The Belle Époque period in French fashion was characterized by nostalgia for the grandiose 18th century, Japanese and Middle Eastern inspired trends and romantic opulence. Read below about the designers who created the fashions that defined this time period between 1870 and WWI. Fashion developed during this time into an equitable industry, increasing its production and making frequent change the basis for the designer-consumer relationship, amplifying its significance in wider society.
Charles Frederick Worth
The Father of Haute Couture
Charles Frederick worth was born in England in 1825. His father was a solicitor who left his family without financial support in 1836. At the age of 11, Charles joined the workforce, first as a printer’s assistant, then a department store apprentice and as a textile store hand. He moved to Paris in 1846 and worked for a silk fabric store Gagelin-Opigez. Here, he met his future wife Marie Vernet.
He began sewing dresses for the store and was eventually given is own department. He was having such success that his employers grew insecure and refused him a share of their company. His name was recognized on its own merit and he decided to leave.
He established ‘Worth & Bobergh’ with a partner in Paris in 1858. His wife Marie proved to be an adept salesperson. He was soon dressing royalty and high society, a favourite of Empress Eugenie. He instigated a new approach to dressmaking by offering a selection of fabrics for customers to chose from, as well as expertise in tailoring upon consultation at his salon (as opposed to in homes), which became a social meeting point. Worth had the charm to overcome his clients' requests for the wrong colour or trimming and insisted on his own tastes. He was an international name within a decade. He was the first to use live models and branded labels. Marie was his first live model and she has since been described as the first ever professional model.
He is credited with adapting 19th century dress to make it suitable for everyday life. The crinoline had become distressingly large and cumbersome for women. He made it narrow at the sides and gravitated the largest part to the back, making it much more manageable to wear. He eventually did away with it altogether and created a straight dress without a defined waist known as the princess line. He also made ankle length ‘walking dresses’, which were seen as shocking at the time.
There were different workshops within his salon, for instance, one for sleeves and one for skirts.
He was constantly on hand for Empress Eugenie. For the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, she decided she needed 250 dresses from him!
American socialites could buy his gowns in New York but many travelled to Paris to have their entire wardrobe made by him.
He dressed stars such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry and Jenny Lind.
His dresses went for as high as 2,247 Francs.
The Franco-Prussian war dampened his successes in 1870 and his partnership with Bobergh dissolved. Things didn’t improve with the financial downturn of the 1880s in France. However, he found other sources of revenue with international clientele and branded patterns and fashion plates.
By the end of his career, his house employed 1200 people. He raised the status of dressmaking to that of the ‘fashion designer’ who dictated fashion and established the modern twice annual seasonal collections.
His sons were increasingly more involved in the business when his health suffered in his later years. He died of pneumonia in 1895 at the age of 69 after having amassed a huge fortune.
After his death, the House of Worth continued to flourish. Women were ordering 20-30 dresses at a time around 1900. There were branch stores in London, Cannes and Biarritz. The company was raking in 5 million Francs annually. It continued to operate under his descendants until 1952. It was taken over by the House of Paquin in 1950 and ended its couture operations in 1956.
As a biography for Museum of the City of New York notes: "Before Worth, the idea of a dress being recognizably the work of its creator didn't exist”. He solidified his name in the annals of fashion history forever.
Jeanne Hallée was one of the most prominent fashion houses of the Belle Époque era.
Not much is known about the company’s namesake but she operated a lingerie house in Paris, which first opened in 1870.
The business was bought and reorganized into a couture house under the direction of Madame Marie Marché (later Angenard) and Blanche Diémert in 1891. The house became ‘Jeanne Hallée, Diémert & Cie’. It seems that Hallée remained on at the company in an unknown capacity. They had a strong reputation for making the best lingerie and trousseaux in Paris. Elite New York socialites such as the Vanderbilt’s were among their customers. The earliest known garment from the house is a 2-piece purple velvet gown from 1896, which sold at auction in 2019.
The house made its stage debut at Wanamaker’s Fifth New York Exposition of Masterpieces in Costume, and was one of 3 Parisian houses featured.
In 1898, a death notice emerged of a Madame Hallée following a fire on the premises.
In the 1900s, their designs were frequently featured in American Vogue.
In 1911, Diémert passed away and Angenard formed a new company, keeping the Hallée name. The house continued to do well in the 1910s, dressing celebrities, the elites of the Paris fashion scene and keeping their international clientele.
They had a reputation for creating faithful historical garments for stage. In 1914, they recreated the wedding procession garments of the 1810 wedding of Napoleon and Marie-Louise, for a charity sale.
Fashion reels by Gaumont-Pathé were utilized at the time for promotion.
Though the house stayed open throughout WWI, it suffered losses like many other enterprises in Paris. Their showings were not widely covered in the press during this time. Seamstresses from many couture houses including Hallée went on strike in 1917 in a campaign for better wages and reduced working hours. They were working about 15 hours a day. Madame Angenard herself was by this time a millionaire with four grand homes in France. She decided to sell the business. The new owners were made up of old French nobility, commercial businessmen and bankers. It was directed by Madame Suzanne Wiebel-Kamp. The house continued to have a strong American customer base but it slowly lost prominence in the fashion industry.
In 1922, ‘Madeleine & Madeleine’ had bought Jeanne Hallée, and Madame Suzanne retired with large profits. Her staff were all fired by the new owners. The company was now being marketed to middle class patrons at lower prices.
It changed hands again, this time to Anna Rodillait, formerly of the House of Worth. She changed the name to Maison Anna in 1924. She also purchased Madeline & Madeline that year. Unfortunately, she died suddenly in 1926 and the house came to an official end.
Madame Angenard died in 1942.
Please refer to the research of Cailie O’Connor of FIT, NY, for further reading and an extensive history on the house.
Doucet was born in Paris in 1853 to a prosperous family who had owned the ‘Doucet Lingerie’ business since 1816, where even French aristocrats bought their underwear. Jacques opened his own ladies apparel salon in 1871. Many of his gowns were influenced by the eighteenth century- a defining feature of the Belle Époque period. He favoured elegance, translucent materials, pastel colours, embroideries, frills and embellishments of all kinds.
He created many gowns for actresses such as Cécile Sorel, Réjane and Sarah Bernhardt, as well as Gilded Age novelist Edith Wharton. In fact, Wharton mentions his name in her 1905 novel House of Mirth:
‘Out of spirits? Why on earth should you ever be out of spirits? Is your last box of Doucet dresses a failure, or did Judy rook you out of everything at bridge last night?’ Lily shook her head with a sigh. ‘I have had to give up Doucet; and bridge too – I can’t afford it.’
His designs were illustrated in the fashion magazine La Gazette du Bon Ton, beginning in 1912.
He gradually faded from popularity in the 1920s for failing to adapt to more practical modern styles of dress.
His was an avid art and literature collector and by the time of his death in 1929, he had amassed a large collection of post-impressionist and cubist paintings. The most famous is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is now housed in New York’s MoMA. He donated his art books to the University of Paris, which formed the basis for their Institute of Art and Archaeology. The literary library of Jacques Doucet was also formed.
His house continued for a few years without him but eventually shut its doors for good.
According to Architectural Digest, “he was the first fashion designer to graft his lifestyle onto his professional persona, paving the way for modern tastemakers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld.”
It is worth reading up on Doucet’s passionate involvement with art and the artists of his day, which greatly influenced his own work.
Jeanne Marie Charlotte Beckers was born in 1869 and trained as a dressmaker at ‘Rouff’ in her teen years. She rose to become the head of atelier at the company. She married Isidore René Jacob ‘Paquin’ in 1891. He owned a couture business which had started off as a menswear shop in the 1840s. The couple renamed it Paquin and the story begins. Jeanne acted as designer and Isidore took care of the business.
Initially Jeanne favoured the pastel colours that were in fashion at the time. She eventually moved onto black and what became her signature pink/red. She moved black away from its associations with mourning attire and made it fashionable by blending it with colourful linings and trims.
She came up with the marketing idea of dressing models in her designs and sending them to public events. She also collaborated with illustrators, artists and theatre. She herself was a beautiful and tall woman who often modelled her own designs.
Paquin opened a London branch in 1896 where a young Madeleine Vionnet was employed, and later more branches in Madrid and Buenos Aires.
She was elected president of the fashion section of the Universal Exhibition in 1900 and created a mannequin of herself for the event!
Isidore died in 1907 and over 2,000 people attended his funeral. She started to wear a new colour scheme of black and white after his death.
Jeanne opened a furrier with her half brother in New York in 1912. The same year, she signed an exclusive illustration contract with Gazette du Bon Ton.
She was the first woman designer to receive France’s Legion d’Honneur in 1913. The following year, she took her designs on a sold out tour of the United States.
In 1913, a New York Times reporter described Jeanne as "the most commercial artist alive”. Her prices were more reasonable than her contemporaries and she designed for a larger customer base, being inspired by ordinary women. While her designs were modern for the time, she never dipped into the avant-garde styles employed by the likes of Paul Poiret.
She was the first woman to serve as president of an employers syndicate in France when she became president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture.
At a time when couture houses employed 50 to 400 workers, the House of Paquin employed up to 2,000 people at its height. The queens of Spain, Belgium and France were all her customers.
She was sympathetic to her employees during the strikes of 1917 and bought a villa where employees could relax if they wished.
Jeanne retired in 1920 and responsibility of the house fell to her assistant Madeleine Wallis, who remained as head designer until 1936, the same year Jeanne died. The house had a slew of designers at its helm until 1954 when it merged with the House of Worth. Both houses closed in 1956.
Jeanne Paquin is remembered as a Belle Époque era fashion innovator and a visionary of the modern fashion business, as well as paving the way for future generations of female designers. It was not common for women to run businesses at the time and she made herself a millionaire.
Films set during the Belle Époque
Made in the 1950s:
Elena and her men (1880s), Jean Renoir, costumes by Rosine Delamare and Monique Plotin, 1956
Le Plaisir (set 1880s), directed by Max Ophüls, costumes by Georges Annenkov, 1952
Casque d’Or (set 1902), Jacques Becker, costumes by Mayo, 1952
French Cancan (set 1890s), Jean Renoir, costumes by Rosine Delamare, 1955
Gigi (set ca. 1900), Vincente Minnelli, costumes by Cecil Beaton, 1958
Two English Girls (set 1900s), Francois Truffaut, costumes by Gift Magrini, 1971
Moulin Rouge (set 1900), Baz Luhrman, costumes by Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie, 2001
Cheri (set 1900s), Stephen Frears, costumes by Consolata Boyle, 2009
Midnight in Paris (some scenes set in a general Belle Époque year), Woody Allen, costumes by Sonia Grande, 2011
Eiffel (set 1880s), directed by Martin Bourboulon, costumes by Thierry Delettre, 2021