Tag Archives: shopping in 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.

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.