Tag Archives: couture

The Dress-maker’s Duty to Humanity: 1886


“Dressmaking has its humorous side as well as anything else,” remarked a little black-eyed dressmaker on North Clark Street.  “There is the thin woman who will dress in snaky stripes, the scrawny girl who insists on a  décolleté gown, the matron of embonpoint who pleads for flounces to the waist, the matchlike maiden who wants a torturingly tight bodice, and the fluffy-puffy little body who wants gathers.

“But I never give in to them,” she continued with a snap of her eyes.  “I think too much of the human race.  I believe we all have one duty toward humanity.  Mine is to keep women from committing artistic suicide.  The little idiots come into my parlors, look at a fashion-plate, discover the picture of a lady in green gloves holding her fingers as if they were covered with molasses-candy, and decide that they want a dress like hers.  Now, there are nineteen chances out of twenty that the dress was never meant for her at all.  If they think so much of dress, why don’t they make a study of it?

“There is a certain rich lady here, with the face of a Madonna, who came to me with goods for a plaid dress.  I wouldn’t make it for her.  ‘Madame,” I said, ‘you must dress in gray silk.’ I had my way.  There wasn’t a bit of trimming on that dress—nothing but draperies—and she looked like a goddess.  Then another mistake is the universal adoption of color because it is announced to be fashionable, regardless of the fact that the majority of the wearers are making perfect guys of themselves.  Heliotrope is a point in question.  There is a young bride on State Street who came home from Europe last week with a dress of heliotrope.  Her skin is as dark as a Spaniard’s, and her hair and eyes are jet black.  She would have been magnificent in dark red or a cloud of black lace – but heliotrope!” and of this the dressmaker nearly died… [Chicago News]

The Lamar [AL] News 1 April 1886: p. 4


The Little Seamstress, John Faed, Artuk.org

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire We can but respect the dress-maker’s scruples and punctilious devotion to her calling!  The great Charles Frederick Worth himself was similarly conscious of his duty to humanity.

How Worth Makes The Woman.

Very many ladies of this city send regularly to the great man-dressmaker, Worth, in Paris, for their dresses, both summer and winter. Do not for a moment suppose all these women have seen Worth. The greater proportion send a photograph to him, with a description of the complexion, the color of hair, eyes, etc. It is not an infrequent occurrence to have the photograph returned to the owner with regrets at being unable “to compose a toilet for Madame.” A lady of high fashion in this city relates how she went to Worth on one occasion to have a number of dresses made. He asked her to walk across the room. It was a medium-sized apartment. When she was about half across, he called to her from the sofa where he was sitting, “Madame, that is enough; I cannot invent a dress for you; your figure does not please me. Good morning, Madame.” A mother and daughter in this city, charming women, but newly rich and over-anxious about dress, wear the most exquisite toilets of Worth’s composition, which are entirely unique. They have never been to Paris, or “waddled through the Tuileries,” yet Worth has seen them—that is, he has their life-sized pictures; he admires them, and sends then; poetical and ravishing dresses.

The Millinery Trade Review 1876

Miss Maude Annesley, who spent a fruitful year in Paris chronicling French life and fashion, wrote about the tactful Parisian dress-makers.

Even in the rooms of the humbler dressmakers there is a faint echo of the method of the great ones. There is a drawer full of pieces of many colours, wherewith effects can be tried, there is a long glass in three parts in which to study “all sides of the question,” there are thick curtains ready to be drawn when artificial light is needed. Then, although there are no mannequins to prance about in wonderful confections, there is the dressmaker herself, who sees at a glance what Madame ought to wear, and will proceed to illustrate her notion with silk and pins to her customer’s entire satisfaction. They all have taste and ideas, these dressmakers. They would never think of allowing some one to choose anything unbecoming. There is the difference between an English and French dressmaker. In London a woman enters a well-known dressmaker’s establishment, or goes to some old favourite — it is the same thing everywhere. She chooses what she wants, and her taste is rarely disputed.

I will not say that a Parisian couturiere is always right, no one is infallible; but I aver that she very rarely is mistaken in her ideas of what will or will not suit her customers.

And she is so clever in inventing little notions to hide or lessen some imperfection. If Madame is too thin (very rare in these days of the thin woman rage!), if she is too fat, too short, too tall —then it is wonderful to watch the skillful hands manipulating drapery and trimmings. And the tact shown is remarkable.

I was once waiting in the waiting-room at my dressmaker’s when, from the fitting-room, I overheard an enlightening conversation as follows: —

Customer — “I want the neck cut low. No collar.”

Dressmaker — “Parfaitement, Madame.”

Pause. Some action which I naturally could not see.

Dressmaker — “How charming Madame looks with that white tulle edged with pink against her cheek!”

Customer, in “purry-purry” voice — “It is rather becoming. You can use that for the guimpe.”

Dressmaker, sorrowfully — “Alas, Madame, impossible. One cannot edge a guimpe with pink, one can do it only on a collar. It is a thousand pities Madame is to have no collar, her complexion looks ravissante with this pink. However, it is no good discussing it.”

Pause. Some talk about a sleeve.

Customer, in doubtful voice — “Do you think the dress would look as well with a collar?”

Dressmaker, still sorrowful — “Much better, Madame. However, we will not talk of it. . . Does Madame like this band of lace straight or crosswise?”

Customer, after much talk of lace and frills, and several pauses — “Do you know, I think I will have a collar after all! That pink is so charming.”

Dressmaker, joyfully — “Oh, I am glad, Madame. I would not have thought of trying to persuade Madame, but I am sure it will suit Madame admirably.”

Some time afterwards the lady who was “not persuaded” passed through my room. She had no collar to her dress, and her neck was short, her chin double, and two deep wrinkles surrounded the yellow “column.”

I told my dressmaker what I had overheard, and she chuckled. “Well!” she said. “What else can one do with ladies who are unreasonable?”

I agreed, and admired her diplomacy.

My Parisian Year, Maude Annesley, 1912

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.


The Picture Actress and Her Gowns: 1916

Dressmaker Is the Skeleton in The Picture Actress’ Closet

Brand-new Gowns Are Demanded For Almost Every New Scene in Photoplays.


Film Patrons Also Insist on Creations of Famous Modistes, and Players Provide Them.

“Gowns! Gowns!”

“And then some more gowns!”

This is the reason given by a motion picture star who is well known in Washington, why young girls should take something strong and positive when the symptoms of a desire to become a motion picture actress first appear.

The business of dressing a motion picture play is more serious than the play itself, declared this actress. She has had considerable experience on the stage, and has become very well known in motion pictures. As she has been a great stickler for proper costuming in her picture work, she desires that she shall not be named—but she is one of the real stars of the film.

“The average stock actress has a lot more trouble with her costumes than she has with her lines. And she thinks her troubles are the worst,” declared this actress. “But the stock leading lady has a comparatively easy time when compared with the picture player.

Cannot Wear Gowns Twice.

“Did you ever see your favorite staress in the same gown twice?”

“You never did. And, furthermore, you never will. She wouldn’t scintillate long if she wore the same gown twice. The stock actress when she gets tired of buying new gowns can go to a different town and wear her old dresses all over again, with a little fixing over.

“But the motion picture actress cannot do that. Her public follows her from place to place. I have worked for five motion picture companies—but my public has been the same. I’m glad to say my public has grown a lot in numbers since I started motion picture work. But the point I want to make is that I can’t change my audience like the stock actors. The same people go to see my pictures.
“And, furthermore, none of my stock wardrobe—the gowns I wore in stock company productions—will go in pictures because the public has seen me in all those gowns! The result is that every time I put on a picture I have to put on several gowns.

“And believe me, the public is becoming rather captious as to the number of gowns one must wear in the various scenes of a picture. We must appear in a different gown for every day the picture is supposed to cover.

New Dress for Each Day.

For instance, if I am to appear in scenes covering several days I must have a new gown for each of those days. It wouldn’t be right for me to appear in the same gown two days in succession.

“It seems absurd, of course, in parts where the character is a girl in moderate circumstances. I know that before I went on the stage, I considered myself lucky to have half a dozen gowns—one of which would be a regular-honest-to-goodness stylish affair. And when I went out I wore that stylish gown time after time. I couldn’t do it with the same sort of a character, in the same situation in life. In motion pictures though, I must have a new gown for every day the action covers.

“And the quality of the gowns must be right. You hear a lot about ‘Lucile’ and ‘Redfern’ creations on the screen, and you think the labels are sewed on by press agents instead of the people who own the copyrights to them. But that is not true.

Public Demands the Best.

“The public demands ‘Lucile’ and ‘Redfern’ and all the rest of them. And we must furnish them. It’s a horrid shame, too. I actually spend more time with a dress maker than I do with the play I am appearing in.

“I would ask a young girl anxious to go into pictures if she can stand quietly day after day and permit herself to be draped and stitched and pinned into something she must pay for, but will never have an opportunity to wear—nine cases out of ten—because she can’t afford to go where the gown belongs? That is totally aside from the business of trying to figure out something new.

“That is one of the real tests. One of the things I want to take a vacation from is gowns. Honestly, I almost cry when I think of a new play. It means new gowns—more gowns—and I’ve got so many already that I can’t do a thing with!”

The Washington Times 13 April 1916: p. 11

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Poor thing! Sacrificed to the relentless whims of the public! What a horrid nuisance, having to be fitted for all those Redfern and Lucile confections! The anonymous narrator may be one of the genuine “staresses” of the Silver Screen, but she seems to be ignorant of the well-known solution to the problem of her bulging wardrobe: the second-hand clothes trade. This well-known dealer reported a brisk trade with stage actresses:

I deal extensively, too, with actresses. They can find among the stock of stage dresses gowns that are suited to the role they are to play, and the reduced cost of which is very gratifying both to their managers and themselves. In fact, the stage dresses go back and forth among the actresses, many times before they begin to show wear. I act the part of the middleman, you see, in these cases, and get paid for the bother of caring for the garments properly while they are here awaiting a new purchaser in the interval when they are not being worn on the stage.

Some of these richer gowns are sold to me by actresses who have no need for them off the stage, and dispose of them as soon as the play in which they were worn has run out its course at the theater.” The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 May 1891: p. 1

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.


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.


Why the Widow’s Hair Turned White: 1910

Women suffer things that men never have to. Fashionable femininity endures miseries in ways that its poorer sisters don’t have to. Wealth itself brings certain sorrows to the women who possess it. I met a widow just out of mourning garb and arrayed in gay colors. I hadn’t seen her since her bereavement. She had regained her old-time buoyancy and was having a good time at a dinner dance. Yet I observed gray hair in her coiffure that had not been there before and fancied that her voice had a note of grief.

“The loss of your husband has been a sad blow to you, my dear,” I said to be polite, although I knew well enough that he had been utterly uncongenial.

“I don’t feel that way about it,” she frankly replied; “he didn’t care for me, nor I for him. After using $20,000 out of his $250,000 for his mausoleum I felt free of further obligation and set out to have a good time with his fortune.” I was puzzled by the gray hair that had come on her head so quickly and asked her to explain it.

“It is the result of a shock,” she said. “You have read of persons whose hair, under intense terror or acute grief, turned all white in a single night? Well, only about one of my hairs in a thousand whitened, and it took a month for me to get as slightly gray as you see me, yet the bleaching was done by a mental shock. When the time approached for me to shuck the blacks in gowns and the blues in demeanor I planned a special toilet for the April Horse Show at Atlantic City. I sent to a famous Paris designer for drawings in water colors and samples of fabrics and adjuncts. I wanted to distinguish my ‘coming out’ as a widow with just the richest not only, but the best fitting and most becoming gown at the fair. The artist had my photograph, too, with all the particulars of complexion, hair and form from which to ‘create’ a triumphant toilet. The cost didn’t matter. It was enormous though, and included a whopping bill for cablegrams to close up the negotiations. One of my special stipulations was that the design should not only be original, but kept absolutely exclusive to me. The artist was bound to never duplicate or even imitate it.

“Well, my dear Clara Belle, the gown came all right. It was a dream of beauty—just odd enough to be unusual yet not gaudy; and after the final adjustments had been made by a skilled fitter here I was proud of myself as I looked into a mirror. I took it to Atlantic City in my motor car, instead of sending it by express with the rest of my wardrobe, so that it couldn’t go astray or get delayed. The opening day arrived warm and fair. The display of toilets in the boxes was fine for a lot of dressy women had come from New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore; and there was a big crowd of ordinary spectators, for an excursion train from the Quaker City had brought 1,000 sightseers.

“I posed a while at the front of my box and rivaled the horse exhibits as an object of interest. I mentally pinned a first prize ribbon on my breast and was exceedingly proud. Here and there among the swell Philadelphia women, whoever, I thought that I detected scrutiny that looked critical and sometimes two would whisper about me. What did it mean? After several competitions in the ring were over I went with my escort for a promenade on the lawn among the commoner folks—from the well-to-do to the barely-get there.

“Suddenly I got an awful shock. Along came a woman in a gown that, in everything except quality of material, was a counterpart of mine. The whole design was identical. I tottered and would have fallen if my companion hadn’t caught me. When the daze passed the woman was gone. Hadn’t she been a hallucination? I had begun to think so when another gown like mine came into view. The colors in this one were different, but it repeated the original otherwise. Within an hour I saw no less than five copies, and one in quite cheap stuff was worn by a girl as common as the goods.

“That fiend of a Parisian ‘artist’ had foisted on me as an ‘original and exclusive creation’ a design that he—or some one else—had made for an American manufacturer of gowns to be put on the market ready-made, and some big department store in Philadelphia had got a run on them. I went to my hotel in a state of nervous prostration, was no more than half conscious on my auto trip home and within a week these silver threads were among the gold of my hair.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 15 May 1910: p. C8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  The occasion of a widow coming “out of mourning” was treated as tantamount to a debut by some widows, such as this lady. Like the debutante ritual, it showed that they were “back on the market,” to use an indelicate phrase. As an aside, 1910 was the year of “Black Ascot,” although this lady, being an American, would not have gone into mourning for the King.

Etiquette demanded that widows wear black–dull and crape-trimmed for the first year; shinier fabrics, white trim, jet jewellery, and a shorter veil for the second. After the two years, half-mourning: white, gray, heliotrope, and mauve could be worn as the widow emerged from her cocoon of black crape. These rules were not invariably followed to the letter, but the newspapers reported on the mourning fashions of prominent women and were often scathing in their criticisms. For example:


A rather remarkable case is that of the recently bereaved Mrs. Marshal Field, of Chicago, who undertook to serve two masters by having her mourning gown cut décolleté. To the lay mind unacquainted with the awesome rites of fashion, the custom of rushing to the modiste when death is in the house smacks somewhat of flummery and frivolity. At the high tide of sorrow, the very crux of despair, gores, ruffles and tucks, sleeves and collars, would seem matters quite irrelevant; but this custom obtains in society and must be respected unless one is an out-and-out iconoclast and reckless heretic. The various stages of grief are furthermore shown to the world by a judicious handling of whites and grays, but it has been ordained always to be high-necked and long-sleeved grief.

Now, for any individual to change this order is a matter of fearful import; and the spectacle of Mrs. Marshall Field, at the end of a scant three weeks, breaking out all at once into bare neck and arms is a thing at once scandalous and deplorable. This still blooming widow, perhaps set upon her sorrowful and afflicted head a dull jet tiara; furthermore, perhaps about her drooping neck, sported some black pearls, which are de riguer, if you are fortunate enough to own them, at certain stages of melancholy. So perhaps she also wore black glace kids instead of dull suede. From such a spectacle one avert the eye; before such ill-considered vanity decorum goes into convulsions. That concrete grief should so far forget itself as to appear in a décolleté gown, albeit a very black gown, is a thing which makes the whole world stand aghast.

We live in parlous times, that is true, but never before has this been more openly shown than in this sad case of tearful innovation.

Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 16 February 1906: p. 2

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 more about Victorian practices in The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard, which will be published in September of this year.

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

A nightdress by Lucile at the Victoria & Albert Museum http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O230750/nightdress-lucile/

A nightdress by Lucile at the Victoria & Albert Museum http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O230750/nightdress-lucile/

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.


“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.