Margaine-Lacroix’s shocking dresses

Margaine-Lacroix and the dresses that shocked Paris – a talk by Susie Ralph

Susie Ralph
Susie Ralph

I introduced this talk at Chelsea Reference Library on Wednesday 17 July 2013 and I found it absolutely fascinating. But –  I was amazed at the dress on display, showing how Margaine-Lacroix’s clinging draped styles, would have been constructed – fabric would be draped, pinned and cut on the dressmaker’s mannequin.

A copy of one of Margaine-Lacroix’s clinging, draped styles.
A copy of one of Margaine-Lacroix’s clinging, draped styles.
The back of the same dress.
The back of the same dress.

There are two splendid printed silk panels showing enlarged pictures of the Sylphides design. I also learned the designs were patented; her corsets helped found the Gossard empire – Henry William Gossard bought the rights to manufacture her corsets in the United States.

Susie Ralph with one of the splendid printed silk panels showing an enlarged picture of the Sylphides design.
Susie Ralph with one of the splendid printed silk panels showing an enlarged picture of the Sylphides design.

There is far more information in Susie Ralph’s guest blog post, but if you want to look at the dress, the exhibition runs until Sunday 28 July at Chelsea Reference Library.

Debby Wale
Debby Wale

Debby Wale, Triborough Reference Librarian

Chelsea Library


Margaine-Lacroix and the dresses that shocked Paris

Next week (15 to 28 July 2013) there will be an exhibition at Chelsea Gallery (part of Chelsea Reference Library) on the forgotten designer whose figure-revealing dresses caused a sensation in 1908 and launched the slender silhouette of the twentieth century. There will also be a private view and illustrated talk on Wednesday 17 July 2013.

This is a guest blog post from Susie Ralph, curator of this exhibition. She will also be giving the talk on Wednesday – please book your free place on 020 7361 3010.

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The date – Sunday 10th of May 1908, the event – The Prix du Prince de Galles at Longchamp racecourse. A fashionably dressed crowd has gathered for this important date in the Parisian social calendar. The races are the place to see and be seen, where royalty and grandes dames rub shoulders with actresses and the demi-monde, all showing off the latest couture creations. Suddenly a furore breaks out as three beautiful models enter the enclosure – for beneath their exquisite and exceptionally clinging gowns they appear to be wearing – nothing! To add to the shock value, their dresses are split to the knee, revealing a glimpse of leg, barely disguised by the lightest of muslin coverings.

The Belle Époque was an era noted for its love of sensationalism, but even Parisians were astonished at such a display, and a crowd gathered to mob the mannequins. This event generated instant and international publicity for the daring new style, which the press called “ the directoire gown.” The models were dubbed “Les Nouvelles Merveilleuses” in reference to the semi-naked beauties of the French revolutionary period. It was obvious to all who saw them that the young women were wearing neither corset, petticoat nor chemise! The most beautiful of the three mannequins “ la belle Möina” was immediately offered a contract for a fabulous sum by the director of the Moulin Rouge – but the designer of the dresses that caused all the furore – who was she? Her name went almost unrecorded.

She was Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix, a Parisian designer whose long-established couture house had been founded by her mother Madame Margaine. Margaine-Lacroix became famous for her pioneering corsets-sylphides which featured elastic material and a minimum of boning, and she had outlets in Belgium and Buenos Aires which sold these innovative foundation garments. But her daring robe-sylphide gowns brought her even greater renown. These went a step further than the corset-sylphide, for they abolished the corset altogether. They were popular with the stage stars of the day, on account of their fluid lines and exceptionally figure moulding qualities.

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The first mention of the robe-sylphide appeared in L’art et la Mode in 1899, the year that Margaine-Lacroix inherited her business from her mother. Advertised as “ sans corset” or “supprimant le corset” – “without corset” or “ abolishing the corset” a glowing article advised readers that this was “truly a fairy-like invention” for the manner in which it slimmed the figure, dispensing with the need for bulky under-garments.

How was it possible at this time to wear a dress without a corset? The turn of the twentieth century was a period of great innovation in the field of underwear, as attempts were made to break away from the old, rigidly boned, stiff corset and introduce foundation garments which gave the body a softer, more natural and flexible appearance. Knitted silk fabrics with a high degree of stretch were employed by the most avant-garde corsetières and the fore-runner of the modern brassiere made its first appearance. The aim was to show off the shape of the real body beneath the dress, rather than the artificial shape of the corset.

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Margaine-Lacroix was a pioneer in this field and patented several versions of her robe-sylphide and corset-sylphide. One of these, a garment made from stretchy knitted silk fabric with only the lightest boning, outlined the hips and thighs and looked much like a fore-runner of today’s stretch bodies or magic knickers. In a rare interview given to the press, just days after her dresses scandalised the crowd at Longchamp, she explained her design philosophy and the construction of the dress which was worn without a corset:

“I have been patiently at work for years, educating the public to what women’s dresses really should be …only two garments cover the body – there is first a tight elastic silk jersey ….the outer garment is made to serve as its own corset, the bodice being strengthened with a little whalebone, not enough however to destroy its suppleness.”

It is astonishing, considering how much publicity Margaine-Lacroix’s dresses generated at the time, and how much influence they exerted on the course of fashion, that their creator’s name barely receives a passing mention today. The Longchamp incident has been completely forgotten. Reports at the time claimed that: “even Parisians stared,” and photographs, cartoons and even a satyrical poem about the daring new style, appeared in the press the following week. The news spread rapidly around the world, featuring in papers as far afield as New Zealand. The New York Times reported that:

“Pictures of the young women who displayed their charming persons in so-called directoire gowns, are printed in both capitals [Paris and London] and artists and moralists, men of the world, police officers and dressmakers have been interviewed in bewildering numbers”.

The repercussions of “directoire mania” caused several incidents, reported in the press. Amongst them was a riding accident on London’s fashionable Rotten Row. According to The New York Times’ London correspondent, this was caused by: “a vaudeville artiste …. dressed in a Directoire riding costume of cream broadcloth, cut tight to the figure and slashed on the left side to the knee, showing a long, white riding boot.” Her sensational appearance caused a rider, turning around in the saddle to survey her, to come into violent collision with Winston Churchill’s horse.

The same article related that leading dressmakers in London were already busy with orders for directoire gowns, in numbers that indicated the style’s success, and that the new silhouette would be seen at Ascot: “All will be influenced by the directoire revival.” The week following the Longchamp incident, Lily Langtry was photographed “dressed in a directoire gown” strolling through the paddock at Chester races with the Duke of Westminster.
The sensational directoire style apparently caused a near riot in Chicago, when “a pushing, scrambling mob of 10,000 persons” gathered to watch a “pretty girl in a directoire gown” who had accepted a bet of $500, walk through the town clad in the new fashion! The incident may in fact have happened during the shooting of “The Directoire Gown,” a film made in Chicago in 1908 that featured a similar scene and evidently aimed to cash in on the notoriety of the new fashion.

Actress Marcelle Yrven caused her own sensation, when she appeared on stage in a robe-sylphide, and admirers were expressly banned from entering her dressing room, as “ the charming artiste had decided to wear her dress without any underwear.” It was reported that “ the dress seemed glued to her body, and all Parisiennes worthy of the name, wished to see it.”
Perhaps the most significant statement printed at the time, was this announcement from an un-named “authority.”

“To wear even a modified directoire style ….. women have had to change their figures; the hips are being reduced; the waist however is a little larger, in order to reduce the apparent size of the hips.”

Overnight it seems, thanks to the Longchamp exposure of Margaine-Lacroix’s daring gowns, a new body-ideal had established itself. What became most sort after by fashionable women everywhere was la ligne – “the line,” or new slender silhouette. La ligne sounded the death-knell for the old-fashioned ideal of tightly corseted waistline and prominent bosom. In July of 1908, Les Modes reported on the fashions worn during La Grande Semaine – the week that closed the Paris season. The journal informed its readers that the styles which had “bouleversée” or shaken up race-goers when they made their first appearance in May, were now in the process of totally shaking up fashion. They were to be seen, only slightly modified, on “ toutes les élégantes” – all the most stylish society women attending the final event of the season, the Grand Steeplechase at Auteuil.

The year 1908 marked the true turning point in fashion, when the stiffly corseted, heavy-bosomed ideal of the Fin-de-Siècle, with its attendant bulk of rustling underwear, finally became demodé – and the slender new twentieth century silhouette was launched. Margaine-Lacroix’s important rôle in bringing about this great fashion change, has long since been forgotten, in part due to the attention today accorded to Paul Poiret and the influence of the Ballets Russes. Poiret was one amongst a handful of designers who were all seeking to promote a more natural, slender, less corseted figure – an ideal that chimed with the mood of modernism taking hold in the new century. Vionnet and Lucile can both be counted amongst this number. Close study of newspapers and fashion journals for the year 1908 however, proves that it was Margaine-Lacroix’s robes-sylphides, and in particular the exaggerated versions exposed at Longchamps, that brought about the desired change. Then as now, when designers wished to state their case, they exaggerated their styles in order to achieve the maximum publicity. Vionnet has often been credited with “inventing the bias cut,” that method of draping the fabric so it clings to the body. Photographs reveal that Margaine-Lacroix was using this method for her robes-sylphide as early as 1907, if not before and employed it for the “Merveilleuse” dresses.

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The explosion of the Ballets Russes onto the Parisian stage in 1909, and its perceived influence on fashion in general and Poiret in particular, has greatly coloured dress historians’ view of the late Belle Époque. Margaine-Lacroix has been forgotten, cast into shadow by the splendours of the Russian Ballet, and the exquisite illustrations of Poiret’s gowns. But influential as these were, it was Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix who brought about the general adoption of the lean, modern look. The daring dresses she exposed at Longchamp provided the catalyst needed to bring about change.

Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix deserves to be recognised as the designer who succeeded in “ bouleversant la mode” or “knocking fashion sideways” as Les Modes reported in July 1908, describing her narrow clinging style thus: “It is the dress of the moment, that which gives us the silhouette of a modern Merveilleuse.” Dedicated to her craft, but apparently not given to self-advertisement, the Longchamp incident seems to be the only occasion on which Margaine-Lacroix went out of her way to court publicity – and then for her dresses alone, not for herself. She deserves to be recognised as one of the most influential designers of the late Belle Époque. She introduced the uncorseted figure as early as 1899, and the fashion world finally set its seal of approval on her modern silhouette in 1908. Her innovative construction techniques and employment of the bias-cut, created the first modern dresses that clung to and revealed the body. In an age well before the invention of Lycra, she created the first body-con dress – the robe-sylphide.

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Susie Ralph
Susie Ralph

Susie Ralph

What lies beneath part 2: the corset and beyond

We have a fantastic costume collection at Chelsea Reference Library and Gillian Nunns, one of our Triborough Reference Librarians has been taking a look….

In What lies beneath part 1′ I had a look at the bizarre story of the crinoline in the context of the changing tides of fashion.  Which brings us to the corset, which also has something of a bizarre, if not more sinister history than the crinoline.

The corset had gone out of fashion in the Regency period of the early 19th Century, when a natural figure and light muslin dresses were in fashion.  Although they still existed in various guises, it was in the 1870s when bustles meant that clothes were moulded to the body at the front of the skirt and around the hips that the corset came back into its own.  The corset industry received a lot of impetus, leading to a great variety of types of corset, and different inventions around their design were advocated.   Also, ladies’ magazines of the time began giving more descriptions of corsets and advertised them frequently, such as this one from the Giraud Company in the 1880s.

Corset advert from Giraud Company
Corset advert from Giraud Company

And here is an image that I found in Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel, advertising the “Thylda” corset.

"Thylda" corset from 'Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel
“Thylda” corset from ‘Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel

The corset also became hugely controversial as it brought with it a trend for smaller and smaller waists, and the controversial practice of “tight-lacing” – a practice which involved systematically reducing a woman’s waist by means of lacing the corset as tightly as possible over a period of time.  The controversy is very well documented as readers of the time could now write to publications with their views, which make interesting (if not painful) reading as I discovered from looking through our Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine issues.  In 1867 one lady described the practice of “tight-lacing” at her school and described girls competing to have waists of 13 inches (which I hope was an exaggeration!)

 “Every morning one of the maids used to come to assist us to dress, and a governess superintended, to see that our corsets were drawn as tight as possible.  After the first few minutes every morning I felt no pain, and the only ill effects apparently were occasional headaches and loss of appetite. Though I have always heard tight-lacing condemned, I have never suffered any ill effects myself, and, as a rule, our school was singularly free from illness”  

(From Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1868)

But many thought otherwise, and The Lancet was one publication that regularly voiced concerns, here is one comment quoted in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1968:

 “The mischief produced by such a practice can hardly be overestimated.  It tends gradually to misplace organs of the body, while, by compressing them, it must from the first interfere with their functions.  The grounds upon which Tight-lacing has been recommended are diametrically opposed to the teachings of anatomy and physiology, not to say common sense”

Despite many speaking out against the practice of tight-lacing corsets, the practice continued, although alternatives were invented, such as this orthopaedic corset that we found an illustration of in a book called The Corset; A Cultural History by Valerie Steele.

Orthodpaedic corset from 'The Corset; A Cultural History' by Valerie Steele
Orthopaedic corset from ‘The Corset; A Cultural History’ by Valerie Steele

Fashion only turned away from the corset apparently of its own accord in the early 20th Century, and almost overnight the hobble skirt and a more natural figure was all the rage, as depicted in this postcard of around 1911.

Hobble skirt
Hobble skirt

And here an advert for what might have been underneath, which I found in The Story of Women’s Underwear by Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher.

An advert from 'The Story of Women's Underwear' by Barbier and Boucher
An advert from ‘The Story of Women’s Underwear’ by Barbier and Boucher

And when the First World War broke out practical concerns played a crucial role in women’s fashion which perhaps hadn’t in earlier times.  No longer could women take up any fashion despite their practical drawbacks, and the sometimes bizarre undergarments that they entailed.   I was  interested in seeing illustrations of typical fashion in different decades of the 20th Century in a book called Changing Trends in Fashion by Anne Tyrrell, including this one from the time of the First World War.

Wartime dress image from 'Changing Trends in Fashion' by Anne Tyrell
Wartime dress image from ‘Changing Trends in Fashion’ by Anne Tyrell

I also had a look at the future of the undergarment in our issues of Vogue from the 1920s and 30s, and noted the peculiar names given to types of undergarments using new materials that allowed for greater freedom of movement.

From Vogue 1923
From Vogue 1923
From Vogue 1936
From Vogue 1936

And how about this now-not-so-sensational shape advertised in Vogue 1978.

From Vogue 1978
From Vogue 1978

And a French advertisement from 1984 that I found in The Story of Women’s Underwear by Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher.

French advert, 1984
French advert, 1984

Perhaps we could say that the laws of fashion are not as strict as they used to be.  Here is a picture of a Lacroix evening dress in 1997 taken by Roxanne Lowit, which we found in The Corset; A Cultural History by Valerie Steele.

Lacroix evening dress
Lacroix evening dress

I hope you’ve enjoyed these two posts and if you like to find out more do pop into to see the collection at Chelsea Library.

Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian
Gillian Nunns

Gillian Nunns

Triborough Reference Librarian, Chelsea Reference Library

Further information

The sources used for this post are all available at Chelsea Reference Library.

  •  Changing Trends in Fashion by Anne Tyrrell, 1986
  •  The Corset; A Cultural History by Valerie Steele, 2003
  •  Support and Seduction by Beatrice Fontanel, 1998
  •  The Story of Women’s Underwear by Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher, 2010
  • Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1868
  • Vogue, September 1923
  • Vogue, March 1936
  • Vogue, February 1978