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