During the Belle Epoque period, at 21 Rue de la Paix in Paris, stood Maison Doucet, one of the most fashionable couture houses of the day. Under the tutelage of Jacques Doucet, Paul Poiret got his start there, as did Madeleine Vionnet, before they went on to their own success as couturiers. The clients at Doucet, as with most top couture houses, ranged from social elites and nobles to courtesans and celebrity actresses such as Rejane and Sarah Bernhardt (Figs. 1 and 2). Notably, Doucet was also patronized by younger American socialites such as Carrie Schermerhorn Astor, Consuelo Vanderbilt, and Edith Wharton.
To dispel the expenses of a trip to Paris, Doucet dresses were sold in New York at Arnold, Constable & Co. and Lord & Taylor’s and models were available at the exclusive dressmaking establishments of Madame Barnes and Madame Donovan. More than one woman who did return from Paris with a Doucet in her trunk reportedly tried to evade customs because of the excessive duties.
Turn-of-the-century fashions were characterized by exuberant surface decoration, where the materials, techniques, and styling of different decorative elements showed off one’s prosperity, indeed Doucet indulged heavily in such excess of beautification. One of the characteristic traits of the Doucet aesthetic is the use of fluid, unstructured fabrics such as lace, tulle, silk, fur, and satin (Figs. 3 and 4). From the turn of the century, with the body-skimming Directoire style and the taste for tea gowns, Maison Doucet’s expertise with fabrics put the couture house at the height of fashion. Doucet dresses were just a bit softer in their drape, delicate in their surfaces and the vision of beauty fit in with the more sensitive side of the time. That Doucet’s clients were daughters of great society matrons, wives of executives in the fashion retail industry, and popular actresses, confirms that the ultra-femininity of the Maison’s designs were fashion-forward and distinct from the stiffer prestige image of the House of Worth. Is it any wonder then that both Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust conjured up characters that answered to the siren call of Doucet frocks?
High society dressing was very much a public consideration, a performance of wealth, class belonging and taste in the age of crass overnight millionaires and dollar princesses. In the highly codified world of social elites, elaborate surface decoration gave expression to the complexity and power of social wealth, presenting ornate femininity as an index of masculine financial prowess in the new business order.
The Maison Doucet sensibilities dovetail with the eighteenth-century revival fashion trend to which he contributed and executed at the highest level, informed by his own art collecting and connoisseurship. The sinuous lines of a peach embroidered ball gown in the art nouveau style have their clear precedent and inspiration in the eighteenth-century meandering lines of Rococo design, found particularly in textiles (Fig. 5).
Of all the dress styles in a lady’s wardrobe, it was the tea gown, or at-home gown, that most embodied and fulfilled the sensual femininity of the Doucet aesthetic. Due to its light and clingy materials that skimmed a woman’s uncorseted body, it had a naturally suggestive quality to it. The abundance of airy lace over fluid, unstructured silk of a 1907 tea gown conveys the romantic and delicate aesthetic of the early century under the lofty eye of Doucet (Fig. 6). The tea gown’s softness underscores the traditional relationship between femininity and the private sphere while also promoting modern modes of dressing for comfort. The secret to the successful Doucet aesthetic seems to lie in the unabashed sensuality of the clothes no matter what the occasion.
Cole, Daniel James and Nancy Diehl. The History of Modern Fashion. London:Laurence King Publishing, 2015.
Coleman, Elizabeth Ann. The Opulent Era: Fashions of Worth, Doucet and Pingat. New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1989.
Joslin, Katherine. Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion. Durham, New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire Press, 2009.
Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1998.