Tag Archives: magasins of Paris

The Problems of Shopping in Paris: 1909

1909 House of Paquin evening frock. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ask any American woman you meet if she has been in Paris, and if she cannot answer yes, she will say, with brightening eyes, “No, not yet, but I expect to go,” or, if the trip across looks doubtful, “No; but I do hope to go some time!”

I have never met an American woman who had not either been to Paris was expecting to go, or “hoping” to go. And one of the principal reasons why she expects to go or hopes to go is to shop. She has this ambition to shop in Paris, whether she lives away out on a Western farm on the outskirts of nowhere, in the town of Kalamazoo, the village of Some-thingsburg, or the city of New York. I suppose this is the foundation for the orthodox belief that all good Americans go to Paris when they die.

I am not particularly surprised that American women who have not shopped in Paris have the keenest desire to do so, since the majority of American women who have shopped in Paris are so continually writing or talking about it. “O, the Paris shops!” they say, adding nothing more, as though the delights of a shopping tour in the gay city were too wonderful to be described in English.

**

La Samaritaine, vintage silver print, eBay listing by photovintagefrance

I have yet to meet an American woman who seemed willing to tell what I believe she knows in her heart of hearts is the truth about the Paris shops, and therefore I will here essay to tell the truth for her–that there is not in all Paris one solitary large shop worthy of comparison with the great department stores of New York, and not being myself a New Yorker, I do not think I can be accused of undue prejudice in favor of a native city.

When I say the Paris shops do not bear comparison with the New York stores, I speak after having just spent the autumn months in Paris, where I saw whatever was latest in the way of prices and fittings and goods. Take, for example, the matter of window dressing. In the large “magasins” the Parisians do not display the slightest taste when it comes to making their windows attractive. Only in the smaller shop windows does one find an arrangement of goods and colors that does not offend the eye. Along the Avenue de l’Opera there are a few jewelers who make an attractive display in their small windows, and over in the little streets of the “Quarter” one occasionally comes upon a dealer in antiques, who shows taste in displaying his wares behind glass.

But I speak now of the large establishments which are to Paris what the department stores of Broadway, Sixth avenue, Twenty-third and Fourteenth streets and Fifth avenue are to New York. Take the “Louvre,” the “Galerie Lafayette,” “Princeton,” “Samaritaine” and “Bon Marche,” for example. At first approaching them it seems to me any New Yorker must at once be reminded of Baxter street and other such parts of New York, for all the pavement surrounding these large “magasins” is lined with little booths where sundry garments of the most horrifying aspect are displayed for sale, and the clerks in attendance are calling your attention to their wares. These booths, let it be remembered, are a part of the great magasin. Back of the booths are the windows of the store, and how any New Yorker can find them attractive is beyond my comprehension. Paris knows nothing of the art of large window dressing. Indeed, if one were to judge of the contents of the store by those of the windows, one would certainly pass it by. However, it is a tradition in Paris that you must not judge of a shop by its outside appearance, so let us enter and examine the bargain tables and the regular counters. Here are coarse handkerchiefs, 75 centimes, or 15 cents. Handkerchiefs 10 times more beautiful and much finer may be bought in any of the Sixth avenue department stores for 12 cents. Here are gloves–yes, let me admit, they are very much cheaper than one can find them in New York, and, therefore, if one is over in Paris, one should lay in a good stock of gloves if she can evade the customs inspectors.

Here are ready-made collar supports, with whalebone and ruchings, all prepared to sew in the neck of a bodice and reach quite to the ears. These also are 75 centimes each, 15 cents, while they may be bought two for a quarter in Twenty-third street, or Broadway. Last September I bought a set of combs for the coiffure. I had mislaid my good London set and wanted something cheap on the spur of the moment, I paid 4f. for them, or 80 cents. I find prettier and stronger ones for 69 cents.

**

French trousseau petticoat, c. 1900. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Of course, everybody looks at handmade underwear when in Paris–it is the only kind worth looking at. No body would ever dream of buying machine-made lingerie or blouses in Paris. They are simply impossible. The handmade garments are dainty and attractive and comparatively cheap. That is to say, if a woman is able to pay $15 for a lingerie blouse, or $5 for a chemise or nightgown, she can do very much better in Paris than in New York. The $15 blouse will be $10 in Paris, and the $10 nightgown will be $5 or $6. But the woman who is accustomed to paying $1.50 each for her dainty surplice-shaped nightgowns and $2 for her smart machine-made summer blouse should not dream of buying these garments in Paris. For those prices, she cannot find anything she will be willing to wear. The fact is that there is no city in the world where such dainty machine-made garments of all sorts can be found at such low prices as in New York.

Do you want a pair of pretty little slippers for the opera or a party? If you have only $2 to pay for them, buy them in New York. If you can afford more than that, try Paris. Do you always wear silk stockings? Then by all means get them in Paris when you are over there–unless you will listen to my advice and get them in Regent street, London. If you are accustomed to wearing cotton hose always, and want to get the finest and daintiest possible stockings for your quarter of a dollar, buy them in New York.

Do you want dress goods by the yard? If you wish cotton goods, don’t fail to get it in New York. It is daintier and cheaper here. If you are going across and must have yards and yards of cloth or silk–still I say don’t get them in Paris. London is the place for your purchases. Do you anticipate going over in the summer and remaining till the chilly October weather will necessitate a good heavy steamer coat which you can wear in New York when you return here? Of all things, don’t waste your time hunting for that coat in Paris unless you have a large amount of money to spend for it. You will find what you want in St. Paul’s Churchyard or Oxford street. London, but not in Paris at your price.

1909 lampshade hat, Paris, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In thinking of Paris one’s thoughts turn instinctively to hats and gowns. Certainly it is the place where the fashions originate and whence they are imitated, but come you and walk along the principal shopping streets of Paris and look in the windows during the months when Americans most congregate there. Let us fancy it is August, and we must return to New York in September. I defy any American woman with good taste and with mind not warped with the idea that anything that comes from Paris must be right, to find displayed in any Paris window a hat marked below 25f. that she would wear in the backest of New York’s back streets and not feel ashamed to meet her friends. Now 25f. is the equivalent of $5, and the shop windows of New York are bursting with beautiful $5 hats at this season and at all other seasons. I say at once these hats are not “exclusive.” Buying one, I would not feel at all sure that wearing it to the matinee I would not become amazed and dazed by seeing myself in exact duplicate sitting in front of me. But the same thing could happen in Paris. The point is that the $5 “window hat” of New York is to be preferred to the same thing in Paris.

The only way to procure a hat in Paris is to go inside a shop that does not look like a shop, and tell the madame in charge that you have been sent there by Mrs. So-and-So, who bought her hats there last year. Then you will have brought forth from secret receptacles wonderful specimens of millinery that fairly turn your head, and if you are able to pay $15 or more, you will obtain a real “creation” for which you would pay a third more in New York.

In the matter of gowns one has the same experience. Really well-made and attractive gowns are not often displayed in the windows, nor can you see them in the shops except by special maneuvering. If you can afford to patronize the shops of the Rue de la Paix (and you must be a millionaire to be able to do so), you will certainly see gowns that are gowns, although even those that are shown to you–if you speak with an American accent–are not at all like the gowns that are displayed for the inspection of Madame la France. A special line of gowns is originated for Americans, as any American woman would soon see who, after having bought her gown in August, should go back to Paris in November and note what is being worn by the real Parisienne.

**

Oh, yes, I know all about those “little dressmakers” and those “little milliners” of Paris. That is to say, I know nothing whatever about them, except by hearsay, and have never been able to find them, though I have taken a half dozen taximeters in hot pursuit of them, thrusting the addresses given me by my English and American friends in the very faces of the red-faced cabbies and demanding to be driven to them instantly. Somehow they have always moved away from the addresses that have been given me, or their prices have increased tremendously since the foregoing summer, or I have made a mistake, indeed I have. Madame never, no, never, made a gown for the American mademoiselle under 300f., nevaire, no, nevaire!

Myself, I came back to New York recently without the gowns I had intended to buy, and am now rejoicing in the fittings of my little Irish-American dressmaker, who, though she knows it not, is quite as clever as the “little French dressmaker,” and is able to do me very well indeed for the American equivalent of 300f.

I do not depreciate Paris as a center of art and fashion. I think that every American woman who is able to do so should visit Paris. Certainly she ought to go through the principal shops, visit the great opera house, the art galleries and wander about the fascinating streets. Paris gets a hold on one, and to her one returns again and again. So great is that hold that, with but a few hundred dollars, many an American and English girl will remain there and suffer untold discomforts for the mere sake of living and perhaps, “studying” in Paris. She will eat one-franc dinners, that are a horror to remember, sleep on beds that for their hardness penetrate into the very bones and marrow and cause a lifelong ache. She will wander about the Louvre Museum, copying pictures for the price of a Latin quarter meal. She will climb seven flights of stairs to her attic abode and sleep five in a room, each on a four-folded quilt in a corner, and go bathless for a fortnight at a time. She will, under these circumstances, write home letters to the old folk by the country fire side or the city radiator, telling of the glories of Paris, her ambitions, her chance for success. And surely Paris has her glories, her chances, and sometimes her fulfillment of ambitions.

But Paris is not cheap. If one desires ordinary comforts one cannot live there more cheaply than in New York. The far-famed flats of the Latin quarter, where one gets four rooms with a kitchenette for $12 a month, are comfortless, desolate and dirty when compared with the cheap tenement house apartments of New York.

Paris is the city for those who have learned, or are sure they are willing and able to learn, the art of “doing without.” All its conveniences are expensive, most especially such conveniences as baths, laundry work, good beds, cleanliness.

There is no food so deliciously cooked and served as one finds in Paris, but food of this sort is not particularly cheap. Your American art-student may find many a one-franc dinner served in the open air along the boulevards (including “wine,” if she is fond of vinegar), but it is the sort of dinner she would not eat at home. She can find rooms in the Latin quarter for 25f. a month that is to say, for $5. She must climb many stairs to them, dress by the light of a solitary candle (for which she will pay five times as much as she will pay in New York), and shiver during the winter for want of a fire. She will either wash her own clothes or wear them soiled, unless she can pay an exorbitant price to have them laundered. She can put up with these discomforts and many other things too many to mention, while she “sees Paris” and “studies art.” If she is made of the right stuff and does not break down physically, it will do her good and perhaps make a strong, capable woman of her, destroying certain provincial notions that are death to advancement. Unless she becomes so wedded to Paris that she cannot leave it, she will return to her native land and her own people all the better and more interesting for the experience she has had. She can laugh over it afterward and warn her friends what they have to expect if they go to Paris without a really snug little income.

I do not discourage any American girl or woman from going to Paris. I hope I merely lift my voice against the strangely prevalent notion that Paris is a surprisingly cheap city, that its shops are especially attractive, that one can really get more for one’s money than in New York or in other large American cities. For this is a delusion.

Pittsburgh [PA] Daily Post 21 March 1909: p. 33

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Well. That is “telling them,” as they say in the States. Blunt Yankee candour. Or perhaps the author was paid for this “puff piece” by the New York Chamber of Commerce.  

The author is cynical about the “little dressmakers” of Paris, but does not breath a word about the salons of the House of Worth, Paquin, Poiret, Lanvin, Doucet, or Callot Soeurs. Mrs Daffodil raises a skeptical eye-brow. Perhaps those establishments felt that their client lists were filled and they did not feel it necessary to pay to be “puffed.”

While Mrs Daffodil has heard of exploitation in the work-rooms of couture houses, she wonders how it compared with the sweat-shops of New York for making dainty surplice-shaped nightgowns and smart machine-made summer blouses.

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 anecdote

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.