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icon freeThe era of Worth, Paquin and Doucet is long gone. But what was it like to be a wealth American woman traveling to Paris in the early 1900's, and visiting those houses to order a dress?


This month Marion shares excerpts from several Ladies' shopping guides to Paris where they discuss exactly what a lady should expect during a visit to one of the great houses, and what she should be cautious of!

To the average American woman who visits Paris for the first time there is a glamour, and a glamour of long standing, surrounding the shops and the big dressmaking establishments. Paris is the synonym of style. It ia the Rome of the couturier. It is the Holy of Holies of Fashion.


She who would buy a French gown should first be sure that she knows how to wear one.


Excerpt from A Woman's Paris by Mary Abbot, 1900

There are the cheaper dressmakers, as has been said; but most Americans are not satisfied with them. When they come to Paris, they want at least one gown made by the celebrated clothes-artists, whose names are, like "Sapolio," household words in American houses. Happy men, who would not be seen in French coats or trousers, and who therefore do not have trying on to do in Paris!

Harrison Fisher, American beauties, 1907Prices are enormous (for Paris) at the grand dressmaking houses. The least is 700 francs ($140) for a severe tailor-costume. That does not seem high for many an American lady who has to pay it at home. But there are no duties here: everything is of domestic origin.

Handsome cloth gowns, with lace, embroidery, or fur, or all three, multiply their costs like the nails in the horseshoe. Ball dresses reach the empyrean of expense. Two thousand francs is not unusual. And again must be borne in mind the fact that the embroideries are done in the very shops themselves; that labour is nothing; that fur is indefinitely cheaper than with us (that is, that they use the European kinds); and that the materials, laces and all, are made for the dressmakers who put them on, almost always. The profit is thus enormous, as the wealth of the great mantua-makers of Paris testifies.

There is one serious drawback to having one's dresses made by the big men, and this may be a comfort to those who cannot manage it. Fashionable ladies are likely to see replicas of their own superb gowns on their dearest friends, their dearest foes, their hated rivals, and on those to whom they are more becoming.

There is a story to the effect that seven Chicago ladies once met at a dinner, and that every one of the seven had on the same model of a certain Paris dressmaker, who shall be as nameless as he was shameless.

Real Parisian ladies do not flock in coveys to the same dressmaker, or if they do, they make him swear, and see that he keeps his oath, not to duplicate their gowns.

Model at the Maison Wallis, Paris, 1901It is not very agreeable to record that a lady, modest of mien and only modestly attired, would not be well received at any one of the grand places if she went to look about, even preliminarily to ordering something; but it is suggested that if a friend can take her, it is an amusing experience for such a lady to visit one of them in the afternoon.

Without warning, an elegant young person in gorgeous ball gown trails the length of the waiting-room. Above the decollete portion of the robe is a high black neck arrangement, resembling a jersey. This shows that one of the models is displaying a style. A few minutes after a magnificent creature appears in black velvet, superbly belaced and embroidered. Every now and then a lovely lady sails through, attired in the very latest creation. The models are all slender, all pretty, and nearly all have chemically blonde hair. But occasionally there is a genuine brunette, and perhaps, but this is disputed, a genuine blonde. The coiffeurs say there is scarcely one in Paris ; that is to say, of Parisian birth.

The world, whole and half, that comes to visit the dressmakers in the Rue de la Paix, is in itself characteristic. Women come with grievances a yard long, and usually depart with them, too. Women who have been kept waiting two hours make a bold strike for interior regions spasmodically, every five minutes, and resume their seats after each sortie, more savage still. Others emerge from the trying-on cupboards complaisant or furious, as their fits* may cause them to be. There goes Mrs. This of Philadelphia, who has just ordered twenty-eight new dresses, and given carte blanche. Here comes Mrs. That of Boston or Chicago,- the Philadelphia is true, though,- who is going to order ten. Small wonder they do not allow to look, even, the merely well-to-do who can afford but one expensive dress.

Dressmakers have got a weather eye out for the stranger; and American ladies with bottoms to their purses are warned to be very careful and to do some elaborate bargaining before they embark on extensive ventures.


Excerpt from The Magic of Dress By Grace Margaret Gould, 1911

A COURSE in training would not come amiss if you would shop as you should in Paris. There are certain essentials that must be observed. Concentration is one of them, and having an opinion of your own and sticking to it, too, is another. A knowledge of the French language, as it is spoken in Paris and not taught in the average school is a third. What is most important is to have a regulation figure, meaning a thirty-six-inch bust and a twenty- four-inch waist. Paris never caters to stout women.

Two Poiret gowns, 1908To the average American woman who visits Paris for the first time there is a glamour, and a glamour of long standing, surrounding the shops and the big dressmaking establishments. Paris is the synonym of style. It ia the Rome of the couturier. It is the Holy of Holies of Fashion.

The ingenuous American woman feels as if she should enter the shops and ascend the broad steps of the old palaces, now occupied by world-famed dressmakers, on her knees. Well, after she is back from her pilgrimage, she may still be on her knees - in repentance.

There are many sides to the Fashion world of Paris, and many phases to each side.

To the fair Americaine who comes well supplied with American gold, the big doors of the famous dressmaking establishments swing wide open.

For the equally fair Americaine, who comes ill supplied with American gold, there are the department stores and the little shops in the back streets which when ferreted out hold so much that is charming, chic and delightfully inexpensive. It may often prove that patience and judgment will more than make up for this lack of gold.

But, of course, it is the big dressmaking establishments of Paris to which most of the glamour clings. Here, though the doors are wide open to wealth, there is much of formality and much of mystery. The old palaces of the nobility are the centres of Fashion. Here the couturiers of the present day create their new styles and offer them to their often newer customers.

A most important feature, and one peculiarly French, of shopping at these big dressmaking establishments is the manner of displaying the costumes. When the throne room is reached where the model gowns are to be shown, in glide the mannequins. These are the young girls with pretty faces and perfect figures who have been selected as the living forms upon which the gowns are displayed. They are a distinct Parisian class, trained with severity for their work. They are graceful of movement and cunning in all the turns and devices by which the best is shown at its best. Nothing can exceed the fit, the swing, the chicness of the gowns as the mannequins wear them; for the wearing is as fine an art as the making. So indeed the American woman may find to her cost when the poor little jackdaw tries to strut in the plumage which was meant for one of these rare gay birds rather than for her.

She who would buy a French gown should first be sure that she knows how to wear one.

A dress by the Callot Soeurs fashion house, 1912 Model wearing Paul Poiret gown, 1912

A dress by the Callot Soeurs
fashion house, 1912

Model wearing a
Paul Poiret gown, 1912



The American Woman Abroad by Blanche McManus, 1911

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.

Illustration of two Paul Poiret dresses, 1911The 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. " Voila, 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 chatain beauty. This is one man's method of producing masterpieces.


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 corsagieres, the garnisseuses, the jupieres and the lingeres.

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 premieres, 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 plays a large part 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 ia 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?

The mannequins play one of the most important roles 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-mache.

Inside the Salon Rondeau-Templier, 1910 Models at the Salon Maison Zimmerman, 1910
Models displaying the gowns at the Salon Rondeau-Templier, 1910 Models at the Salon Maison Zimmerman, 1910

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.

Gown by Paquin, 1912From 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 Pre 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.

Fashions from La Femme Chic, No 84, mid 1910sLast on the list of the army of dressmakers' helpers in Paris are the trottins and coursieres, the former name being more particularly applied to the errand girls of the milliners' establishments, and the latterto 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.

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.
Shopping in Paris: A Lady's Guide by Marion McNealy
Very interesting read!
I must have missed reading this the first time around, but enjoyed it much, and can appreciate all my hard work in making my own gowns. I do it all, not with the help of 6 or more helpers.

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