Category Archives: Fashion

Anny, the Most Beautiful Belgian Girl

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Pourquoi hésiter‘ by Hippolyte Ackermans, published by Mado, Bruxelles in 1921.

On the cover of Pourquoi hésiter is a portrait of Anny Duny. She won the first modern national beauty contest in Belgium in 1921. The event, known as La plus belle femme de Belgique, was organised by Maurice Cartuyvels de Waleffe (1874-1946). He was a Belgian aristocrat working as a journalist and publisher in France where he was mocked for his Belgian roots and pompous rhetoric. Maurice de Waleffe was the founder of the only daily newspaper that came out at noon, Paris Midi. He became an important figure in the fashion world and had a keen eye for new trends.

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Maurice de Waleffe (right) alongside the French lyricist Saint-Granier and Miss France 1936.

In 1920, after suffering the harshness of the First World War, Maurice de Waleffe took an initiative to raise spirits. He launched the first competition for the most beautiful woman in France ‘La plus belle femme de France’ in the newspaper Le Journal. More than 2000 young women answered the call. A jury of painters and sculptors (including only one woman!) shortlisted 49 contenders, aged between 17 and 23 years. With an original multimedia campaign, de Waleffe organised a popular vote to chose the winner. 

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The seven finalists from the contest ‘La plus belle femme de France’ in 1920 organized by ‘Le Journal’.

Every day his journal published the portrait of one of the 49 young girls. At the same time, but on a weekly basis, the photographs of seven candidates were shown in the cinemas throughout France. Each competitor appeared on the screen in full length, in a head and shoulder shot, and in the group picture. To ‘preserve their modesty’ the girls didn’t appear under their real name. Each girl received a romantic stage name in accordance with the title of the group to which she belonged: Flowers, Precious Stones, BirdsGoddesses, etc. The cinemagoers received a voting paper. This might have inspired Roger de Valerio in 1922 when he illustrated the sheet music The Girl on the Film…

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The girl on the film‘ by Joseph Szulc, published by Salabert, Paris in 1922 and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

After seven thrilling weeks of mesmerizing the French audiences (and after thousands of newspapers sold), seven finalists remained. The final election was held at the Parisian premises of Le Journal.  It was one of the group Precious Stones, namely Emeraude or Agnes Souret, who won and could call herself Miss France. Some years after her victory she would succumb to a peritonitis, only 26 years old.
The contest was repeated in 1921 after which it was discontinued for five years.

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Agnes Souret the first Miss France in 1920. Left: at the start of the competition. Right: a revamped version at the start of the finals.

In 1921 Maurice de Waleffe organised the same contest in Belgium. He again worked with a newspaper (La Dernière Heure) and with the cinemas. Out of 800 contestants a shortlist of 21 candidates was split up in three series: Laces, Virtues and Opera Heroines.

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Nine contestants of the 1921 Belgian shortlist. Upper row: Chantilly, Valenciennes, Bruges or Anny Duny (Laces). Middle row: Amiability, Honesty,Gentleness (Virtues). Lower row: Gwendoline, Mireille, Heriodade (Opera heroines).

Out of the group of Laces, it was Bruges (or Anny Duny from our sheet music cover at the beginning) who won, and started a modest career as La plus belle femme de Belgique.

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Anny Duny winner of the beauty contest ‘La plus belle femme de Belgique’, in 1921.

Anny’s new title brought moderate fame: she appeared in revues but not for long and not in important roles. She is known to have performed in slightly racy tableaux vivants such as Indiscreet Baths, The Return of the Merry Widow or The Décolletage through the Ages. According to a newspaper these were a great triumph attended by the jet set. If you ask me, it seems a bit old-fashioned to patiently gaze at an artistic still, in the hope of catching a dash of nudity. Where is the appeal when –at that time– you could have attended a striptease burlesque or an erotic motion picture.

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A typical tableau vivant from the twenties.

Speaking of tableaux vivants, this is our 2015 bubbly Miss Belgium ready to conquer the world. So, pourquoi hésiter (why hesitate)?

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Miss Belgium 2015.

Further reading: Beauty and Big Business by Aro Velmet: http://fh.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/11/07/fh.crt083.full.pdf

Gustave Charpentier’s Grisette: Mimi Pinson

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Mimi Pinson‘, waltz by J. Tixhon, illustrated by Cartier, published by L’Art Belge in 1921.

‘Mademoiselle Mimi Pinson: Profil de grisette’ is a novelette written by Alfred de Musset (1810-1857). A grisette is a coquettish young working woman employed as a seamstress, milliner’s assistant or shop helper. The word refers to the cheap grey (gris in French) fabric of the dresses these women originally wore.

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Whistler’s Parisian lover Fumette (nickname for Héloise), a grisette, 1858.

In mid-19th century literature, the grisette became associated with the poor artistic and student subculture in the Latin Quarter: the Parisian bohemia. She is in her late teens or early twenties, living on her own in Paris, supporting herself by work. She is sexually independent, changing lovers frequently and of course posing for artists. She is the artists’ muse. She is frank and honest and subversive to mainstream bourgeois values. The grisette archetype was embodied by Fantine in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and by Mimi in La Bohème (see the stage photo and Metlicovitz’ illustrated sheet music cover in a previous post) from Puccini.

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Griseta‘, tango by Enrique Delfino published by Salabert in 1926, illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956) resurrected Mimi Pinson at the turn of the century. Charpentier was a composer of humble social backgrounds who became an idealistic socialist. He made a fortune with his opera Louise, a love story between grisette Louise and the young artist Julien. Listen to Renee Fleming’s captivating rendering of the aria Depuis le jour.

The success of the opera Louise provided the means for Charpentier’s charitable work. In 1900 he established the Parisian social project l’Oeuvre de Mimi Pinson named after Alfred de Musset’s heroine seamstress. Originally l’Oeuvre intended to give working-class girls the possibility to attend a theatre or an opera at least once a year. In 1902 it became the thriving Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson.

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‘Le conservatoire de Mimi Pinson’, front cover illustration of Le Petit Journal (1902).

The music school was sponsored by the piano manufacturing firm Pleyel and the music publisher Enoch. It provided free tuition by professionals for working women in Paris. Within three months Charpentier claimed 2.000 students. The classes were attended by women ranging from 15 years old to middle age, all of them unmarried. Charpentier saw the chanson populaire as a moral tool to educate the masses. The worker-students were taught elementary music, song, piano, harp, dance and pantomime.

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Gustave Charpentier, third on the left at a Mimi Pinson singing lesson.

Charpentier’s students performed all over France mostly in the service of a worthy cause. In all their spectacles, there was always a pantomime present in order to celebrate the ‘People’s Muse’ Mimi Pinson, represented by a local female labourer elected by her co-workers.

‘Mimi Pinson’ by Gabriel Allier, published by Philippo (Paris, sd).

Although the Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson was very successful many were opposed to it and warned that this artistic liberation might upset the social order. The young female workers should marry, do their appropriate work and make their hard-working husbands happy. Or as one paternalistic critic put it: “The theatre is encumbered enough with the untalented… without making these nice little girls drop their needles”.

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Le Coeur de Mimi-Pinson‘, song by Charles Simore, published by the artist in 1916.

During the First World War many of the Mimi Pinsons became symbols of feminine self sacrifice. They joined the war effort as workers and were trained to become nurses. The Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson became an auxiliary to the Red Cross.

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Postcard: exhibition of cockades made by Mimi Pinson.

Other Mimi Pinsons made patriotic tricolour rosettes or cockades for charity from 1915 to 1920. These were exposed and sold for the benefit of the soldiers. The exhibitions were sponsored and supported by the major fashion houses and shops in Paris. Their female personnel also actively participated in the making and presentation of the cockades.

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La Cocarde de Mimi Pinson‘ by Henri Goublier, published by Edition Universelle, Paris.

Henri Goublier recounted this social and patriotic work of the Mimi Pinsons into the war-related operetta La Cocarde de Mimi Pinson (The cockade of Mimi Pinson). The first act, set in a textile manufacture in Paris, shows female workers producing cockades, the blue-white-red national symbols, as “love gifts” for the soldiers at the front.

In 1919 the majority of the Mimi Pinsons, being regularly informed about their rights as labourers, joined the call for women’s suffrage.

Mimi-Pinson-CPA-ebayDuring the first quarter of the 20th century Mimi Pinson was a popular symbol in France. She was represented living in an attic room with her animal friend a finch (pinson is the French word for a common finch). Clérice used the same symbolism to illustrate the cover of Chansons de L’ Aiguille (Songs of the Needle) composed by André Fijan and dedicated to Gustave Charpentier and his opera Louise.

Chansons de l'aiguille (sheet music / partition musicale illustrée)
Chansons de l’aiguille‘, composed by André Fijan and illustrated by Clérice Frères (Ricordi & Cie, Paris, 1903).

In 1958 Mimi Pinson got a new but short-lived reappearance with a film of the same name by Robert Darène.

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For further reading: Gustave Charpentier and the Conservatoire Populaire de Mimi Pinson by Mary Ellen Poole.

La Lionne de Mabille: Trendsetter or Courtisane?

La Lionne de Mabille‘ polka by Anton Wallerstein, publishd by Meynne, G. et J. (Bruxelles, s.d.). Unknown illustrator.
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La Comtesse Merlin (1789-1852)

We were intrigued by this cover because the drawing of the elegant young lady is at odds with the title ‘La lionne de Mabille‘. So we did a little research into the meaning of the french word lionne. During the first half of the 19th century, the word lionne, French for lioness, was used to designate a young, eccentric, cultivated but romantic Parisian woman of means with an independent spirit. A lionne was a trendsetter in fashion and in thoughts, without being a feminist. There existed lionnes littéraires and lionnes politiques. The term is extensively described in the 1845 booklet ‘Les Lionnes de Paris’ written by the Cuban born Maria de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, known after her marriage in 1811 to a French aristocrat as La Comtesse Merlin. La Comtesse Merlin can herself be considered a first rate lionne. She was keeping a literary salon in Paris where people gathered to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation. Her beauty and her charm attracted le tout Paris. La Fayette, Chateaubriand, George Sand, Mérimée, Balzac and de Musset were amongst her guests.

According to others une lionne was used to describe a courtesan. In French you have a lot of terms for describing a kept woman: cocotte, grande horizontale, demi-mondaine, demi-castor, biche, lorette, gigolette, grisette, fille… like the large number of Eskimo words for snow.

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Le Bal Mabille à Paris, lithograph by Théodore Müller, 1855 after Nicolas Chapuy

In either case les lionnes frequented the Parisian ballrooms. And one of these was the Bal Mabille founded by a Parisian dance teacher, Monsieur Mabille. At the start in 1830 it was an ordinary guinguette near the Champs Elysées. The Champs Elysées was not the busy road it is now but was still very much the countryside. Monsieur Mabille’s sons introduced 3000 gaslights in 1843. Lacking age-old oak trees in the garden, they planted iron palm trees speckled with colourful lamps. They arranged fake flowerbeds and a grotto. A dozen giant poles were connected by fairy lights. Moorish pavilions were erected to house the orchestra and the grand café. This fairy-tale landscape could best be admired by night which led to the brothers’ brilliant idea: they opened the first bal champêtre by night. It proved a huge success and was copied everywhere. The Bal Mabille was a triumph of modernity and exoticism and was only affordable for the happy few, at least in the beginning. Later on it became more mainstream and in the 1860s lost its charm for the women of the upper and even middle classes. In 1870 Le Bal Mabille definitely closed its doors.

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Anton Wallerstein (1813-1892)

The polka La Lionne de Mabille was composed by Anton Wallerstein  a German violinist, and prolific writer of popular dance music with international acclaim. The polka, became very popular as a new dance style and some claim that is was danced for the first time in France in Le Bal Mabille.

That this song was published in Belgium indicates that it was popular outside France. Ina Boudier-Bakker, a well known Dutch writer let her main character Annetje in De klop op de deur (The Knock on the Door) play La Lionne de Mabille on her piano.