The French Mannequin: 1906

French Mannequins at Exposition


Jean Victor Bates, in the London Daily Mail.

The young woman desirous of donning the black or white silk jersey and skirt which represent the uniform of a mannequin in one of the premier fashion houses of Paris must be possessed of a great deal more than merely un joli minois and a graceful figure. A would-be mannequin at, say, Doucet’s, Worth’s, Paquin’s, Ruff’s, or Redfern’s may be heiress to every feminine charm, down to thirty-two dazzling, home-grown teeth, and yet be found wanting when she comes to apply for the coveted post. Beauty, unsupported by keen intelligence, here counts for little or nothing.

A mannequin’s head must certainly be pretty, but it must also be “long”—as long as the proverbial Scotsman’s, and as firmly screwed on. Like her world-famed employer, she must be an artist to the finger tips, well educated, and capable of assisting her employer to borrow ideas from every country on earth, from history, even from antiquity. To these ideas she must impart that grace and lightness, that talent for harmonising and contrasting textures and tints, that taste and true elegance by virtue of which he holds sway over the world of money and fashion.

Sympathy and a certain knowledge of human—particularly of feminine—nature, a good temper, and a strong constitution are also part of the necessary stock-in-trade of the successful mannequin. Her beauty is, generally speaking, of no accepted standard, it is peculiarly her own. Indeed, she may be taken as an entirely distinct species of her sex. As a rule, she is vivacious of temperament, a shrewd business woman, well-informed in Bourse matters. She adores good eating and much talking. In manner she is invariably charming and fascinating; her smile has much to answer for.

Day after day, during the season in Paris, these mannequins are, so to speak, on view. Decked out in their employer’s newest and most splendid “creations,” they saunter backwards and forwards through the gorgeous showrooms of the fashion houses in and around the Rue de la Paix, enticing the clientele into extravagance. Dazzled by the exquisite hue and form of these “creations” when combined with the wearer’s good looks, and blind to the fact that a fashion which accentuates one style of beauty may possibly detract from another, the modern Eve is tempted—and falls.

The power to persuade is, of course, one of the strongest characteristics of the well-drilled mannequin.

A mannequin reckons on disposing of, at least, two costumes per day, and lays her traps accordingly. She knows what will attract everyone, scoffs at neither individual nor national idiosyncrasies, and fully appreciates the fact that all modes look well when she is the wearer. In M. Blank’s huge store-house are masterpieces to please the universal taste. Ample, evidently costly, somewhat bizarre creations for Americans; substantial, cruder in tint, trop serieux, for the Germans; black and white, softly shaded, tres chic, bien comme-il-faut, for English visitors—these latter pay well, and are most popular; distinguished, though simple, toilettes for Russians.

Paris leads the styles, the couturieres lead Paris, but the couturieres are—low be it whispered—just a little under the thumbs of their demoiselles des mannequins. These important young people are therefore most generously treated with lavish consideration. Firms whose sales bring in yearly a clear profit of between eight and nine million francs can well afford to be liberal in regard to the salaries of their employees, and these girls, who, in addition to substantial salaries, are entitled to a percentage on all they sell, earn large incomes and receive many valuable perquisites.

Moreover, they are dined and housed by the firms, and their cuisines might compete with those of many smart hotels, the principal living models are free, and come and go at discretion. So long as they are in evidence between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. no one questions their doings. Fête days are free, and they are allowed three weeks’ holiday during the dead season. On the festival of St. Catherine, in November, a sumptuous banquet, accompanied by champagne, is given them by their firms, the heads of which are present to watch the procession file in to dinner. These feasts are followed by dancing.

The day after New Year another curious custom is observed. Each mannequin is, on this day, expected to pay her respects to the chief of the firm by giving him a kiss. In the morning he takes his stand at the head of the stairs to receive the salutes of about thirty mannequins and some 200 sale girls and fitters. But his kisses have to be paid for! Every kiss received means a box of marrons glaces and a pair of new gloves for the donor.

The most celebrated purveyors of dress arid fashion seldom advertise their goods by ordinary means. People who stay at the smartest hotels, in the smartest and gayest health resorts and capitals of Europe, may have the opportunity of guessing how much the artist in dress spends on his advertisements. The method is this. Certain mannequins, selected on account of their exceptional beauty, elegance, and quick-wittedness, are sent out in couples, blonde with brunette, under the wing of some elderly and dignified chaperon. To each of these girl-advertisements is allotted a maid, and a respectable man-servant attends the party to look after their luggage.

Lovely in face and form, and modest as lovely, they may be discovered on sunny November or February days drinking coffee at the little white tables of the Cafe de Paris at Monte Carlo, strolling along the Unter den Linden and Brandenburg Thor, Berlin, taking an early constitutional in the Nevski Prospekt, St. Petersburg, listening to a state night opera in Vienna., driving up and down the Corso of Rome, whirling over the toboggan slides of Grindelwald, or waiting, the beheld of all beholders, for their motor-car at the entrance door of a fashionable hotel on some fine June day in the height of the London season.

A pleasant and easy way of earning one’s bread and butter, people will say. Yes, pleasant enough, but not so easy as it might appear.

It is no simple matter to court universal attention and yet never by action or look infringe the unwritten laws of strict conventionality. Masculine admiration they must invite, but masculine attentions they must eschew, for should a mannequin allow herself to become a subject of gossip or scandal she forfeits her situation and is dismissed without a day’s grace. They are sent out simply to wear wonderful dresses, excite curiosity, and hold their tongues. Their maids do the talking. For instance, Lady G­­.’s servant has injunctions to ascertain from the mannequins’ maids (who, by the way, may have spread the report at each hotel that their mistresses are mysterious princesses or American heiresses, travelling incognita) the address of the creator of the coveted garments. M. Blank has instructed his humbler employees how to answer such queries, and the advertisement is complete. So his fame becomes world-wide, and he rules the female form divine with a rod of iron.

Mannequins are not always French women as a body they may claim to be cosmopolitan. One fashionable artist is wont to boast that he has in his employ a specimen of beauty from every country in Europe. He has his favorite types, however, and some of these he pointed out to the writer. “Voila, madame, my most enchanting inspiration!”  His “inspiration” was a black-lashed, blue-eyed girl, such a one as they call in her native land “just a twig of a colleen.”

“She it is who wears my little while dresses, pour les jeunes demoiselles. When I behold her I praise le bon Dieu for His work! Her companion, the dark one, she it is who shows my fashions for the Spanish and Italian clientele. ‘That demoiselle tres comme-il-faut, a compatriot of madame’s, she assists me in my endeavors to enchant the English visitors. And the tallest, the what you call most robust of my models, she who stands by the window, upon her I designed the trousseau of the Duchess Cecilia of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, now the German Crown Princess.

“At the present, madame, I search for a model to pose for another of my royal trousseaux. The type I seek is quite English, tall, fair, with a complexion of rose and snow. Do you know of such a model, Madame?”

Clutha Leader 19 June 1906: p. 7

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: As we see in fashion houses of to-day, the requirements for mannequins are absurdly strait, rather like Mr Darcy’s desiderata of the ideal qualities for a woman. To-day’s models seem hired on the basis of their resemblance to persons in the last stages of consumption, rather than for their charm or their smiles, for one never sees them smile. Given the fashion horrors they are forced to wear on the runway—and certainly the notion of  “all modes look well when she is the wearer,” does not apply to the modern mannequin—one cannot blame the poor girls for being disgruntled.

Mrs Daffodil was particularly amused by the fashions designed specifically for the bizarre Americans, overly-serious Germans, correct Britons, and distinguished Russians.

Mrs Daffodil has previously written about the “advertising belles” used to tout false hair and complexion-enhancers at summer resorts in the United States. Both the Belles and the Mannequins were paid to make themselves conspicuous. Is the practice more tolerable if the wares are divine creations by M. Worth, whose wife, Marie, often  modelled his clothes or M. Poiret, who was inspired by his wife and model, Denise?

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.


2 thoughts on “The French Mannequin: 1906

  1. Pingback: Week-end Compendium: 16 January 2016 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  2. Pingback: Pretty Maids All in a Row: 1888 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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