The aim of my research is to re-establish the reputation of Jeanne Victorine Margaine-Lacroix, forgotten designer of the Belle Époque. She attained international renown as a couturiere who made an important contribution to the evolution of fashion in the early 20th century. This choice of subject situates my work within a body of feminist research, exemplified by that of Griselda Pollock which seeks to amend a male dominated view of history.1 However I am not approaching my subject from a specifically feminist viewpoint, as fashion is one field in which the contribution of women has long been recognised.
My interest in Margaine-Lacroix is two-fold : firstly as an exemplar of the forgotten designer
and secondly as an exemplar of the female designer of her era.
The category of forgotten designer encompasses many male couturiers. The repute of Redfern Limited, established by John Redfern in 1847, and overshadowed by the fame of Worth, has recently been re-established by Susan North in two papers published in Costume, the journal of the Costume Society.2
I will refer to these papers for possible guidelines on how to investigate and present the business details of Margaine-Lacroix’s fashion house
I will look at the factors which affect fame and obscurity, and try to determine why the history of French couture in the Belle Époque has been dominated by the name of Paul Poiret, through a study of both contemporary and contemporaneous literature.
I will investigate whether the couturière of this era would have favoured her own highly fashionable and possibly overtly feminine designs, over the more businesslike attire favoured by the “New Woman” and worn by the saleswomen and seamstresses in her own couture house. I will attempt to establish the personal dress style of Margaine-Lacroix, by interviewing her descendants and hopefully gaining access to photographs of her.
I anticipate that the major part of my research will be conducted from primary sources as very little has been written about Margaine-Lacroix since her death. I was aware of her existence only because her name survives in the world of antique doll collecting, a field with which I have some contact. She dressed and exhibited a number of now highly collectable dolls, designed by the sculptor André Marque, and her work in this field is touched on in The Fashion Doll: from Bébé Jumeau to Barbie, by Juliette Peers.3
Research indicated that Margaine-Lacroix has merited the briefest mention, in only two contemporary books on the history of fashion, “The Encyclopaedia of Clothing and Fashion” by Valerie Steele,4 and Fashion: the 20th Century by Francois Baudot5
Initial internet research revealed the existence of architect Richard Rowland, a descendant of the designer. I emailed him and he put me in touch with Margaine-Lacroix ‘s great-grand-daughter Francine Thiercelin, who holds a small archive relating to the designer, including an original evening dress. She was happy to arrange for me to interview her at her home in the outskirts of Paris, and to examine the dress. As I am unlikely to be able to handle any Margaine-Lacroix garments in museum collections, this would be an important piece of primary research.
Google book search provided several leads, and archive.org provided online access to La Ville Lumiere6 a 1909 guide to Paris, which covered the main couture houses and gave an account of Margaine-Lacroix’s fame, including a reference to her models causing a sensation at Auteuil, the fashionable Parisian racecourse. It also showed a photo of the interior of her salon, and placed her firmly amongst her contemporaries as one of the important couturiers of the day. This information confirmed my supposition that she could be representative of a number of designers from the Belle Époque, whose contribution to fashion has been largely forgotten.
Internet searches also provided references to Margaine-Lacroix’s exhibits at international exhibitions, plus a number of archive articles from the New York Times mentioning her designs, and some articles on fashion written by the designer herself. My research indicated that she had a client base in Europe and the Americas, and also mentioned her renown as a designer of corsets. I searched the on-line database of the Costume Institute in New York which displayed records of four relevant objects and I plan to email all museums with relevant dress collections, in the hope of locating more items. I am hoping to conduct research in New York at the Costume Institute and other relevant facilities.
I am investigating Margaine-Lacroix’s corset designs, as her contribution to the radical changes that took place in the fashionable female body shape during the early years of the 20th century is of particular importance. It was unusual for a couture house to produce both outer garments and corsets, as these were completely different specialisms. The photo of her salon in La Ville Lumiere 7shows a corset on display alongside dresses.
The internet has provided the following facts: Margaine-Lacroix’s gowns had featured in at least one London stage production, “Our Miss Gibbs”, where they elicited favourable comment in the press.
She enjoyed some renown as a painter.
She had employed the renowned Art Deco designer Louis Süe to re-decorate her salon (as had Paul Poiret before her.)
I will follow up the first of these leads through research at the Theatrical Archives of the V&A.
I made an appointment to study the Margaine-Lacroix garments on the data-base of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile ( part of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs) and arranged a trip to Paris. I also arranged to visit Margaine-Lacroix’s great–granddaughter Francine Thiercelin,
Unfortunately on arrival in Paris my important meeting with Francine Thiercelin had to be postponed due to a rail strike and heavy snow. This was a problem I had not foreseen !
I am fortunate in having as a friend in Paris, Barbara Spadaccini-Day recently retired curator of the Toy and Doll Collections at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, she introduced me to the museum’s library, which I had already consulted on-line, and accompanied me to the Head Patent Office where I obtained copies of several corset patents, taken out by Margaine-Lacroix. Whilst there I consulted trademark books which provided many corset names registered by the designer . Although my French is fairly good, Barbara’s fluency and her
knowledge of the workings of the patents office, made this very complicated procedure easier.
I spent the majority of my remaining time in Paris in the library of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs consulting contemporaneous books about the French couture industry as well as fashion magazines from the Belle Époque, which feature many illustrations and photographs of my subject’s work. I also searched the Maciet albums, an excellent source of visual information on all the decorative arts, some of which I had previously consulted online. My appointment to view the museum’s data-base provided photographs of six Margaine-Lacroix objects in their collection, with information about their donors, and a large collection of annotated photos of models and actresses wearing her dresses.
Whilst there I visited the museum’s exhibition on the work of Madeleine Vionnet, an important couturière whose early career overlapped that of Margaine-Lacroix, and
an exhibition at the Opéra Garnier on the Ballets Russes, whose performances in Paris had a significant influence on the fashions of the 1910’s.
I intend to return to Paris to conduct more in-depth research, and to meet Margaine-Lacroix’s descendant Francine Thiercelin who has promised to invite her cousin to a future meeting, as she may be able to provide additional information about their great-grandmother.
My further research aims are, broadly :
• Continuing my research into the socio-economic background, and demographics of the time, to assess their influence on the couture trade, on women’s lives and consequently, on fashionable dress. This research also informs my current Fashion Theory essay
• “Revealing the Living Body”, which investigates the radical changes in fashionable body-image, that took place in the latter years of the Belle Époque.
• Investigating the question of whether eroticism in dress empowers or commodifies women, with particular reference to Margaine-Lacroix’s patented innovations in corsetry, and excessively figure moulding dress styles.
• Investigating via primary sources, the background of the Parisian fashion world during the Belle Époque in order to: establish my subject’s position within it, and achieve an understanding of how historically the reputations of the majority of that era’s designers have been overshadowed by that of Paul Poiret .
• Locating and examining (where possible) any existing Margaine-Lacroix garments in museum collections, or elsewhere.
• Formulating a chronological record of her business and establishing the composition of her client base, and extent of her overseas trade.
• Contacting the embroidery houses of Lesage and Hurel to discover whether they have records of any work commissioned by Margaine-Lacroix.
• Investigating whether Margaine-Lacroix’s work for the stage and for actress clients formed a significant proportion of her business, and if so how this contributed to her renown, at the time.
• And finally - obtaining details of her private life – her work as a painter, her family background, and the circles in which she moved
1 Old Mistresses; Women, Art and Ideology, London Routledge & Kegan (Pollock, G with Parker, R), 1981.
2 North, S. (2008). John Redfern and Sons, 1847-1892. Costume. 42
2 North, S. (2009). Redfern Limited, 1892 to 1940. Costume. 43
3 Peers, J (2004). The fashion doll: from Bébé Jumeau to Barbie. New York: Berg. P114-116.
4 Steele, V (2004). Encyclopedia of clothing and fashion, volume 3. New York: Scribner. p527.
5 Baudot, F (1999). Fashion: The Twentieth Century. New York: Universe Publishing. p51.
6 Direction et Administration (1909). La Ville lumière : anecdotes et documents historiques, ethnographiques, littéraires,. Paris: Direction et Administration . p534-535.
Alexander, A (1902). Les reines de L'aiguilles. Paris.