired as to abash the sunlight. Now, said Lady Duff-Gordon, what do you think of that ? Are they not exquisite ? The wretched youth tried to check an almost ungovernable tendency toward violent mania and feebly gibbered that they were. But he was referring to the young women themselves, and Lady Duff-Gordon knew that he was and yet she was not ashamed to take advantage of the weaknesses peculiar to his frail and faulty sex.

“Now,” she said, “I will show you why it pleases you,” stopping one of the divine ones for more intimate inspection and thus reducing her victim to a state of drooling imbecility. “It is this insertion, this little ornament, this suggestion of a dainty underskirt that makes the complete harmony that is so good to look upon. Hard outlines are not feminine. They do not please.”

Of course the poor youth had nothing to say, except telepathically. He was far too modest to show an undue enthusiasm for the “suggestion of a dainty underskirt.” Somehow it didn’t seem quite nice to be too analytic, and that was exactly his persecutor’s point. Men had no right to analyze. They were concerned with the general effect, “A man has no business to understand a woman’s dress. It is not his metier. It is his to appreciate and enjoy the result without understanding how it is attained. “As a matter of fact, no real man ever does understand. He can not explain exactly what a woman is wearing, but he knows quite well if she is looking charming or if she is looking grotesque and unpleasing.

“Considering that clothes, to be delightful, must fit the nature of the wearer, it is surely evident that a woman dressmaker must be more successful than a man in making the completely and delightfully feminine — the robe that is soft and delicate and graceful — and this is done not by swathing the figure with hard lines, but by a subtle combination and by many little details.  “I will say this,” added Lady Duff-Gordon. “I consider that a man is as much out of his province in making women’s clothes as a woman would be in making men’s. Anyhow, my success in Paris seems to show that women themselves realize that it is the details that matter.” 

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 6 January 1912

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The censorious might say that “the Devil is in those details.” Lady Duff-Gordon was famously an advocate of titillating lingerie and “immoral” tea-gowns for the average society woman, alluring garments formerly confined to the wardrobe of the professional courtesan.

M. Poiret had a fondness for the straight, clean line and the rectangular. Not for him the laces and frills of Lucile’s confections. However,  in his focus on the outline, he erred. He wanted his creations to “read beautifully from afar,” yet in his quest for the overarching silhouette, it is said that the all-important detail of quality construction was neglected.

The two designers shared some similarities. Like Lady Duff-Gordon, M. Poiret was a master of publicity, staging fashion shows and soirees to launch collections and products. Both designers claimed to have liberated women from their restrictive corsets. Both gave their designs fanciful and romantic names.

Were the two to fight a duel—scissors at 50 paces—it might come down to a draw—and a matter of taste: M. Poiret for the tailored garçonne look or a touch of orientalism; Lucile for dreamy pastel chiffons. Chacun son goût .

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

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


5 thoughts on “Lucile vs. M. Poiret: The Gauntlet is Thrown Down: 1912

  1. Pingback: Where that $10,000-a-year Dress Allowance Goes: 1903 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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