Shopping in Paris: The National Vice of American Women: 1892



“Sybilla ” discusses the National Vice of American Women

A long residence in Europe, spent in different continental cities, wherein I have mixed with many women of many minds and nationalities, has led me to the conclusion that the pastime — if so it can be called — of shopping per se is a peculiarity of the American woman. I do not mean to say that Frenchwomen, for instance, do not devote a great deal of time to it. But, although they are the best-dressed women in the world, it is only when they really want new clothes. Twice a year, in the autumn and spring, the Parisienne devotes a certain time to shopping. If she be rich, she repairs at once to her dressmaker attitrié, Worth, Doucet, Morin-Blossier — Worth’s new and formidable rival — Felix, Rouff, etc., and there selects her winter or spring gowns and mantles. In the same manner does she resort to her modiste for bonnets, to her lingère, bootmaker, etc., and this over, excepting for new, unexpected occasions, when she wishes ball and dinner-dresses, her shopping, like the girl’s spinning in Mrs. Browning’s poem, “is all done.” If she be not favored by fortune, then in like manner will she go to the Louvre, to the Bon Marche, the Printemps, and other shops of like description, and will get her winter outfitting, and both of them doubtless will then feel what Ralph Waldo Emerson writes a woman told him, “that the sense of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion is powerless to bestow.”

But, “to go out shopping” just to see things, to turn and toss them over, to weary the already tired clerks, when they have not the slightest idea of buying anything, is essentially American and an ” unknown quantity ” in the French female character. Those Americans who live in Paris have constant back-breaking and head-splitting proofs of this fact when their American cousins and friends come over to pay a visit to the “Ville’ Tenniere.” Only this autumn I had an experience of the kind. A fair friend arrived and claimed my assistance to help her buy ten thousand francs’ worth of “pretty things,” her “pa” having given her a check for that amount and purpose. She had hardly uttered the words when visions of aquarelles, bronzes, rare bits of antique silver, tapestries, and china danced before my eyes, and, as she had never been to Paris before, that very night I made out a plan for visiting the capital from its most intellectual and artistic point of view, and early the next morning I started off with Miss Smith for a first bird’s-eye glimpse of the city of cities.

I took her at once to the Place de la Concorde, and showed her the great stone statues, seated round in glorious array and representing the principal commercial centres and strongholds of la belle France. I made her notice the wreaths of immortelles and the veils of crape that shrouded the statue of Strasbourg in proof of the nation’s devoted patriotism. I stood with her at the foot of the old Egyptian obelisk, and told her how, on that very spot, rose the bloody guillotine of yore, where fishwives sat knitting warm socks for their “Sans Culottes,” and dropping stitches to count the noble heads that fell in rapid succession under this wave of revolutionary madness. I made her turn and see Napoleon’s Triumphal Arch on the distant hill that crowns the Avenue of the Champs-Elysees, and pointed out to her, in the opposite direction, the Louvre’s grim, gray walls, beyond the Tuileries’ fair gardens. To our right, across the river, stood the Chamber of Deputies; to our left, at the end of the Rue Royale, the Madeleine, that new Parthenon which should have been built on the heights of Montmartre; and, finally, the endless arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, beginning under the Ministere de la Marine, which framed in the picture.

We went sight-seeing for several days, and visited many interesting places, and, though my friend was pleased, I thought I detected an expression of weariness in her face; but I put it down to physical fatigue. One morning I said: ” To-day we will go to the Louvre.” And her whole countenance expressed such joy that I said to myself: “She was probably more fond of art than of architecture.” As we entered the long gallery of sculpture, I was struck by such a peculiar expression of almost horror on her face, that I asked her what was the matter. Seizing my hand with a gesture of despair, she exclaimed: ” Oh, take me away ! I can’t bear these historical things and museums any longer. I tried not to tell you ; but what I want is the Louvre — the real Louvre — or the Bon Marche, if you prefer.”

Need I add that from that day Miss Smith spent her time shopping, untiringly and unremittingly ? Our apartments — for she was our guest — came soon to look like a shop itself. Every nook and corner was filled with boxes and packages, until the servants thought she was a “Commercente Américaine” come to buy things to replenish her shop in America.

She had a trunk — indeed, I should say, a small house — built, in which to lay her dresses full length; she had boxes made expressly for her twenty-odd bonnets and hats, and no end of others to suit the shapes of the innumerable presents she was taking home to everybody she knew.

When she arrived in America, she wrote me that “Pa and Ma had gone to the steamer to meet her, and that her father was glad to get off with one thousand dollars’ duty on the precious trash she had taken home.”

Of course every American woman who comes to Paris is not a Miss Smith. But every second one is; and, as the Herald informs us that fifty thousand Americans, on an average, swarm over to Paris every summer, this would give us about twenty thousand shopping maniacs to overhaul the Louvre and the Bon Marche.

Not later than last month I accompanied another American friend to the Bon Marche. We left her hotel at ten o’clock in the morning and got back at six in the afternoon. During the seven hours we spent in the shops, Mrs. J. bought only a spool of black silk for mending her gloves; but she tried on fifty-four cloaks (I counted them); she examined laces, priced ready-made dresses, looked at every species of underclothes, tossed things over in a way to excite the displeasure of the clerks and head men; carried things from one counter to another, which is expressly against the rules, and naturally looked so suspicious that I soon perceived we were followed by a detective, when I emphatically refused to stay a moment longer, and left the place, glad not to have been arrested and searched on suspicion. This mortification was equaled on another occasion, when I caught my companion — a very pretty Western girl — deliberately flirting with the man who was trying on her gloves at the glove-counter! No wonder resident American ladies in Paris complain of the impertinence of these clerks, who do not always distinguish American ladies from American parvenues. And, indeed, as far as shopping goes, there is almost as much of it done by the higher class of Americans as by the nouveaux riches. In fact, it would be difficult to avoid it, as it has become an established fashion that all Americans should take home a European souvenir to every soul they know.

I remember hearing the late Mrs. J. J. Astor say that “her summer visits to Paris were often spoiled by the drag and fatigue of choosing presents.” For a woman of her highly cultivated tastes, shopping had no attraction. Yet she was forced to it by this necessity of carrying back a present to every servant, relative, and friend that she possessed. Besides, Mrs. Aster’s artistic tastes only increased her fatigue, as she could not be satisfied with such commonplace fancy articles as are bought wholesale by her compatriots. She always sought artistic trifles, and we all know what a difficult task that is. Besides, as a woman of such great wealth, she felt that she ought to take to her friends something that was new and that had not been seen before in New York, and this was a still more difficult point. On one occasion, she discovered some exquisite bits of china, manufactured by a new process. It was the week before her departure, and she bought a little cargo of them, composed of specimens of different models. As Mrs. Astor drove up Broadway from the wharf, she espied her own new porcelains in Tiffany’s window. She stopped her carriage, got out, and bought one for herself as a souvenir of that summer’s tour.

Another important shopping point to be noticed is the outlay at the dressmakers’. Here women almost die, and, this is not an exaggeration, “Les armes a la main!” At all the swell couturieres salts, and fans, and even brandy are ever in readiness, lest one or another of our delicate American beauties faint away while standing by the hour trying on the numberless dresses, cloaks, and tea-gowns they are to carry home. To be sure, they are in Paris for only a few weeks, and must take everything back themselves to avoid custom-house duties, and, as Parisian gowns keep fashionable for several years, our shoppers wish to have sufficient to last until they can return to Europe again.

But by the time they have made their provision of clothing, they are sure to see some new gowns and cloaks which they immediately declare, with emphsis, they must have, and so it continues till the very eve of their departure, when Worth’s, Laferriere’s, and Doucet’s bills and boxes come pouring in nearly all night long. And, besides, dressmakers, who have an excellent scent for detecting “good pay,” tempt their customers with a “Madame need not mind about money–madame will send it when she gets home,” which temptation throws down the last barrier to prudence, and nothing stops our shoppers after this. They continue spending to the last minute, until they grow intoxicated with it all, and do not recover their senses until they feel the first qualms of seasickness, when they are apt to declare they will dispose of the greater part of the unnecessary things they are taking home as soon as they reach their native heath.

Paris, December 16, 1892. Sybilla.

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 9 January 1893

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Le Bon Marché is still one of the most famous department stores in Paris, although its claim to be the first such store in the world is erroneous. (Britain points with pride to Bainbridge’s for that distinction.) M. Worth and Doucet are too well-known to need an introduction. Laferriere’s was a particular favourite of Queen Maud of Norway. Printemps was an exceedingly up-to-date merchandiser, boasting electric lights and lifts, and selling items at fixed prices rather than allowing haggling. “The real Louvre” was Grands Magasins du Louvre, another de luxe department store.

And although Mrs Daffodil is shocked at the one young visitor’s behaviour–flirting with a glove clerk is really quite beyond the pale–one does have a certain amount of sympathy for Miss Smith, who, when longing to see the shops in the City of Lights, was instead dragged about and given lectures about guillotines and tricoteuses.



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