“The Ladies’ Delight”, drapes and dromedaries
I just had to share this catalogue from the Parisian Department store “Printemps”. It’s from the winter season 1887/8, and is full of costumes for ladies with the distinctive “camel hump” bustle back that was the only smart thing to be seen sporting at that time:
The store carries a range of contraptions to help you realise that dromedary-esque silhouette:
That extreme kind of proportion behind demands a hat of similar volume above:
I love the black almost gothic illustrations, but the reason I bought the catalogue on French ebay was that is includes actual swatches of the fabrics that Printemps sold by the metre, and they are still in remarkably good shape. Most of them are finely woven wools:
For the discerning male, there are a few pages (at the back of the catalogue, naturally!) devoted to dapper ensembles:
Then there’s all manner of household linens and drapes, and even curtain fabric:
Printemps is obviously still going strong today on the Boulevard Haussmann; I have fond memories of lingering over a kir in its cafe and gazing up at the enormous stained glass dome above:
Perusing the Printemps catalogue took me back to reading Emile Zola’s novel of 1883, Au Bonheur Des Dames, which is set in one of the first Parisian department stores, the fictional “Ladies’ Delight” (or “Au Bonheur des Dames”). The novel contrasts the story of Denise Baudu, a penniless young woman who comes to Paris and begins working at Au Bonheur des Dames as a saleswoman, with the career of Octave Mouret, the owner of the store, whose retail innovations and store expansions threaten the existence of all the neighborhood shops, including that of Denise’s Uncle.
Octave has gathered fabrics as well as ready-made garments, haberdashery, and household items like furniture all under one roof to create a radical new all-encompassing consumer experience that we take for granted today. He overwhelms the senses of his female customers by bombarding them with an array of buying choices, by presenting goods in enticing and intoxicating ways, huge sales and discounts, home delivery and massive advertising of a type I imagine to be very similar to the Printemps catalogue.
The novel is well worth a read, not so much for the fairly straightforward plot, but for the almost documentary level of detail Zola includes about this radical new business model. Zola describes the inner workings of the store from the employees’ perspective, including the 13-hour workdays, the substandard food, and the bare lodgings (for the female staff) and deals with the impact of the store on the very fabric of the city and the lives of those who inhabit it.
There are also amazing descriptive passages which convey the sensual allure of the store, such as this one when Denise catches her first glimpse of the window of Au Bonheur Des Dames and is seduced:
“The most delicate flower colours radiated from a display of silks, satins and velvet in a fluid, shimmering range of tones. At the top were the velvets, deep black or white as curds; lower down were the satins, pink, blue, sharply creased, shading off into infinitely softer tones; and, lower still, the silks, in the full panoply of a rainbow, with lengths of cloth twisted into the shape of shells or folded as if round a curving waist, brought to life by the shop assistants’ agile fingers; and, between each motif, each coloured statement, ran a light, gathered ribbon of cream-coloured foulard as a discrete trimming, There, at either end, could be seen huge piles of the two silks exclusive to the shop: Paris-Bonheur and Cuir-d’Or, two exceptional items that were to revolutionize the drapery business.
“Oh! Look at that faille for five francs sixty,” Denise murmured in astonishment, pointing to the Paris-Bonheur.”