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THE KINGDOM OF CLOTHES
BOURSE OF FASHION AND BEAUTY
WORTH, THE FIRST MAN DRESSMAKER
THE MAN DRESSMAKER AND HIS METHODS
CREATION OF A COSTUME
"THE WEALTHIEST STREET IN THE WORLD"
REDFERN, THE MASTER OF LINE
LEGEND OF THE TAILOR-MADE SUIT
OUTPUT OF THE PARIS DRESSMAKING ESTABLISHMENTS
AVERAGE PRICE OF A PARIS GOWN
WORKROOMS OF THE GREAT HOUSES
LOW SCALE OF WAGES
THE FAMOUS HOUSE OF PAQUIN
HISTORY OF THE MAISON DOUCET
DIFFICULT ROLE OF THE "MANNEQUIN"
FASHIONS AND HORSE RACES
LAUNCHING NEW STYLES
HOW THE DRESSES ARE DELIVERED
THE INDEPENDENT AMERICAN
SUPREMACY OF PARIS THREATENED
"ACADEMIE DES MODES"
COMMERCIAL IMPORTANCES OF PARIS FASHIONS
THE MEN DRESSMAKERS OF PARIS AND LONDON
THE kingdom of clothes is in the heart of Paris, a kingdom of extravagance set within a kingdom of pleasure, a territory bounded by the Rue Royale, the Rue Taitbout, the Chaussée d'Antin and the Rue de Rivoli. It is the stronghold of feminine fashions and its capitol is the Rue de la Paix, the Street of Peace indeed! rather it is the Street of Strife, a place of relentless competition in an attempt to please a fickle public.
In this area, too, the majority of the money-spending strangers put up, for Paris fashion-makers and Paris hotels of the super-luxurious class are in close relationship.
Here, within the space bounded by a few city blocks, are quartered the world's most renowned masters of the art of costume, the most exclusive perfumers, soap-makers, artist-milliners and furriers, the most modish corsetières and the most expert lingères, the most chic, most brilliantly seductive and smartest craftsmen and women of fashion's realm. If clothes make the man, how much more do they have to do with the turning out of that highly finished product, the woman of today?
Here in the world-famous establishments are those equally famous creators of feminine fashions, the artistes du chiffon, who lay their brainy talents at the feet of those women from all countries who, coming thither on a common mission, here meet on common ground, to be adorned, as only here they can be adorned, no matter what the cost.
This is the world's Bourse of Fashion and Beauty, with ticker ribbons of real silk, in whose show-rooms the competition for leadership is as keen as on the floor of the Bourse of High Finance at the other end of Paris, where the juggling of gold and stocks and bonds makes possible the Bourse of Chiffons, as the French themselves name it.
The sovereign rulers – for the land is a divided empire – are kings, not queens; the celebrated couturiers, the masters of the Ecole de Modes, are men. It may be that no woman has sufficient detachment from self to do justice to another feminine personality, though it was only recently that Madame Paquin the spouse of "the great Paquin" – was welcomed to that exclusive woman's club, La Française, by the Duchesse de Rohan, who hailed her with an address on the art of elegance and lauded her for her generous attitude towards the working girls of the Paquin establishment.
The great establishments of Doucet, Felix, Francis, Paquin, Worth and Redfern were all founded by men of astute perceptions in divining the needs of woman as related to clothes. And yet the man dressmaker is a recent development in the business of making fashions, dating back only to the sixties and the reign of the Empress Eugénie. She may have been responsible for the loss of an empire, but she was the instigator of the modern style in woman's clothes.
Curiously enough, it was the Englishman, Worth, who invaded Paris with new ideas in woman's dress and established there the first masculine-controlled dressmaking establishment. It was he who first conceived the lucrative combination of supplying the material and the confectioning thereof. From this first effort of the English draper's clerk, Charles Worth, has been built up the enormous business of the Paris man dressmaker, until to-day the imprint of one of these Paris ateliers of dress has become the hall-mark of the well-dressed woman of the world. The man dressmaker of Paris is thus seen to be an importation in the first instance, and this would seem to prove that it was the Paris atmosphere, rather than the individual, that has given the product its fame.
Not only did Paris designers follow Worth's lead from the first, but other Englishmen recognised the statesman-like qualities that foresaw the necessity of using Paris as a base of operations, so that to-day the chief of the great London houses are but understudies to their Paris headquarters. Worth, Paquin and Redfern labels are sewn into gowns in London dressmaking establishments and the designs of the parent house are followed, but only after the seal of approval has first been stamped upon them by a critical Parisian clientele.
The show-rooms of the leading houses in the trade are luxurious salons de reception furnished with taste and art, served by a staff of perfectly dressed assistants clothed in discreet black, as a foil to the clients, and possessed of gracious manners. They are there to receive, and as much social grace and tact is required of a saleswoman at Paquin's or Doucet's as of a maid of honour at court.
The methods of the man dressmaker are those of a maitre d'art. He studies his client as an artist studies his motif. Women of the chic beau monde, and of the ofttimes equally chic demi-monde, crowd his salons with fluttering hearts. Will the great designer but think them worthy of his choicest inspiration? These holders of the sceptre are capricious; not always will money do the trick. With them it is Art with a capital A and their masterpieces must have the correct setting, otherwise they will not sell.
The head of the Rue de la Paix establishment studies his beautiful client as one would a painting, in the most favourable light. "Come again tomorrow, madame." Madame loses all track of social engagements in this creative period of a costume and is on time the next day. The maitre shakes his head sadly; the inspiration has not yet come. Madame goes away disheartened; perhaps she is not worthy!
In a meditative mood monsieur goes for his daily drive in the Bois. It is autumn and the Bois is all golden against a sky of silver grey. "Voilà, I have it!" And monsieur hurries back to his entresol, making feverish notes on the way and madame's costume now begins to form itself.
He summons his head designers and under his personal direction the delicate fabrics are composed into a harmonious whole. When madame next arrives on the scene a creation awaits her in gold and brown – like the autumn leaves, veiled in delicate greys – like the autumn mist that hangs over the forest pools, "and that are deep and dark, just like madame's eyes." There has at last been produced an autumnal symphony that does justice to madame's châtain beauty. This is one man's method of producing masterpieces.
Bond Street is London's centre of fashion. "The wealthiest street in the world," say the English, a statement more complimentary to their patriotism than to their knowledge of things elsewhere; the wealthiest street of its length, no doubt. This radiating point for English "smartness" is a narrow, lane-like passage that connects the fashionable thoroughfare of Piccadilly with the commercial thoroughfares of Regent and Oxford Streets. It was in its capacity of a connecting link that Bond Street made its fortune.
The English man designer of woman's clothes excels in the composition of severe lines. It was Redfern who popularised the tailor-made gown in Paris, and from there disseminated it throughout the world. There is a house of Redfern in London, but it is a question as to whether the Paris establishment does not do the largest trade. Whether it is that clothes follow woman or that woman follows clothes, the supremacy of Paris is still unquestioned.
This popularising of the "tailor-made" gained for Redfern the sobriquet of "maitre de la ligne" from the French. He is known by the smartest dressers as the greatest artist of all the famous men designers; that is, he occupies his talents in bringing a gown into harmony with the natural lines of the figure, rather than to the exploiting of a certain style of robe. Much of his inspiration is gained from a study of the costumes of the historic past, and as a designer of modes for the theatre, based on a careful study of periods, he stands unique among his competitors.
The legend of the tailor-made suit is handed down like this: Queen Alexandra and the royal trunks failed to make connections on the occasion of a certain ceremonious dinner at a brilliant English house-party. The Queen, too gracious to spoil her hostess' plans, resourcefully directed her maid to cut off the skirt of her riding habit (those were the days of the trailing habit), for the royal party had ridden across country on horseback, and lightening its blackness with a red rose thus appeared at dinner as if nothing had happened.
It was in this manner that the distinctive garment that the English dressmaker still turns out better than any other was born.
Sixty per cent or more of the dressmaking business done in that half-mile radius of which the Place Vendôme in Paris is the centre, is for a foreign clientèle.
The output is further categoried thus: Part is knowingly sold to commission agents and intermediaries of foreign private buyers; still other portions to English, German and American dressmakers, and by far the largest sale is to foreigners visiting Paris, perhaps for that very purpose. The Parisian and French provincial clientele actually buy but a bare third of the output. This of itself is out of all proportion to the fame of the well-dressed Parisienne, but proves that she does not of necessity patronise the makers of marque alone. It is a well-recognised fact that most of the makers have a special clientele which, for one reason or another, they serve at prices considerably below those usually quoted.
Possibly ten millions of francs is a figure which to-day covers the output of each of the half-dozen most famous makers, divided among four or five thousand open accounts, some of them of small moment, but others, by reason of the social or other prominence of their owners, reaching fabulous sums. Publicity is an art known well to the Paris couturier. There is, too, among them a sort of mysterious "Dun's" or "Bradstreet's" which divides the good payers into a "liste blanche," the average payers into a "liste jaune" and the bad payers into a "liste noire." It is said, too, that not all of those of the "liste noire" are those lowest in life's station, the contrary being chiefly the case. A well-defined loss has been arrived at by an actuary in the trade, who estimates it at fifteen per cent. Like the clients of the doctors and the dentists those of the "liste blanche" of the dressmakers pay the bills for those of the lists "jaunes" and "noires."
An enormous business has been developed entirely from the example of Worth. There are many clients of these establishments who spend readily enough from twenty-five to thirty thousand francs in ordering a season's gowns at one or another of these now world-famous establishments. It is even recounted that a fair American once spent the sum of three hundred and fifty thousand francs in half a day of choosing and commanding. And yet it is said that the average price of the Paris-made gown is but seven hundred francs. It must be that they make up in numbers in order to approach the fabulous sums which are accredited to their account.
Into the total thus spent silks enter to the proportion of forty-six per cent, laces for thirteen per cent, passementeries for eleven per cent, furs eight per cent, embroideries seven and one-half per cent, feathers for two per cent, the various other accessories, such as threads and linings and whalebones and what not, for the remainder.
The ateliers where these famous Parisian confections are turned out are the hives where many grades of working women and girls earn a livelihood, a miserable livelihood many of them, catering for the luxurious tastes of the rich. In the first rank are the coupeuses, the cutters, who parcel out the stuffs according to given measures, Next comes the appreteuses, who are the first sewing hands, the basters; then the mechaniciennes, the machine stitchers; and the couseuses, the hand sewers who do the finer work and are called picturesquely, "les petites mains." The making of a gown is divided further among four distinct classes of workers, the corsagières, the garnisseuses, the jupières and the lingères.
The wealthy stranger sees nothing of this but a handsomely furnished apartment where the models are shown and an equally conveniently arranged salon d'essayage peopled by a score or more of attractively dressed employees: vendeuses, port toilettes, mannequins, fitters, etc. There may be a hundred or more working unseen in gloomy workrooms.
The principal employees, the first hands – the premières, and perhaps the mannequins and one or two of the other privileged classes, earn a fair competence as a result of their month's work, but the thousands of mere working girls who are employed in the industry are scarcely better off, perhaps not so well off in many cases, as factory workers. For twelve hours or more a day the more expert may earn as much as four or four and a half francs at the maximum, though the wage of by far the greatest number hardly rises above three francs while there is work, and then there is always the dull season to contend with when the greater part of the workers are laid off.
Another class which has not a little to do with my lady's Paris gown are the workers in chambers, for a lot of this work, supposedly the product of this famous capital of beauty, is put out with workers in a dull, frigid mansard chamber where, in many instances, a wage of from two to two francs and a half a day is considered normal. How indeed does the other half live?
Paquin, of all the great couturiers of Paris, enjoys the widest international reputation. A gown from this famous house may be considered the apotheosis of modern woman's toilette. France thought enough of the master's services to decorate him with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, and now that the head of the house is dead his widow is looking for the same distinction. There are serious-minded Frenchmen who ask apprehensively, "Will the highest honour in our land, whose badge is a bit of red ribbon in the button-hole, become a trade-mark for a couturier; are the brains of our country falling wholly to the heads of our dressmaking establishments?"
Another of the kings of the Rue de la Paix is M. Jacques Doucet, a scholar, an artist, an elegant and a cultured man of the world, habitué of Paris' most exclusive salons. There is scarcely a literary or artistic gathering of note held in the capital but where this slim, elegant" Louis XIV of dressmakers," as Paris knows him, is not an honoured guest. He is one of the best known figures in Tout Paris.
The Maison Doucet began as a little open booth, selling casquettes, or caps, on the sidewalk nearly a hundred years ago. When Worth set the vogue of the man dressmaker Doucet was one of the first in the new field and quickly rose to the premier rank.
It is the French elegante who is the chief customer at Doucet's, more so even than the foreigner. The master's styles are designed chiefly as a foil to the elusive charms of the Paris mondaine.
Art has often allied itself with commercialism. Du Maurier designed the still used label on the bottle of Apollinaris water and the Maison Doucet has the distinction of having had its first catalogue designed by Daubigny, that most sincere of French landscapists of the men of the thirties.
Generation after generation of the same families of work-people succeed each other chez Doucet. Two hundred and fifty people are employed there as saleswomen, fitters, designers, mannequins, etc., besides six hundred girls in the workrooms and three hundred girls who do work for the house at their own homes.
The mannequins play one of the most important rôles in these Palaces of Modes. They are the live "dummies" on whom are displayed the costumes. All day long they must promenade the salons of the establishments where they are employed, revolving slowly before the eyes of a critical battery of customers, that the effect of the gown may be better judged on a living figure than it may on a thing of wires and papier-maché.
Frequently there is a stage upon which the mannequins play their parts, parts which call for quite as much endurance as the most tragic roles of the real stage. Endurance, tact and skill in their highest forms are all called for, and upon the ability of the mannequin to impress the buyer with the graces of a particular gown depends the sale quite as much, in many instances, as upon the skill of the designer or the insinuations of the salesman or woman. The physical and mental strain is unceasing. From nine in the morning often until nine at night the mannequin must be on her feet, changing from one costume to another at the caprice of the most erratic of clients. Her position and advancement depend upon her ability to clinch sales. All her natural and artificial charms are brought to bear. The mannequins are selected for their svelt figures and for their beauty of face as well as of form. They wear a tight-fitting, black sheath garment, over which the gowns are shown.
A mannequin in a swell establishment is paid something like thirty dollars a month, perhaps a little more if her reputation as a seller is particularly good. Another service which she renders is posing in public places in the new creations of her employer that a new fashion may be well launched in the eyes of the public. She may be seen at Longchamps on the day of the Grand Prix, at Armenonville, at the Pré Catelan, indeed wherever fashion congregates. On the occasion of the Grand Prix she is generally out in full force, parading in the paddock as in the tribunes, or strolling in the enclosure reserved for high society. She will perhaps be dressed in the most bizarre of creations and be followed greedily by all eyes, but she glides along, seemingly unconscious of the throng or the part she is playing, though she divides the honours with the horses and the jockeys. All feminine Paris studies the mannequins on parade at Longchamps greedily and on the verdict does a new style catch on or fail. Betting on the success of a new style is as exciting as the "Pari-Mutuel" at the Grand Prix.
The little midinettes, who get their name from their habit of promenading the streets at the midday hour, are the youngest of the workers in the dressmaking establishments. The midinette has taken the place of the grisette of the days of Murger in the imagination and affection of the Parisian. Arm in arm they throng the pavements of the great arteries of fashion at the noon rest hour. They earn the smallest possible of living wages, not more than a franc to a franc and a half for a day of twelve, and sometimes sixteen, hours. This does not leave much of a margin for food and so they content themselves for the most part with a croissant or a brioche, eaten under some overhanging doorway or on a bench in the Gardens of the Tuileries, and this, with a swallow of black coffee which costs but a couple of sous, by some mysterious law of nature, serves to keep them so cheerful and ingenious of mind that they are able to costume themselves in a way that imitates the chic styles in dress with which they are so continuously brought into contact.
It is a dangerous atmosphere in which these young girls live and work, spending so much of their lives in the reflection of luxury and extravagance and taking their pleasures on the pavements of a great city. Paris regards them sentimentally, as it does most feminine questions that are vital, and a society, known as the "Ligue de Mimi-Pinson," has for its object the improvement of the conditions which surround the little midinette. It is too weak and sentimental, however, in its motive and operation to be of much real service to the cause which it supposedly represents, its chief demonstration of activity being evinced in the annual ball which it gives in order to secure funds for its work.
Last on the list of the army of dressmakers' helpers in Paris are the trottins and coursières, the former name being more particularly applied to the errand girls of the milliners' establishments, and the Ratter to those of the dressmakers. One sees either, or both, of these little workers at all hours of the day laden with hat or costume boxes as large as themselves. These are carried by a not too conveniently arranged leather strap, and by such means is the bulk of the completed work of the makers of fashions delivered to their clients' homes.
The trottins recently went on strike for higher wages, but the only result was this little chanson with which the trottins and coursières now amuse themselves by singing as they trot all over Paris with their big boxes:
A suit recently brought in Paris against one of the most famous of the men dressmakers threw some light on conditions in the trade which made such apparently excessive charges as exist necessary to the conduct of such a business. Even the most simple of "tailor-mades" is an expensive proposition in a Paris shop.
This was what the evidence showed: The cloth was first cut and measured and its cost estimated, then the cost of linings, trimmings and, what dressmakers the world over call furnishings, was carefully computed, to which was added the cost of the hand labour involved. A certain sum was added for reputation and another for professional skill in designing and fitting, when, finally, to this lump sum, was added another sixty per cent to make up for possible errors. In reality the latter sum was added to make good the losses on non-liquidating clients.
Will Paris always be able to keep in the ascendency as arbiter of the world's modes? There are signs of uneasiness and fear that their kingdom of fashion is threatened from without. These Americans, so rich and so independent, and who are asserting more and more each season this same independence, and who are demanding that styles be adapted to their standards, will they not take some stand some day that cannot, or will not, be met? Has the Paris couturier reason to dread that this clientele, whose bills have been doubled (and as readily paid as those of clients of any other nationality), may become too insistent in its demands, and finally throw down the gauntlet and proclaim that the productions of Fifth Avenue more than rival those of London and Paris. Is the Royaume de Paris threatened from Outre Mer?
We hear rumours that it is proposed to form an Académie des Modes to be composed only of those masters in the art of adorning and beautifying womankind. This association is to have for its object the safeguarding of Paris from the introduction of bastard fashions from across the frontiers. The list of "Immortels" of this academy will have to be increased beyond the original forty who now sit under the dome if the catholic plan is to be carried out of including beauty specialists, painters and all others interested in the art of beautifying and lauding the charms of woman. The keynote that is to be struck is of course that it must be French taste that continues to set the pace in the race of fashions and that there is reason to suppose that the French as a whole will be able to combat the dreaded invasion.
The commercial importance of the output of Paris fashions was recently well illustrated in a startling way when a member of the Chamber of Deputies arose, in reply to a diatribe as to feminine extravagance, and said, "To attack the coquetterie of woman was to prejudice a national industry." And yet we American women fondly pride ourselves on the importance of the position we hold in our own national affairs. Has ever an American legislator arisen in favour of woman's expenditure in dress?
In a quarter of a century the commerce of the men dressmakers in London and Paris, those who devote themselves solely to the confection of women's toilettes, has made a remarkable progress and, unlike the vogue of other times, it is not a monarchial society, but a democratic one that has inflated prices – the French bourgeoise and the American millionairess.
Less than half a century ago, when Worth was court dressmaker to the Empress of the French and his "turn-over" of affairs was something like five million francs a year, it was thought an incomprehensible sum to be squandered on dress with the connivance of one man. To-day the combined turn-over of Paris dressmaking establishments shows an annual business of two hundred and fifty million francs, thanks (and it is the French themselves who say the gentle word) to "les transatlantiques."