Category Archives: Fashion

Catherinettes: The Young Old Maids

‘Oh! Oh! Oh! Ah! Ah! Ah!’ by José Padilla, lyrics by Albert Willemetz; Saint-Granier & Jean Le Seyeux, published by Salabert (Paris, 1927) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

By showing this young lady with two enormous hatboxes swinging on her arms, de Valerio marks her as a milliner or une modiste (a hat maker or seller). She seems in a festive mood and is singing the careless refrain of the Chanson des Catherinettes.

I had never heard of Catherinettes before, prompting me to dig into its meaning and history.

According to legend Catherine of Alexandria was imprisoned by the Roman emperor Maxentius because she was a Catholic. We are in the early 4th century. After having unsuccessfully tried to break her faith, he strangely proposed her to marry. But Catherine had consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ and rejected his offer. Maxentius, smitten by the beautiful but devout young lady, did not take no for an answer: he tortured Catherine on a spiked breaking wheel. She was miraculously saved from that ordeal: instead of her bones, the wheel itself broke. Sadly, her besotted persecutor showed grace nor mercy, and gave the order to behead her. That is how Catherine became venerated as a virgin martyr and was nominated patron saint for maidens and spinsters.

Saint Catherine by Caravaggio. She is surrounded by the attributes of her martyrdom: the spiked breaking wheel and the sword with which she was beheaded.

From the 12th century on the French started to honour Saint Catherine on each 25th of November. That day, Sainte-Catherine, was seen as a coming of age feast for unmarried women who had reached the age of 25. With flowers and ribbons unmarried girls used to create a beautiful headdress to coiffe (or cap) Saint Catherine’s statue in the church. When the maidens were 25 years old they stuck one needle in the headdress. This was meant as a warning: don’t wait any longer to find a husband. A second needle was pinned when they were 30 (time is running out!), and a third one at 35. Then one had definitely become a spinster with all hope lost…

Postcard of a young woman coiffing the statue of Saint Catherine.

The expression ‘coiffer Sainte Catherine‘ became synonymous with still being a single woman at (or after) 25. On the day of Sainte-Catherine these single women prayed for a future husband to their patron saint. But to assist the saint in helping these young women to find a suitor, a ball was arranged on Saint Catherine’s day all over France.

‘Prière à Ste. Catherine’ by Edmond Lhuillier, published by Cotelle et Cie (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Stop.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the tradition of la Sainte-Catherine was practically lost. But then, rather suddenly, it shifted from a catholic peasant celebration to an exuberant Parisian festivity. There and then it became very popular. In the modern age women had entered the workforce on a large scale. In Paris that was particularly so in the fashion trade. So Saint Catherine’s day became a celebration for working girls, which was at that time more or less synonym with unmarried girls, because once a girl married she was also supposed to stop working. Sainte-Catherine thus became especially popular in fashion houses and among milliners, although also shop-girls and typists participated. It is those unmarried girls, at the age of 25, that were called Catherinettes.
A typical Saint Catherine’s day would follow the next scenario. At breakfast the Catherinette admired her greeting cards, received from friends and colleagues, wishing an abundance of potential suitors and reminding her that the time had come to find that much sought after husband. Celibacy for ‘elderly’ women was still stigmatised, as witnessed by the postcard below.

‘Vive Ste. Catherine’ — 20 years: amuse yourself, 25 years: get married, 30 years: too old!

In the morning at work, her colleagues had made her a special hat. At first these hats were quite simple, resembling a traditional coiffe. The predominant hues of the hats were yellow and green, the customary colours of Saint Catherine. Usually attached to it was a small sprig of orange blossom, the traditional flower of the bridal bouquet.

Postcards of Catherinettes with simple coiffes.

But year after year these hats were more elaborated upon, and became more intricate especially those from the hat-making and dressmaking trades.

Postcards of Catherinettes with more intricate hats.

The themes of the hats sometimes followed contemporary events (1), as one sees on the sheet music cover for ‘Les Petites Catherinettes’. The illustrator got his inspiration from a press photo dated November 25, 1909.

‘Les Petites Catherinettes’ by Claire Mauselin & L. Mauger-Bourdeille, published by M. Labbé (Paris [1910]) and illustrated by A. Soulié. (source: gallica.fr.)
Two Catherinettes, 1909 (source: gallica.fr.)

The Catherinettes would wear their hats like a trophy throughout their festive day. At work the Catherinettes and their colleagues were offered refreshments and food.

Saint Catherine’s Day in a Parisian sewing workshop, 1920 (source: gallica.fr.)

Then they would take to the street, dancing and singing.

Catherinettes dancing around a police officer in Paris, 1922. (source: gallica.fr.)

Later in the day the Catherinettes could attend a hat contest, or try to become elected queen for the day. The jury for these competitions was composed of renowned artists and sports personalities.

In the evening, dressed in their best attire, the Catherinettes accompanied by their friends and colleagues, went to the ball of Sainte-Catherine where they could perhaps meet their future husband…

Saint Catherine’s male counterpart is Saint Nicolas, protector of children and unmarried men by age thirty. So men were given a respite of 5 years over the women. But the hat for their Saint Nicolas day was definitely less exciting, looking more like a dull nightcap. The Saint Nicolas day for bachelors never became a great success. If we may rely on the postcards, it was not intended for the alpha males…

Fashion houses, especially in the haute couture, became particularly attached to Saint Catherine’s tradition. In the ateliers the festival was a big deal and sets and costumes were created on various themes. They held large parades to show off their wares. To this day, the renown houses like Chanel still hold on to the yearly tradition. Though I am happy to see that the festival is no longer ‘Ladies only!‘.

If you have time for a (virtual) stroll in Paris, take a walk to the square Montholon in the rue Lafayette. In the shade of its tall oriental plane trees, you can admire the statue of five exhilarated Catherinettes ready for the ball.

sculpture by Julien Lorieux for (1908) La Sainte Catherine
La Sainte Catherine – À l’ouvrière parisienne” – Square Montholon (Paris, 9e arr.), sculpture by Julien Lorieux, 1908 (© Rémi Jouan, CC-BY-SA, GNU Free Documentation License, Wikimedia Commons)

(1) The baffling hat with the biplane was probably a tribute to Louis Blériot who became world-famous for making the first aeroplane flight across the English Channel in July of the year the photo was taken (1907). The hat with the Spanish-looking windmill likely illustrates the expression ‘jeter son bonnet par-dessus les moulins’ or ‘to throw one’s bonnet over the windmill’. It refers to Don Quixote who, while tossing his hat over a windmill, imagines that he is challenging a giant.

The ‘real’ Garçonne

‘La Garçonne’ by Vincent Scotto published by Ernst Rolfs Musikförlags, (Stockholm, sd).

In the Twenties restrictive corsets became old-fashioned. Women opted for flat-chested dresses, they cropped their hair and started smoking cigarettes. This boyish look was called à la garçonne.

‘A la Garçonne’ by Henri Panella & Edouard Révérand, published by Margueritat (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Pons.

This year André Téchiné directed the film Nos Années Folles (The Golden Years). It is based on the true story of the French deserter Paul Grappe, nicknamed la Garçonne. The Great War broke out as Paul had nearly finished his military service. He was wounded in August 1914, and a second time in November when his index finger was ripped off. He was first accused, and shortly afterwards exonerated of voluntary mutilation to escape the battlefield. Facing his imminent return to the front in the middle of 1915, Paul decided to desert.

He returned to his wife, Louise. But a young man in good health walking around in Paris during the war would raise suspicion. So together with his wife they decided he should change gender. They moved to a new neighbourhood. At first he stayed inside, let his hair grow, removed his moustache and beard by electrolysis and learned to talk with a higher voice. His wife lent him some clothes, pierced his ears and gave him a pair of earrings.

Paul Grappe as Suzanne, between the caretaker or pipelette and his wife Louise, somewhere in the early Twenties (from ‘Détective’ magazine, November 1928).

Paul, or Suzanne as he called himself, got the hang of making his own feminine clothes. Little by little Suzanne ventured out on the street and even managed to get a job. He posed as a female friend of his own wife. Still his masculine traits must have been visible as Suzanne was called la Garçonne in the neighbourhood.

When the war was finished he continued to pretend and live as a woman because he still risked being convicted for desertion.

Headline from ‘Le Petit Parisien’, 5th of February, 1925

Not until 1925 France declared amnesty for its deserted soldiers. And Suzanne became Paul again, with the necessary media attention. But he struggled to get his life under control. He was unable to find a job, and from time to time he still felt the urge to go out in drag. One night in a bar, during a heated discussion with some other patrons, and in order to prove that he was a real man, he lifted his dress, showed his masculinity and was promptly arrested for indecent behaviour.
Trying to cash in on his fifteen minutes of fame he had made photographs of himself in male and female attire. With this album he wandered along the terraces of the Parisian cafés hoping to sell his autographed pictures for some change or free drinks. And he needed a lot:
he drank five litres of wine a day, if we can believe the newspapers of the time.

Paul Grappe as man and woman in 1925.

One night in 1928 according to his wife Louise, Paul Grappe couldn’t stand the crying of their baby boy who was very ill at the moment. He awoke from his drunken stupor, “roaring like a lion”, and started to beat his wife. Fearing that he might hit their child and weary of her husbands shenanigans Louise grasped a pistol and shot him dead. Adding to the tragedy, their little son would later also die while she was in prison.

Paul Grappe, known as la Garçonne, with his wife and their baby in 1926.

During her trial Louise stated that her husband had had more than 3.000 mistresses while living as a woman. She also told the court that he had been a regular at the Montmartre bars and among the prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne. I can’t make head nor tail of that account: was his disguise not foolproof? Did he have platonic affairs or was he bisexual? Or did these women adore a man in drag..?
Anyway, Paul’s neighbours testified that he was a vicious brute always carrying a revolver and menacing people with it. Her lawyer Maurice Garçon (what’s in a name!) argued Louise’s case eloquently and she was acquitted.

The 1939 edition of ‘La garçonne‘ by Victor Margueritte, published by Flammarion, Paris.

La Garçonne is also the title of a novel by the now almost forgotten Victor Margueritte (1866-1942). It was first published in 1922, the same year the French senate rejected the right to vote for women. It tells the story of a young woman promised by her parents to a wealthy fiancée who cheats on her. Disillusioned she drowns her sorrow in self-destructive libertinism. She starts to lead a life of pleasure, collecting partners of both sexes and frequenting fashionable boîtes to smoke opium or to indulge in cocaine.

La garçonne‘ by Victor Margueritte, published by Flammarion, Paris, the 1934 edition.

She tries to redeem herself in a tormented romance with a jealous, manipulating man determined to submit her, even quite literally. But finally she falls very much in love with a respectful, modern intellectual.

‘C’est la Garçonne’ by Yvan Fouyat, published by Antoine Ysaye (Brussels, 1923) and illustrated by Peter de Greef.

So, although Margueritte’s Garçonne repents by becoming a model of bourgeois virtue, the novel was still considered particularly shocking. The author was even stripped of his Légion d’honneur. That was bad. To illustrate this: last month President Emmanuel Macron said France should strip Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of his prestigious Légion d’honneur. So yes, it is was that bad.

‘Der er maaske en lille Pige’ (Voici la Garçonne) by Alexander Yrnèh & Henry Carlsen, published by Alfred Thorsings Musikforlag (Copenhagen, 1926).

The scandalous novel has been adapted into a film four times, the most notable one in 1936. The heroine is played by Marie Bell who is being kept by an astonishing blonde Arletty. She discovers the nightlife and the opium dens, and arouses the lust of two female singers.
One is embodied by Suzy Solidor, then a huge star of the music hall and openly lesbian. The other by a young Edith Piaf, acting and singing in her first film.

Still from La Garçonne (1936) with Edith Piaf standing in the middle.

What better way to end this story than with a tragical song from this film? Edith Piaf sings Quand-même. The music is by Jean Wiener and the lyrics are from Louis Poterat.

Le bonheur quotidien,
Vraiment, ne me dit rien.
La vertu n’est que faiblesse
Qui voit sa fin dans le ciel.
Je préfère la promesse
Des paradis artificiels.

Je sais qu’à la porte d’un bar
Où j’aurai bu jusqu’à l’extrême,
On ramassera quelque part
Mon corps brûlé sur un brancard.
Je bois quand même…

Que sous la drogue lentement,
D’extase en extase suprême,
Je m’approche implacablement
Du sombre asile des déments.
J’en prends quand même…

Je sais qu’en la femme fatale,
Dans les bras d’un amant trop blême,
S’infiltrera l’horrible mal
Dont on crève au lit d’hôpital.
J’aime quand même…


Further reading on Paul Grappe: La Garçonne et l’assassin by Fabrice Virgili and Danièle Voldman.

See You Later!

alligator sheetmusic copy
Beim Alligator in Wien‘ by Erich Bertel, s.d., unknown illustrator.

The girl on her fierce-looking alligator seems oblivious to her perilous ride. Her garter belt is peeking out, but she only cares for her new handbags. ‘Beim Alligator in Wien’ is a publicity song issued by the Viennese Alligator workshops and stores, selling (alligator) handbags.

Beim Alligator in Wien, label on back cover of sheet music
Detail from the back of the cover Beim Alligator in Wien

We checked the addresses of the old ‘Beim Alligator‘ stores in Vienna. To our pleasant surprise we discovered that one of the shops still exists.

alligator vienna
Alligator shop, Rotenturmstrasse 19, Vienna

The sheet music dates from the late 20s or early 30s, a period at which the illustrator might have read about The California Alligator Farm.

Farm.h5This was a strange amusement park founded in 1906 near Los Angeles. With over a thousand alligators on exhibition the farm offered weird attractions. One could watch the alligators being fed with live chickens…,

Chicken_Dinner_California_Alligator_Farm_Los_Angeles_California_13691-600x382or admire Okeechobee, a 500 (ahem!) year old senior reptile.

Okeechobee_500_Years_Old_California_Alligator_Farm_Los_Angeles_CalThe children could enjoy the pleasure of a carriage ride…,

Children Joy Ride at the California Alligator Farmor a bareback ride on an alligator. Rather unsafe for small children, I guess.

Joy_Riding_California_Alligator_Farm_Los_Angeles_California
California Alligator Farm, Los Angeles, California, half-tone postcards with applied colour, ca. 1910s

The farm’s brochure boasted about its speciality: ‘Alligator Bags Ornamented with Genuine Alligator Heads and Claws’. A promotional photo shows a large alligator-skin bag on top of an incubator full of cute alligator babies. The caption reads: ‘From start to finish’. Gruesome!

An_incubator_on_an_alligator_farm_(possibly_the_California_Alligator_Farm,_Los_Angeles),_ca.1900_(CHS-6301)
An incubator ‘Made Especially for Hatching Alligator Eggs’. The caption on the photo reads ‘From start to finish, California Alligator Farm’. ca. 1910s.

Also sickening is the undercover documentary from the animal rights group PETA. Still today, alligators and crocodiles on farms in Texas and Africa are cruelly bred, skinned and slaughtered. It moved Jane Birkin to try to dissociate her name from the luxury ‘Birkin crocodile handbag‘ made by Hermès.

Well, I’m relieved that I never owned a ‘gator bag’. Probably couldn’t afford it either…

See you later.