AN ART OF FRANCE.
THE MARVELOUS CREATIONS OF PARIS’ MAN MILLINERS. What Happens to the Customer Who Seeks Fashion in the Shops of the Dressmakers
Composing a Costume
The Models and Their Duties
Passing an Inspection
The Visit of the Autocrat
How Even the Bravest of Society Fares In the Realm of Style.
There is no outside show nor elegantly-dressed window at the Paris dressmaker’s. The great dressmaker or couturier is not a simple tradesman but an artist. His studios–for he is a man!–generally occupy two or three flats in one of those plain-fronted Restoration houses which line the Rue de la Paix, the Rue Taitbout, or the Rue Louis Legrand. Entering by a large porte-cochére as broad as it is high, you mount a carpeted staircase with walls of simili marble, or simply painted yellow. Through the open doors you see here the packing-room, there workrooms, with squadrons of girls sewing and handling piles of silk on long tables under the superintendence of a lean and severe-looking woman in black. The first reception-room is somber; the walls are hung with tapestry representing landscapes in Normandy and Brittany; the folding doors are painted black; on the chimney-piece are huge bronze-zinc candelabra and a clock surrounded by a nickel-plated Diana; the carpet is dingy and worn. To the left, seated at a desk, is a blonde and effeminate bookkeeper. Moving around the tables charged with piles of stuffs are one or two salesmen–M. Cyprien or M. Alexandre. The head salesman, an elegant person, dressed in black silk in the summer and black satin in the winter, receives the visitors and puts them in communication with the great couturier himself, or with one of his leading women assistants, termed premiéres.
The couturier is a curious creature, a great artist. Pompadour had her tailor Supplis, who is said to have been a designer of genius; the eighteenth century had Mme. Cafaxe, the famous modiste-couturiere, whose bills were as enormous as those of her successors at the present day; but the conditions of feminine elegance have changed since then. The grandmothers were content with spring, summer, autumn, and winter toilets, with a stock of gowns, mantles, and headdresses of a material appropriate to each season. Worth, Pingat, and Aurelly, the three great couturiers who directed feminine elegance under the empire into the paths of art and taste, introduced the “costume” element into dress: and now, instead of dressing his customers four times a year, the modern couturier dresses them ten, fifteen, and twenty times a year. A woman nowadays orders a dress for this ball, another for another ball; she wants a costume for the Grand Prix race-day; a gown for a certain garden party; a special costume for a yachting excursion; a dozen costumes for the seaside, etc. The dressmaker collects the engravings of Eisen, Debucourt, and Moreau; he advances money to mount looms at Lyons to create new stuffs; he keeps an army of brodeuses (embroidery women) at work to make unique trimmings; he examines and confesses his customers, studies them morally and physically, and invents becoming and original toilettes by the hundred. Thanks to these great artists (!) marvelous “lampas” have been brought to light. Lyons has made faithful reproductions of the most admirable brocades, of the most sumptuous plushes, and of silks with golden tissues and all that was so exquisitely magnificent in times gone by. Ex-Empress Eugénie used to be one of the greatest “coquettes,” as regards costume, under the second Empire. Princess Mathilde, Princess of Sagan, Princess of Metternich, Countess of Pourtales, and the Marquise of Galiffet were then the leaders of fashion.
The Dressmaker a Confidant.
Thanks to his continuous relations with all these noble women, the dressmaker becomes often the confidant and even the banker of some of his clients. In a word he occupies a novel and peculiar position on the confines of society. Living in an atmosphere of caprice, he is himself capricious; breathing an air impregnated with perfumes, he is often a victim of chronic neuralgia, which increases tenfold the natural irritability of the artistic nature., The couturier reigns over his elegant customers like a tyrant who knows that he is indispensable. And in truth he is the great arbiter of universal elegance, the oracle of the most beautiful women. From Oceanica to Peru, from Suez to Panama, and from Petersburg to the Cape of Good Hope large trunks arrive, carrying to the daughters of Eve the handsomest “chiffons,” prettily ribboned and saturated, as it were, with that exquisite atmosphere of the Rue de la Paix which has become in a certain sense the temple of all luxury, of all delicacy, of all refinement! And how delighted are they, the poor exiled ones, who dwell thousands of miles from the sacred precincts. How they untie each knot of ribbon with infinite precaution, like devotees arranging a relic. Their curious eyes devour the glittering stuffs. Hardly do they dare touch the costume itself, which when lifted from the depths of the trunk expands its leaves like a flower whose enraptured corolla blooms beneath the gorgeous rays of the sun. Her heart beats; she blushes, for the emotion is sweet–it is coquetry!
It is between 4 and 5 o’clock in the afternoon. In the reception-room the first woman attendant (Madame la première vendeuse!–such is her official appellation) divides her attention between a dozen women who are looking at the new silks, handling the piles of lace and artificial flowers strewn on the tables, eying curiously half-finished skirts and bodices without sleeves that lie in heaps on the chairs and chattering in strange slang: ” Velvet is again the fashion this winter.” (On est au velours cet hiver!) “Faille is not the mode, I see,” “Surah corkscrews so awfully.” In the adjoining rooms are seen the demoiselles-mannequins, young woman automates, whose business it is to show off in their perfect figure dresses and mantels. With a weary, empty expression the automate walks silently over the thick carpets from room to room and from morning to night, wearing now a court mantle, now the dress of an American millionaire’s wife, now the robe of a queen. Her capital is her figure and her bearing, and her salary is proportioned to her elegance, rising in some cases to $2,000 a year. All languages and all accents are heard, and elegance of all grades meets in the drawing-rooms of a great couturier–the blue-blooded aristocrat, the princesses of the Comédie Francaise Theater, exotic parvenue, and the fashionable demimondaine. Each in turn passes into one of the small trying-on rooms, draped with blue or brown satin, and heated to green-house temperature. The elegant woman, partly undressed, and wearing simply her corset and a short silk dress trimmed with lace, waits in front of the looking-glass. The dress arrives in fragments–a queer mixture of silk, stiff muslin, lining, and loose threads. First comes the corsagère, or woman attendant on the bodice; she takes a regular mold of the torso in coarse canvas, such as the tailors use to pad coats; on this mold the bodice is built, and at the second trying on it is brought all sewn and whaleboned, but only basted below the arms and at the shoulder. Crac! Crac! The corsagère rips and rips away, and then proceeds to pin and lace and make cabalistic signs with a yellow pencil, cutting and slashing here and there with wonderful surety of eye and hand. “Does Madame feel her corset?” she finally asks; and if it is right, Madame replies, satisfied: “Yes ; I’m at home in it!” The Next Step Toward the Finale.
Next comes the jupière (woman attendant on the skirt). She has charge of the relevés and the details of the train. Then follows the specialist who is charged with what is called the “mounting of the skirt,” and who drapes the skirt on a lining of silk, and crawls on her knees round, and round the woman for half an hour at a time. Dressmaking is perhaps one of the few arts in which the subordinate workers still show a certain amour propre and something of the artist’s ambition. In their light-fingered collaboration with the imagination of the masculine couturier they delight to produce masterpieces, and spare no pains, especially when they have to do with a woman of fine natural figure–“toute faite,” as they say–who has not the artificial dressmaker’s waist.
Meantime the voice of the master is heard as he comes out of one of the trying-on rooms. He is storming at one of the leading women because a “ruche” has been substituted for a flounce, and because a light-colored fur has been put on the mantle of the Countess de Z., a delicate blonde! It is not the creation of models that is difficult; it is to get the models executed. “I am not seconded. The whole mantle will have to be remade. It is enough to drive one crazy! Be good enough to tell M. Cyprien to inquire who is responsible for the error.” And the great artist passes into another room, where several women are waiting in their half-finished dresses for a word of approval from the master, or a touch from his magic hand that will perfect a seam or crumple a mass of tulle into a vision of beauty.
One woman will humbly call the great artist’s attention to a certain fold in her Watteau train. The great artist will shrug his shoulders, and say brusquely, “Madame la Baronne, you look like a broomstick in that robe. Take it off, and come again tomorrow. I will compose something else for you. I am not in the vein today.” He salutes and passes on to another woman. But he cannot digest the patent fact that some one attached to his staff was not aware that “Watteaus” were for blondes who are not too slim and “Violas” (the sober draperies and the rich stuffs of the seventeenth century) were attributed to grave-looking and severe figures and to those that have some majesty about them. As to Madame la Baronne she will take off her robe in disgust and console herself by going to try on her new riding habit in the “Salon des Amazons.” This room is draped in green velvet and adorned with side-saddles, whips, and stirrups; on the table are rolls of dark cloth and silk hats, with green, brown, and blue veils; in the middle is a life-size wooden horse, on which the Baroness mounts to have the folds of her amazon, or riding-habit, arranged. An insipid blonde young man is specially told off to aid the woman mount the dummy steed.
The final trying-on of the finished costumes is a great day in the life of all modern French élégantes, who often invite their friends to the fête. Then you hear in the vestibule or in reception-room such orders as this: “Show M. X. in for Mme. de F.’s trying-on.” “Show M. de Y. in for Countess M.’s trying-on–“for there are men, and especially painters, who are excellent judges in dressmaking, or “chiffons,” as they call the art. Countess M., aided by one of the young women in black, puts on first the skirts which have been cut and made with as much care and skill as the costume itself, for it is an axiom in modern dressmaking that the underclothing is half the battle. Then, having donned her dress, she appeals triumphant in the drawing-room where her friends are waiting, and in the stuffy little room, the air of which is thick with the perfumes of ylang-ylang, heliotrope, jonquil, poudre de riz, and odor di femina, the chorus of admiration breaks out, and the whole staff of the establishment is admitted to contemplate the masterpiece. The première, the chef des jupes, the chef des corsages, the chef des garnisseuses, etc., each in turn opens the door and with a coaxing intonation of voice asks permission to enter.
It Is a Daily Scene.
And so, day after day during the season, there is a perpetual frou-frou of silk and a chattering of musical voices on the staircase and in the salons, and day after day the effeminate bookkeeper adds to the total of the bills– which will be paid who knows when and who knows how? There are women whose bills amount in a year to as much as $30,000 and $40,000. This is enormous, the philosophic observer may remark to the great artist, who will reply in his most delicate and flute-like voice: “Yes, yes! But only think, I have just terminated an embroidered mantle for Countess K. which costs $6,000.” And hailing one of the automates who chances to be passing by, he says: “Mademoiselle, will you kindly go and fetch the mantle for Countess K. to show to Monsieur. Is it not lovely? Look how it falls!” And the master tumbles to his knees in ecstasy before his last creation.
The type of the great couturier has been put upon the stage in its grotesque aspect by Gondinet in his comedy “Paris,” and by “Gyp” (Madame de Martel) in her Gymnase piece, “Autour du Mariage.” But the purely artistic and the psychological aspect of the artist would repay study, and if there were a Balzac living nowadays it would certainly tempt him. The principal Parisian dressmakers are all uncommon personalities. Their names are Messrs. Worth, Felix, Pingat, Roger, Laferrière (Sarah Bernhardt’s preference), Pasguier, Doucet, Rouff, Morin, and Mme. Rodrigues. They are skillful beyond expression in drapery stuff, harmonizing colors, and creating those marvels of silk, and lace, and tulle, which constitute the inimitable toilettes of the Parisiennes, the model to which the civilized world still looks for its highest inspiration. It has been said, and the statement is not devoid of truth, that the leading lady dressmaker in Paris treats all artists and literary men as her equals. She, one day composed a toilette for Mme. Alexandre Dumas, and in complimenting her upon it, M. Dumas said to her: “Madame, you are the Meissonier of dressmaking.”
Chicago [IL] Tribune 9 April 1892: p. 16
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One is not quite certain what M. Dumas was intimating. Meissonier was a painter of sieges, military manoeuvres, and Napoleonic battle scenes….
Although unnamed, the “man milliner” is, of course Charles Frederick Worth, the autocrat of the cutting-table. He was born in England, but came to France, drawn by the allure of Paris fashions. Strangely, while he first rose to fame in creating exquisite toilettes for the Empress Eugenie, he was never summoned to Windsor or Buckingham Palace to dress Queen Victoria.
Worth might have been called the “millionairess whisperer.” His gift for self-promotion and supreme self-confidence allowed him to dictate to his stupendously wealthy clients exactly what they would wear and how they would wear it. If he did not like the look or figure of a client, he would summarily dismiss her. He seems to have appreciated rich American ladies, saying, famously, that they “have faith, figures, and francs – faith to believe in me, figures that I can put into shape, francs to pay my bills”.
After Worth’s untimely death in 1895, his sons continued the business and the firm’s association with Lyon, creating exquisitely beautiful silk brocades, exclusive to the House of Worth.
Mrs Daffodil has often posted about couture and dressmaking, such as this post on the rivalry between M. Poiret and the Queen of Chiffon, Lucile.
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.