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Victorian and Edwardian Fashions from "Isa Mode Illustrée
By JoAnne Olian
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1998 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Dress for women is the first of arts, the one that contains all the others. It is her offensive armor, her harmonious palette.
OCTAVE UZANNE, La Femme à Paris (1894)
The symbiotic relationship between fashion and the arts has never been more apparent than in nineteenth-century France where dress was described in rhapsodic and minute detail by Balzac, Zola, Proust, Baudelaire, and Stephane Mallarmé who, in 1874, founded the short-lived magazine, La Dernière Mode, for which he covered fashion under the pseudonyms Marguerite de Ponty, Zizy, and Miss Satin. Baudelaire, exploring the relationship between women and dress, glorified woman thus: "[she is not] for the artist ... merely the female of the human species. She is rather a goddess ... the vast, iridescent clouds of draperies in which she envelops herself ... are, so to speak, the attributes and the pedestal of divinity.... Show me the man who ... has not enjoyed, in the most detached manner, the sight of a skillfully composed toilette, and has not carried away with him an image inseparable from the beauty of the woman wearing it, thus making the two, the woman and the dress, an indivisible whole." The paintings of his contemporaries Tissot, Beraud, et al were graphic testimony to Baudelaire's question, "What poet would dare, in painting the pleasure caused by the appearance of a beauty, to separate the woman from her costume?" Even Monet and Cezanne based canvases on engraved fashion plates from La Mode Illustrée and Le Petit Courrier des Dames.
The period of the Second Empire and the Belle Époque—slightly more than half a century beginning with the founding of La Mode Illustrée in 1860 and ending with the onset of World War I in 1914—was a time of unprecedented change, characterized by a deluge of technological innovations that dramatically transformed daily life, from horse to iron horse to horseless carriage. Mass production methods enabled products to be turned out in quantities sufficient to supply a burgeoning consumer class. A new breed of merchant shrewdly concocted a climate of perpetual temptation, leading to the creation of new businesses catering to the insatiable, fast-changing desires of an affluent middle class. Before 1860, department stores were already established in New York and Paris selling "confections" (ready-made garments, consisting mostly of outerwear and undergarments at first), dress goods, and the astonishing assortment of accessories deemed vital to the sartorial well-being of the nineteenth-century customer. Only dresses were still made up individually by a dressmaker or the wearer herself. This traditional method of dressmaking was revolutionized by Charles Worth, the Englishman who founded the French haute couture industry. A man of his time, he was both artist and entrepreneur. He devised a system of standardized interchangeable components that allowed one pattern piece to be used for any number of designs and utilized the sewing machine for joining parts and sewing seams, reserving handwork for finishing and embroidery. Worth presented seasonal collections, showed them on live mannequins, signed his work with a label, and, by 1871, had over 1,200 workers in his employ.
The first illustration in this book was engraved after a photograph of the Empress Eugénie, one of a series by Disderi, a Paris photographer who conceived the carte de visite format in 1854 and was selling over 2,000 such postcards daily by 1862. By the date of the photograph, Worth would probably have been presented to the empress by Princess Pauline Metternich, the fashionable wife of the Austrian ambassador, and Eugénie might well be wearing one of his designs. The serendipitous confluence of the commanding Charles Worth and the compelling Eugénie set the sartorial tone for the glittering society of the Second Empire. Frederick Nietzsche may well have been thinking of the duo when he wrote, "Women believe in their dressmakers as in their god." In emulation of Louis XIV, who commanded his courtiers to wear a new costume for each appearance at Versailles as an impetus to the French fashion industry, Emperor Napoleon III let it be known that to wear a dress twice to the Palace of the Tuileries was to incur his utmost displeasure. For the fashion-loving court, especially the empress and the Princess Metternich, this could scarcely have been a hardship. According to Diana de Marly in Worth, Father of Haute Couture (1980), "it has been estimated that between Twelfth Night and Shrove Tuesday 1864 there were 130 balls in Paris," each necessitating suitable attire. The empress—young, beautiful, elegant, and possessing enormous style—set the tone for fashion during her reign. Even her coiffure, which provided a frame "like dove's wings along the sides of her delicious face," was seen everywhere. Dubbed Empress Crinoline, when she appeared at court in her voluminous-skirted Worths, Eugénie personified Théophile Gautier's description of the style, which he called a "pedestal for the upper torso," from which the "waist emerges elegant and slim, the upper body stands out advantageously, the entire person a gracious pyramid." The emperor used her as a walking endorsement for French textiles, providing a stimulus to the silk mills of Lyons, unparalleled since the time of Louis XIV When Eugénie attended the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 she is said to have taken 500 dresses, which she called her "political wardrobe." "Eugénie personified France as the world saw it then: as a country of inexhaustible energy and artistic vitality, a great power and the unquestioned center of cultured life. Eugénie and France, Eugénie and Paris, all seemed one and the same." (CIBA Review,no 46, May 1943.)
In 1870, the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War brought an end to the reign of Napoleon III, but not to that of Charles Worth, who continued to dictate fashion so absolutely that the era was often called "The Age of Worth." Imperial patronage was replaced by an adoring clientele consisting of international society; "ladies well known on the banks of the Hudson and the Neva" (Harper's Bazar, October 19, 1872), who made semi-annual pilgrimages to the "pontiff of the skirt" at 7, rue de la Paix to be fitted for the requisite number of costumes for the coming season.
Beginning in 1860, the height of imperial splendor, while Worth was catering to the luxurious tastes of his far-flung nouveau riche clientele, another, practical, moderating influence began to be felt throughout France. It was that of Emmeline Raymond, whose philosophy of "economy in elegance," the antithesis of the unbridled extravagance and ostentation of the Second Empire, was promulgated by the magazine she founded, La Mode Illustrée.
While the doings of royalty were of consuming interest to middle-class readers, their own social functions required no less attention to dress than the most lavish ball at the Tuileries. The avid desire by a prospering bourgeoisie for information concerning fashion and manners accounts for the proliferation of periodicals devoted to those subjects between 1840 to 1875, when in France alone over sixty such magazines appeared. For Frenchwomen in the provinces as well as in Paris, La Mode Illustrée, subtitled Journal de la Famil, provided a touch of sophistication tempered by a large dose of housewifely practicality, a combination responsible in large measure for the magazine's popularity and its longevity (it flourished for more than three quarters of a century, until 1937). It was the first fashion periodical to publish weekly, in order to "avoid the inconveniences inherent in monthly journals, which cannot, where fashion is concerned, keep their readers au courant with all the latest trends, and find themselves, as regards their literary content, in the vexing alternative of shortening and mutilating their stories, in order to contain them in the space allotted, or to postpone for a month satisfying the curiosity aroused." Also the first to adopt a large format, La Mode Illustrée was issued in four editions, the most deluxe of which contained a colored engraving every week. A three-month subscription was offered, but the serialized novels appearing regularly were an inducement to subscribe for a year, at 24 francs.
A forward-thinking woman who was to remain editor-in-chief of La Mode Illustrée until her death in 1902, Mme Raymond's avowed purpose was "to fulfill the cherished ambition of being useful." It was her hope that the magazine "would become indispensible," treasured by families as a "museum of memories," in which women could evoke the work that had "occupied their leisure," and the toilettes that had "adorned them." La Mode Illustrée did indeed have a niche in this society: home and domesticity were of paramount interest to women whose sole career was that of housewife—even the empress took "care of her own child as would an ordinary mother. She dresses him, rocks him, and sings him Spanish tunes." (Michelle Perrot, History of Private Life, vol. 4, 1990)
The magazine's fiftieth anniversary issue (November 21, 1909) paid homage to Mme Raymond, stating that, although she began publishing at "the height of political, economic and industrial prosperity of the Second Empire, when the new flowers that everyone wants to smell and gather, the flowers of progress, are blooming," she was "too prudent and sensible to believe in roses without thorns."
An admirable feminine and maternal intuition makes her envisage and foresee all the effects of this revolution of mores and ideas penetrating, with the railroads, into the heart of the provinces and provincial women. She envisions the new exigences of this society which has discarded strict traditions, stripped of well-being, elegance and distraction; she is preoccupied with what mothers of families, women of the world, mistresses of households will have to face, many of whom, lacking in experience and discernment, risk living on the edge, or allowing themselves to be carried away beyond proper limits. She seeks a way to come to their aid, in this crisis ... The means? it would be to create that which does not yet exist: a publication at once moral and practical, a sort of encyclopedia of woman comme il faut.
Since a nineteenth-century woman could be well-dressed only according to a strict code of correctness and appropriateness for the occasion, one's station in society, the season, and any number of additional constrictions, fashion and etiquette were inseparable.
To bring her toilette into harmony, not only with herself, with her character, mood, age, face, complexion, and the color of her eyes and hair but also with her wealth and rank in society, with social events, hours of the day, and yearly seasonal changes, in other words with all the space she traversed, was the prime mystery of sartorial propriety ... The diurnal and nocturnal time of aristocratic and high-bourgeois society was divided into pretexts, marked by a relentless tempo for dressing and undressing; and doing so appropriately involved a veritable gnosis. ... [Etiquette books provided a] reference point of temporal and spatial oppositions (night/day, morning/evening, winter/summer, interior/exterior, town/country) that constituted basic dichotomies within which an impressive armory of vestimentary opportunities could unfurl: the wardrobe. (Philippe Perrot, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie; translated by Richard Bienvenu, 1994.)
All this was by no means an exclusively French phenomenon. American women were equally preoccupied with etiquette and appropriate dress, occasioning countless American books and periodicals devoted to both subects. In Women of New York (1870), George Ellington exaggerated, "The elite do not wear the same dress twice. If you can tell us how many receptions she has in a year, how many weddings she attends, how many balls she participates in, how many dinners she gives, how many parties she goes to, how many operas and theatres she patronizes, we can approximate somewhat to the cost and size of her wardrobe. It is not unreasonable to suppose that she has two new dresses of some sort for every day in the year, or seven hundred and twenty. Now to purchase all these, to order them made and to put them on afterward consumes a vast amount of time. Indeed, the woman of society does little but doff and don dry goods."
Mrs. M. E. W Sherwood's, The American Code of Manners and Manners and Social Usages, both published in 1884, were as ubiquitous as the Bible in some parlors. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady's Book from 1828 to 1878, was cut from the same cloth as Emmeline Raymond, sharing her determination to educate the housewife regarding her duties, provide her with sentimental fiction and genteel needlework, and keep her abreast of the latest fashions. Godey's addressed itself to women beyond the cities, while Harper's Bazar, founded in 1867, reported on the latest fashions in New York shops—including French imports—and published a report by its Paris correspondent, Mme Raymond, as well as reporting on the activities of Parisian society. American women who could afford the tab commuted to Paris twice a year to choose their wardrobes for the following season, prompting a column which appeared from time to time, entitled "Those Dreadful Americans," satirizing their gaffes and general lack of sophistication.
French fashion magazines were all addressed to the bourgeoisie, whatever her financial level or social position, but they differed from each other in the specific segment of the public they wished to reach. L'Art et la Mode (1880—1967), which catered to the Parisienne, was the equivalent of Harper's Bazar, while the readers of La Mode Illustrée, writing from the provinces, wondered, "How is it that, even having dresses as beautiful as those of the parisiennes, we are not as well-dressed, as elegant, as they?" "I believe I can answer this question" replied Mme Raymond.
The proverbial elegance of the parisiennes is due above all to the important role they assign their petites robes. That is the designation used here for morning dresses, walking dresses, and, by extension, at-home dresses. Wealth being equal, a provincial will have ... dresses costlier than those of a parisienne; on the other hand, an equally well-off parisienne will be more elegant, because she budgets a considerable part of her expenditures for the "little dress," which she wears every day. The little dress in fancy fabric, wool, in cloth, according to the season, but a little dress made well, according to the current fashion and lasting no longer than this fashion, alas! ... ephemeral. The result of this difference in the allotment of expenditures made by the provincial making ... a grand (perhaps too grand) toilette, condemns her, on one hand, to make that toilette last for too many years, and on the other, to be unable to wear it with the ease and tranquility which are evidence of being accustomed to it. Less expense for the very formal dresses one rarely wears, more for the little everyday dresses, and one will be as elegant far from Paris as in Paris itself.
Gabrielle Chanel had yet to invent the "little black dress," but the chic inherent in utter simplicity was already understood by the perceptive Emmeline Raymond. In 1879, condemning the absurd and extraordinarily ugly excesses of the current season, she suggested an alternative to her readers: "We can happily bring, on our own behalf, a little order to this chaos. We can wear black dresses, embroidered in black jet, without feeling ourselves obliged to adopt embroideries in metallic beads reproducing every color." The antithesis of Worth, whose clients were accustomed to change their splendid apparel several times a day, she recommended that a simple toilette be made in either black or a very dark color, which would make it suitable for every daytime occasion. Mme Raymond's belief in "economy in elegance" was epitomized by this proposal, which might well have been introduced by Chanel, to whom the same watchword applied, almost a half century later.
Frenchwomen in the provinces were not alone in noticing the chic of the Parisienne. In 1885, Peterson's magazine remarked, "The dress of a parisian woman is conceded, the world over, to be the most tasteful, because always the most appropriate, of any worn anywhere. ... The chief point to note about the dress of a parisian woman, no matter what her station in life may be, is its appropriateness. She does not wear as costly garments usually as the American of the same social class, but they are always thoroughly suitable to her position and to the occasion on which they are worn."
Excerpted from Victorian and Edwardian Fashions from "Isa Mode Illustrée by JoAnne Olian. Copyright © 1998 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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