Paris in the springtime may be a romantic cliché but the day I have just spent in the city was everything the song promised. It was one of those blue sky sunny days which offer so much hope for the summer to come. And it was in the middle of Paris fashion week so the city was full of statuesque women wearing platform soles and 6 inch heels, painted nails and powdered faces, bizarre hair styles and outrageously wonderful clothes. There was also a half marathon so hundreds of muscular types were wandering around looking dazed in their blue plastic wraps declaring their achievement. And of course, the inevitable Paris traffic chaos.
Paris is fighting hard to keep its title as the fashion capital of the world. London, bursting with the creative fashion talent of so many young British designers, is intent on chasing it into second place. But as one designer described it to me: ‘Paris is still where you are judged at the highest level. To succeed in Paris is still the greatest challenge.’
He has a point. Somehow Paris has an allure, an allure that perhaps still trades on its glory days of The Belle Époque, the days when rich Americans with shiny new fortunes would bring their daughters to Paris to give them some old world polish, hoping to take the brassy look off their very nouveau fortunes before launching them onto impoverished British aristocrats. They were the dollar princesses and nothing defined their superiority over their English sisters better than their fabulous clothes and their ability to wear them with style, ease and confidence. They knew how to cause a stir when they entered a room. Edith Wharton advised any young American girl preparing for a grand marriage to have approximately eleven Worth gowns in her trousseau; Jennie Jerome had twenty three, a fact which caused her fiancée, Lord Randolph Churchill, no end of difficulties in finding a house big enough for them all. Wharton also advised young women to keep this year’s model for a year before wearing so as to let the ostentation fade a little.
Charles Frederick Worth, born in Bourne, Lincolnshire in 1825, an Englishman who reinvented himself in Paris, is the man responsible for establishing the idea of haute couture as we know it today. Blame him for the idea of a brand as he labelled all his creations – a small critical rectangle of fabric usually sewn in the waistband – cultivated an international clientele of aristocrats, royals and actresses and plenty of mystique. He saw himself as an artist and created out of the commercial transaction of buying a gown a theatrical experience. But he also had responsibilities to ensure that his aristocratic clients never encountered his courtesan or actress clients, of whom there were many. Some of these were given a special prix d’artiste, the forerunner of film stars borrowing gowns from famous houses in the hope of bringing them fame.
In 1850, just as Worth was starting out in Paris (he had left England just five years before and was not yet established) there were an estimated 158 couturiers in Paris and 67 maisons de nouveates confectionées. By 1895 that figure had risen dramatically to 1,636 couturiers and 296 maisons de nouveates confectionées, the best of them, as Maison Worth, clustered around Place Vendôme and Rue de la Paix.
This week sees the publication of a fabulous book about Worth* with truly lavish illustrations thanks to the Victoria and Albert’s unique archive of over 7,000 official house records. And it is full of interesting tidbits. On one occasion Grace Elvina, the Marchioness of Kedleston and a loyal Worth client, found herself wearing an identical Worth gown as the Queen of Spain, a woman she had invited to dine at her home. She went quickly upstairs to change and chided the master afterwards. But he was not especially penitent. He did not need to be.
One of the loveliest museums in Paris is the Musée Carnavalet, in the fashionable Marais where it is always a pleasure to be a flanêur, currently has an exhibition entitled **Roman d’une Garde-Robe, or Tales from a Wardrobe, which brings alive in a wider sense the world of haute couture in Paris for its privileged clientele and those who served them. The show is based on the wardrobe of Alice Alleaume, head saleswoman at Chéruit, rival to Worth and in fact the first couture house to set up in Place Vendôme. Her sister, Hortense, was head saleswoman at Worth. The whole family was immersed in fashion and the exhibition brilliantly captures the spirit of la Belle Époque as well as the freedom of the twenties and the difficult years of the depression. It’s especially good at showing the links between artists and photographers who were clearly fascinated by elegant Parisiennes who shopped not only at Worth but at Paquin, Doucet and Chéruit and one painting illustrates how a whole family would be involved in the dressmaking process – children too. Dressing to the best of one’s financial resources is a tenet deeply engrained in the psyche of a Parisienne. It’s a sacred duty, what they owe themselves. But, oh, where did they find the time for all these fittings and regular changes of outfit throughout the day.
Parisian haute couture did not end in 1939, with the outbreak of War, nor even in 1940 with the German occupation. Lucien Lelong, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture had to negotiate with the occupying German regime. He courageously refused Nazi demands to take the entire couture industry to Germany and made a spirited fight to keep Parisiennes well-dressed in gowns made by French houses as well as hundreds of seamstresses working in small ateliers. But there were also important sales to Nazi wives which helped keep the industry alive during the war years but meant that after liberation some couturiers were tainted with the collaborationist brush. Thus the flame never burned out and after the war Christian Dior with his ‘New Look’, but others too, breathed new life into an industry vibrantly alive today.
*The House of Worth Portrait of an Archive V& A Publishing £35.00