Jun 24 2014 11:00am

A Flare for Fashion in the Nineteenth Century

Vixen in Velvet by Loretta Chase Today we're pleased to welcome author Loretta Chase to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Loretta's latest release, Vixen in Velvet, is the third book in her Dressmakers series, and its heroine Leonie is the third Noirot sister and co-owner of the Maison Noirot dress shop. Clothing and fashion is an integral part of the series, and Loretta shares some of her fashionable findings with us today. Thanks, Loretta!

Readers have asked this Nerdy History Girl some wonderfully nerdy questions about my dressmakers and their profession. Did successful shops like Maison Noirot, run by women, actually exist? Were the rivalries as vicious as as I’ve painted? And just how big a deal was fashion then, anyway?

To start with the crucial-to-my-dressmakers-question, fashion was a very big deal for a class of people who consumed conspicuously. The 1835 Court Journal (one of my main resources) describes the dresses Royals and certain other important ladies wore to major events like Royal Drawing Rooms. Ladies’ magazines went to the expense of including hand-colored fashion plates, often featuring both London and Paris fashions. Magazines had a Paris Correspondent who described what fashionable Frenchwomen were wearing. These notes were guides for both aristocratic English ladies planning trips to Paris and dressmakers wanting to be in fashion’s forefront. Magazines unable to afford a Paris Correspondent simply copied what the other magazines printed. Piracy was rampant. In fact, Godey’s caused a stir when they dared to copyright their contents.

And so, in a time when stealing intellectual content was common practice, we shouldn’t be surprised at dressmakers spying on and stealing ideas from one another. An early La Belle Assemblée provided the following delightful advertisement, which I used for an epigraph in Silk is for Seduction:

“Mrs. Thomas takes this opportunity of observing, that she hopes the inconvenience she has always sustained by the imposition of Milliners coming to her Rooms, under assumed characters, to take her Patterns, will not be repeated.”

Yes, they did go, in disguise, into a rival’s shop to spy and copy. By the way, patterns in this case refers to styles or sketches. Dressmakers didn’t (and many still don’t) use patterns in the sense we understand, or even measuring tapes. One finds how-to drawings in certain books, but trained dressmakers cut dresses to the woman, and measured with the eye.

Seeing “Mrs. Thomas” or “Mrs. James” advertising month after month, year after year, told me that women could and did run successful shops—selling millinery, dresses, corsets, and accessories, sometimes all in the same shop. Advertisements denouncing former business partners (often a sister) assured me that siblings did go into business together. Given these precedents, all I needed to do was make my my Noirot sisters slightly French and Paris-trained, to create a believable celebrity atelier decades before Worth.

Paris in the early decades of the 1800s had at least two premier dressmakers, whose names were well known in England. Monsieur (often mistakenly called Madame) le Roi and Victorine. Interestingly, politics enters the fray. These stanzas Tom Moore published in 1818 tell quite a story about the role of a major modiste:

And full on the Colonel’s dark whisker’s shone down,
When he asked me, with eagerness,—who made my gown?
The question confus’d me—for, DOLL, you must know,
And I ought to have told my best friend long ago,
That by Pa’s strict command, I no longer employ
That enchanting couturière, Madame LE ROI,
But am forc’d, dear, to have VICTORINE, who—deuce take her!—
It seems is, at present, the King’s mantua-maker—
I mean of his party—and, though much the smartest,
Le Roi is condemn’d as a rank Bonapartist.

Think, Doll, how confounded I look'd—so well knowing
The Colonel’s opinions—my cheeks were quite glowing;
I stammer’d out something—nay, even half named
The legitimate sempstress, when, loud, he exclaim’d,
“Yes, yes, by the stitching ‘t is plain to be seen
It was made by that B**rb*n **t b—-h, VICTORINE!”
What a word for a hero ! but heroes will err,
And I thought, dear, I'd tell you things just as they were.
Besides, though the word on good manners intrench,
I assure you 't is not half so shocking in French.

Victorine continued to reign long after this, and the story about her requiring the Queen of France* to make an appointment, and come to her shop (a tale a reader brought to my attention) appears here there and everywhere. The 30 November 1833 Court Journal devotes half the space about Madame Thiers’s nuptials to describing the trousseau Victorine created for her. What became of Monsieur le Roi after he fell out of political favor, I wish I knew.

I’ve only skimmed the surface here (it’s a blog post, not a dissertation, I had to remind myself), so if there’s anything else you’re curious about, regarding dressmakers in general or my dressmakers (and their amours) in particular, please do ask, and I’ll do my best to answer. Meanwhile, you can see some of the story locations and the clothes on my Pinterest boards.

*Only a princess, actually, though she tried...


Learn more about or order a copy of Vixen in Velvet by Loretta Chase, out now:

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Loretta Chase has worked in academe, retail, and the visual arts, as well as on the streets—as a meter maid— and in video, as a scriptwriter. She might have developed an excitingly checkered career had her spouse not nagged her into writing fiction. Her bestselling historical romances, set in the Regency and Romantic eras of the early nineteenth century, have won a number of awards, including the Romance Writers of America’s RITA®.

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1. Kareni
What an intriguing post; thanks for all the details, Ms. Chase. And thanks for providing me with many hours of reading pleasure!
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
I had always assumed that there were couturiers prior to Worth, and I'm glad to see you've done the research to find out--I first read about Worth in a Barbara Cartland, and was fascinated by the tidbits she mentioned about his gowns.
3. Scarlettleigh
I am not a purist in that I wonder if an author introduced buttons before they actually were manufactured. I don't know know that but sometimes there are some really obviously slips. No matter if I know something or not, I do appreciate an author who takes the time to do research.

Loretta, your books are always so much fun, and filled with interesting facts. I read the book, and today, I am going to listen to the audio of it too, to make housework less painful.
4. Loretta Chase really
One of the many things I love about my job is the time travel: research is part of that. It's OK if readers don't notice the details, because usually, they do feel they're in the same world my heroes & heroines lived in--and that's what I'm after. Megan, I was surprised when I came upon the notion that Worth was the first, because my research had told me otherwise. It reminds me of the claim that Queen Victoria was the first bride to wear white. Poking my nose into fashion magazines is a good way to settle these matters. Kareni and Scarlettleigh, thank you for loving my books!
5. tamaragreen
Thank you for sharing such an interesting and overwhelming post. This is the true example which leads to the fashion sense and expertising the fashion in the correct sense to deal with the immense treasure to our generation. I love the reading and along with that I am a big and huge fan of fashion trends goin on. This research belongs to the most exotic beauty which relieved the area of styling and intellectuality. Truely I consider this post for big followers of beauty, skincare and fashion heroism.
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