Wednesday, February 6, 2019

WORTH'S HEIRS: The Women Designers of Callot Soeurs

Callot Soeurs, 1907-1910
My time with Jennie Churchill ends in 1895, in THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, but of course her life continued for decades after that. I chose to frame the first forty years of Jennie's existence, before Queen Victoria's death, the brief decade of the Edwardian era, and World War I. 

After the turn of the 19th century, almost everything about life in Europe changed, ushering in the Modern as we envision it--although the process was not entirely complete until the end of the volcanic and violent upheaval of the Great War. 

In between, however, Fashion evolved in ways that reflected the increasing freedom of women's lives and bodies--although interestingly, with a silhouette that harkened back to the simpler Regency period of Jane Austen. Not much waist, thus no need for a corset; very few undergarments, no crinoline, no bustle...the hidden cages women adopted during the high point of the Victorian era were discarded once again for lighter and simpler garments.

Promenade suit, 1911, Callot Soeurs

This is partly due to the fact that women, not men, were suddenly the toast of Parisian fashion design.

The Callot Soeurs had burst upon the scene, their salon opening in 1895. Over the next several decades it challenged and in large part replaced the House of Worth--now run by son Jean Philippe--for primacy in women's dressing rooms.

The Callot sisters in their work uniforms

The French word Soeurs means Sisters in English. Callot Soeurs was comprised of four of them: Marie Callot Gerber, Marthe Callot Bertrand, Regina Callot Tennyson-Chantrell and Joséphine Callot Crimont. The eldest, Marie, was trained in dressmaking. Their mother was a lacemaker. The women began by fashioning ribbons and lace--trimmings, in essence--for other designers. By 1900, however, the three surviving sisters (Josephine committed suicide several years earlier) were featured at the Paris World Fair. They employed a staff of two hundred and were earning two million francs in sales; by the following year, those figures had tripled.
Callot Soeurs salon interior, 1910, G. Agié - Les Createurs de la Mode (1910) by L. Roger-Miles (1859-1928)

By 1916, at the height of the Great War, American Vogue dubbed the sisters The Three Fates, and proclaimed them "foremost among the destinies that rule a woman's life..." Turns out American money was critical in keeping Callot Soeurs going during World War I. Here's an image of American Hortense Mitchell Acton, along with the Callot dress she wore in the photograph.
Courtesy of the Acton Foundation, Villa Pietra, Florence

By the late 1920s, the sisters' reign was ending--Marie died, and her son failed to sustain the women's artistic vision. Notice, however, how women's clothing evolved during the decades the Callots dominated: From the Titanic-era silhouette we associate with the Edwardian period, to the looser outline of the Great War years, and finally, to the bustless, waistless, knee-skimming dresses of the Flapper era.  Fascinating! These are all Callot dresses, images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Fashion Collection.

Callot Soeurs, 1908

Callot Soeurs, 1911

Callot Soeurs, 1915

The Roaring Twenties Flapper period. Both gowns, 1925.

And my clear favorite: Something Daisy Buchanan would certainly wear--

Evening ensemble, gown and coat, Callot Soeurs, 1920s

The Callot sisters' influence waned as they aged, but they left an important legacy: Madeleine Vionnet, one of the great Parisian designers of the pre-World War II years, trained at Callot Soeurs and was eventually head seamstress there, before breaking out to found her own label. She later credited the Callots with teaching her the essence of couture.

Women empowering women.
Something Jennie Churchill would have loved.

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