Colette: Fashion through the Eyes of an early 20th Century French Novelist

While many French patriots are familiar with this name, Colette is unfortunately not well-known as an author and icon outside of France. Many attribute this to the difficulty of translating her books into English and other languages, as some of the inherent poetry and meaning is lost or comes across awkwardly in another language.

SidonieGabrielleColette

Colette ca. 1890. Unknown Photographer, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Who is Colette?

Born in Burgundy, France in 1873, she was described as, “as French as it is possible to be, earthily French in her values, robustly French in her style” [1].  Her pen name was Colette but her full name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. She married Henry Gauthier-Villars at age 20, and this first husband infamously took credit for her first works, the Claudine novel series.

Claudine_ecole_colette

Notice “Par Willy,” or By Willy on the book’s cover instead of the book’s true author, Colette. Image by Emilio Della SuddaColette – internet, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3424299

She left him in 1906 and published under her own name, deriving much of her inspiration from new found work as a music–hall stage dancer and mime. She would continue to write about 40 books and was revered as a writer in France.

I found myself curious about this wronged woman and talented writer. Her best known book is probably Gigi, on which the famous 1958 film is based, but I chose Chèri and The Last of Chéri which were written earlier, in 1920 and 1926 respectively.  I like using these books to focus on her stylistic descriptions of women because they straddle the first World War period, Chéri taking place right before and La Fin de Chéri taking place right after, and the second book will reflect back on some styles in the period just before the War in the first book. In reading these I hoped to gain a better understanding of Colette’s take on women’s dress and the era in which she lived (and will continue to read other works of hers too!).

Chéri and The Last of Chéri

In reading Chéri, I can see how the language would be difficult to translate with metaphoric descriptions that can be very poetic. I was curious as to how she would describe the women in this novel taking place in the Belle Époque early 1900s, although the title Chéri refers to a male protagonist. Léonie (Léa) Vallon, a central character and romantic interest of Chèri, is a 49 year old courtesan who is looking to retire from her life of rich suitors. What I particularly liked about Colette’s choice of love interest was that Léa is middle aged and still very desirable (at least in the first part of the book), although she takes note of her beauty fading. It offers something a little different, but just as viable, from the typically young, innocent, pretty woman — a much more common romantic coupling, especially for this time period. In the novel, Léa knows herself well and it says “she liked order, fine linen, wines in their prime, and carefully planned meals at home. From an idolizing young blonde she had become a rich middle-aged demi-mondaine” (Colette, Chéri, 18). I thought this added to the intrigue of an older character choice, that we know Léa’s journey will involve a different kind of coming-of-age story as she changes from middle age to an older, retired woman.

Another reason for choosing this book, of course, were great stylistic descriptions! Colette’s descriptions give wonderful insight into the style of the period. Chéri takes place before World War I in the early 1900s and The Last of Chéri takes place just afterwards (WWI taking place from 1914-1918). I’ve listed my favorites from the book below:

Hair

Léa says she does not have time for the manicurist to come to her room, but “within an hour, she had been given her bath, followed by a spirit-rub scented with sandal-wood, and was ready dressed, hatted, and shod.” The curling tongs for her hair were heated as this was happening (Colette, Chéri, 22).

— I think of lot of this description is interesting as far as what it would take a lady with disposal income to get ready to go out in the early 1900s. Specifically, I found a photo of various curling tongs that a lady might use to curl her hair. These examples come from the Maine Maritime Museum. The Museum notes that these tools would have to have been heated repeatedly, either by gaslight or over a stove. Oh, and be careful not to singe yourself!

34curling_irons

(at top) an early hand forged curling iron; (middle) a spring-closed more store-bought version; (bottom) a waving or crimping tool. http://www.mainemaritimemuseum.org/collection/notes-from-the-orlop/pretty-hairy/

 

Léa to Cheri: “‘What do you want, then? Do you expect me to go to Normandy to hide my grief? To pine away? To stop dyeing my hair?'” (Colette, Chéri, 47.)

— I think hair dye could command a post of its own, but briefly here… it was invented by a French chemist, Eugene Scheuller. It was originally called aureole, but later changed to L’Oréal, a brand you’re probably familiar with today, and the brand was established in 1909 [2].  This is a really interesting article on hair dye history by The Atlantic.

 

Léa: “She polished her nails, breathed on a tarnished ring, peered closely at the disastrous red of her hair and its greying roots […]. She thought of doing her hair differently; for twenty years she had worn it high, brushed straight off the neck. ‘Rolled curls low on the neck, like Lavalière? Then I should be able to cope with this year’s loose-waisted dresses. With a strict diet, in fact, and my hair properly hennaed, I can hope for ten–no, let’s say five more years of …'” (Colette, Chéri, 101)

— There are several things that I found very interesting about this paragraph. One being that the dresses have a loose waist, which hints at the changing silhouette from the tight waists of the Edwardian period to the longer, leaner look that would transition into the very loose, linear look of the 1920s years later. Also, having her hair “hennaed.” Henna was used as far back as ancient Egypt,  but in terms of how it is used here I have two theories. One is that the term is used interchangeably with dyeing her hair, and so she may in fact say henna but mean hair dye. Two is that she actually does intend to use henna to color her hair. Turkey was exporting a lot of henna to Europe around this time, which could be mixed with other agents to produce a range of colors, and European women saw this as an exotic method of coloring their hair. Either way would not have been unusual for Léa to use this word.  This website gives great historical information on henna used for hair: The History of Henna and Hair

 

Léa: “She went back to her dressing-table, and combed and tugged at the hairs stiffened by dye, lifting both her arms, and thus framing her tired face. Her arms were still so beautiful […]” (Colette, Chéri, 114)

— The dye stiffening Léa’s hair was interesting to me here as a side effect of the dye used.

 

Motor Veil

“Edmée, resolute in her little hat with its long motoring veil  […]” (Colette, Chéri, 88)

— It was common for women prior to WWI to wear a hat with a veil while in a car. These early cars usually did not have sides or sometimes even a roof so it would have helped to keep dust and grit from the road out of their face and hair. These were the height of fashion before the War, but after WWI, would have seemed very outdated.

motor veil.jpg

Very dramatic illustration of a motor veil! This is a novel illustration accompanying My Friend the Chauffeur by Alice Muriel Williamson and Charles Norris Williamson written in 1905

Silhouettes

“Her contemporaries were jealous of her imperturbable good health, and the younger women, whose figures were padded out in front and behind after the fashion of 1912, scoffed at her opulent bust” (Collete, Chéri, 18).

— Check out this blog post from Femme Fashion Forward for silhouette comparisons. The younger women seem to be jealous of the fact that Léa naturally has a full figure and doesn’t need to pad out her garments in order to fulfill the fashionable S-curve silhouette of the period.

 

Léa: “She watched the silhouettes of women passing on their way down to the Bois. ‘So skirts are changing again!’ Lea observed, ‘and hats are higher.’ She planned sessions with her dressmaker, others with her milliner; the sudden desire to look beautiful made her straighten her back.” (Colette, Chéri, 100)

— This calls attention to the fact that so many women still relied on dressmakers. The fashion industry as we know it now had still not taken shape before WWI, although there were some couturiers making a name for themselves at this point and things were shifting towards the modern industry we’re familiar with. Instead, women like Léa (generally middle class and above) would have instructed their dressmakers and the styles they wanted to wear rather than have a couturier tell them how to dress or choose a ready-made style.

 

Chéri thinking: “‘my mother in her uniform. Her tunic – what d’you call it? her jacket? – with its little leather buttons; her elastic uplift-belt; epaulettes; high colonel’s collar and her chin cascading over'” (Colette, The End of Chéri, 144)

— This observation from the character Chéri is made after WWI. Many women had become involved with the military during the War, and continued to do so afterwards. The page from Harper’s Weekly below gives an idea of the uniform Chéri would have been describing.

Harpers Bazaar

Harper’s Weekly, 1918

 

Chéri thinking about Edmée: “condescend to admire in her the slim hips, the small breasts, and the graceful, almost imperceptible lines which Edmée knew so well how to clothe in tubular frocks and slinky tunics.” (Colette, La Fin de Chéri, 145)

— This description of Edmée is truly the ideal look for the linear silhouettes post-WWI. The example below from the Costume Institute at the MET Museum is made by Callot Soeurs, a group of French sisters, ca. 1924.

Callot Seours.jpg

Callot Soeurs, ca. 1924, wool, silk & metallic thread, 1978.288.7a, b

 

A friend of Léa’s: “Valérie was wearing what had long been the uniform of foreign princesses and their ladies – a black tailor-made of undistinguished cut, tight in the sleeve, with a blouse of extremely fine white batiste, showing signs of strain at the breast. The pearl buttons, the famous necklace, the high stiff whalebone collar, everything about Valérie was as royal as the name she legitimately bore. Like royalty, too, she wore stockings of medium quality, flat-heeled walking shoes, and expensive gloves, embroidered in black and white.” (Colette, La Fin de Chéri, 185)

— A tailor-made was a dress inspired by menswear in terms of its fitted cut, and was considered to be relatively practical. This was a style certainly not just reserved for royalty, but in this case, speaks to the understated quality of royal dress.

 

Pal to Chéri about Léa: “‘That’s her costume for Autreuil in…in 1888, or ’89. Yes, the year of the Exhibition. In front of that one, dear boy, you should raise your hat. They don’t turn out beauties like that any more. […] That waist you could encircle with your ten fingers! That lily neck! And be good enough to let your eyes rest on that dress! All in frilled sky-blue chiffon, dear boy, and looped up with little pink moss-roses sewn on to the frills, and the hat to match! And the little bag to match as well – we called them almsbags at that time.'” (Colette, La Fin de Chéri, 229)

— This paragraph in particular recalls the late-Victorian period when the waists on dresses were very small and ornate with frills and decoration. This is a huge contrast to the “tubular” gowns post-WWI. Consider the French dresses below from 1899, 1911, and 1922 as examples of this change. Notice how narrow the waist was on the dress from 1899!

MET Gowns

(left) unknown French designer, 1899, silk, 35.134.8; (middle) Weeks, ca. 1911, silk metal & glass, C.I.57.17.3; (right) House of Patou, ca. 1922, metal & glass on fabric, 1983.246

 

Pal to Cheri: “‘Oh! do look at those check trousers! … How ridiculous men’s fashions used to be!'” (Colette, La Fin de Chéri, 229)

— I think this is so funny to keep in mind! Not only do we look back on fashion from the past today and think how beautiful a certain era might have been, we also sometimes look back with a sense of humor on clothes that seem “ridiculous” to us now, and this is definitely not a new concept!

 


 

These are just some of the dress observations from Colette’s Chéri and The Last of Chéri, so if’ you’ve enjoyed reading these I would highly recommend reading through the books, or looking at some of the many other novels by Colette! Overall, I think the details in these stories give insight into what dress and life might have been like and can be helpful in understanding more about the characters created by this talented writer.

Have you read these books before or any others by Colette? Comment below and let me know!

 

Colette, Sidonie-Gabrielle. Chéri and The Last of Chéri. NY: Penguin, 1954.

[1] Raymond Mortimer, introduction to Chéri by Colette, 1950, 7.

[2] https://www.loreal.com/group/history/1909-1956

 

-Danielle Morrin


 

A couple of other Femme Fashion Forward posts you may like about silhouette changes:

Wedding Dresses: 1888-1930

A Stitch in Time: Clothing and Textiles of the Meadowlands 1890-1915

The Body: Fashion and Physique, Victorian – Edwardian Highlights

 

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One thought on “Colette: Fashion through the Eyes of an early 20th Century French Novelist

  1. I haven’t read any of the Chéri books, but I think I will now. You’ve made them sound really interesting.

    Thanks for sharing passages from Chéri, and how they described fashion of the day. I was quite surprised to read how the hair dye stiffened her hair!

    Like

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