You will conjure up a vision of sheets of paper, a busy pencil, puckered brows, disordered hair, much burning of the midnight oil. You will be wrong. It is not in this way that Mme Paquin contrives her triumphs. She does not first sketch out the dress and then make it up, but makes it that it may be sketched. The creation is almost instantaneous, swift as laughter upon a thought. With a deft turn or two of the material in which she is working, and with the aid of a few pins, the dress leaps into being. Very likely it grows upon the back of a pretty mannequin, who will carry it, presently, in all its glittering seductiveness, before the dazzled eyes of purchasers.
Materials play a larger part in dress-construction than one supposes. The material suggests the dress nine times out of ten. In her cave of wonders, surrounded by her beautiful fabrics, the Queen of la Couture is moved to create new designs from the mere pleasure of handling shimmering tissues which seem to take shape of themselves, to grow into lovely living forms like some new miracle of Pygmalion and Galatea.
“In England one can get only samples,” she said to me in explaining some of her secrets; “in Paris, manufacturers shower tissues upon one. Look at this! “she took up a piece of ivory satin, exquisite in its beauty and plastic suggestiveness. Here, evidently, is a medium as rich in its potentiality to the creative artist as a pure block of marble to the sculptor. Many thousands of francs’ worth of material lie in this house of the Rue de la Paix: dresses in posse for all the world, dresses for the stage, for French racecourses, for drawing-rooms in Belgravia. Belgravia, naturally, has its own notions – sometimes at variance with the Rue de la Paix. Beginning with ” the highest lady in the land,” English society revolts on occasion from imported fashion. And it is often right in insisting on an individual style which so accords with national character.
Clothes express the epoch; this is Mme Paquin’s dictum. Part of the superiority of Paris comes not merely from the deftness of the little workgirls in the region dominated by the Vendome Column, but from that continuity in dress which subtly and sartorially links aristocratic France – France of the Roi Soleil – with France of the Revolution, of Louis Philippe, of the Second Empire down to the Third Republic. The costume gives the picture of the time; strict convention as well as liberty and licence are represented in it. The too great freedom of yesterday has produced a reaction, says Mme Paquin – as if we were moving towards some new crinoline age. Dressmakers are historians, writing the moods of the moment in curves and stitches. Madness of political thought produces madness in the Mode.
Doubtless, also, Sartor works for the peace of the earth, for the Pax Concordia, when the nations will cease from battle and their flags will fly together. It is not for nothing that the street of the dressmaker is called the Rue de la Paix. A veritable mission issued a short while ago from the Paquin portals. It was headed by Mme Paquin’s sister-in-law, Mme Joire, and its destination was America. In her train were mannequins, than whom none could so fittingly present Paris models to fascinated feminine New York. It was a real exhibition of art, and was accepted in that spirit – after some protest from the native dressmaker. Was America to be permanently invaded? Was Mme Paquin going to turn the tables on those who filched her designs? But the objects of the expedition were essentially pacific; no reprisals were contemplated, though Paquin’s, as well as the other houses, have been forced to protect them- selves from foreign depredation. Thus are freedom and peace spread abroad by those who fabricate the fashions.
The picture I have drawn of Mme Paquin would not be complete without reference to her kindness of heart and consideration for subordinates. She praises her assistants as the elite of la couture. “Are not great qualities needed for success in dress-making: good health, good taste, good looks, an infinity of tact?”
I will close simply with the remark that the red badge of honour which illumines her grey-green corsage, with its silver embroideries, is richly deserved. In and out of the Rue de la Paix “Chevalier” Paquin is a notable figure; but, like a certain celebrated Athenian, she is rarely seen but on her way to and from the Forum.
Makers of new France by Charles Dawbarn. Published 1915 by Milld & Boon, limited in London .
Le Bulletin de l’art ancien et moderne (1910)