Paris vers le passé

57166F29-CAB3-420F-8F47-6A9409C218BCWhen I was a pre-teen, I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables and her quest for kindred spirits. When I read Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History by Train, by Ina Caro, I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit – someone who loves France as much as me, adores all the spicy tales of intrigue, and loves a good meal at the end of a satisfying day of touring châteaux.

8A2EC41A-60DC-44A8-8B1E-40D8AC80A3C7Caro’s premise is that a better way to understand the sweep of French history is by visiting key monuments that represent each era chronologically. This makes it easier to see the changes in architecture as a reflection of what was going on in the country. Using Paris as a hub and taking the train and subway to make day trips throughout history, Caro guides readers from the 12th to the 19th centuries.

Each chapter begins by explaining which train station to start from (Paris has several, each serving a different part of the country), the length of the journey and any particular potential pitfalls to avoid. Then she explains the human drama behind each castle, cathedral, or even a crumbling wall. And she never forgets to share a recommendation for where to enjoy a memorable meal.

I usually pass books on once I have read them, but this is a keeper. I even want to go back to places I have visited before, Caro’s book in hand, and look for the details that I didn’t take in before. And maybe I’ll find my kindred spirit in the seat opposite me. All aboard!

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Madeleine Vionnet

12F46655-4213-4926-B812-18EC20AAD095Madeleine Vionnet was born on June 22, 1876. She trained with London dressmaker Kate Reily, and French designers Jacques Doucet, and Callot Sœurs before opening her own fashion house in 1912. She was forced to close her business only two years later, due to the outbreak of war, and did not re-open until 1923. At this point, she took over new premises on the Avenue Montaigne and opened her salon, which would become affectionately known as the Temple of Fashion.

1B0873D3-217E-48A2-88EC-0D7BFBE90B1BVionnet became one of the most influential and respected designers of the interwar period and is still cited today by many designers as one of the most significant couturiers in history. Favoring a clear house vision over the latest fashion, Vionnet became known in her early years for her clean, curving lines inspired by Grecian costume, and in the 1920s, as the “queen of the bias cut.” Her designs eschewed corsetry, padding, stiffening, and tailoring that distorted the female body. Instead, she used draping and bias cutting to enhance a woman’s shape.

070E8587-5988-4BE0-A9E4-C041E89C3E71Modern dance influenced her soft, flowing Grecian-style dresses. In particular, Vionnet was impressed by the avant-garde ballerina Isadora Duncan, whose dance costumes floated freely around her body and were worn – rather scandalously – without a corset. Vionnet greatly admired Duncan’s experimental performance style. While at Doucet, she made models show off the house’s designs barefoot, just as Duncan performed – although this was still considered too avant-garde by both Doucet and his customers.

FF8CFADE-1121-4CBD-8FE9-FBB2AE27E4A4Upon re-opening her own house in 1923, Vionnet could fully express her vision of femininity, and she found immediate fame and success. By 1925, she opened on Fifth Avenue in New York, where she sold ready-made creations that she adapted to the customer. Her unique vision combined with her exquisite and meticulous cut earned her the accolade of “The architect among dressmakers.” Her deceptively simple styles involved a lengthy process of cutting, draping and pinning — a process Vionnet executed on miniature dolls so that she was able to perfect the fall of the fabric.

Her preferred materials were chiffon, crêpe, gabardine, satin, and silk. The last two are particularly well suited to bias cutting and draped perfectly to match a woman’s natural curves and the fluidity of the body in motion. While she was not the first to use bias cutting — indeed, she spoke highly of her time with Callot Sœurs, who used the technique for coats and skirts, as instrumental in shaping her as a designer — she was the first to apply it to full-body dresses. It was these clinging gowns that secured her place among the couture elite, perfectly combining elegance, simplicity, comfort, sensuality, and luxury. Vionnet closed her salon in 1939. She died in Paris on March 2, 1975.

87E33011-67C6-4560-92CD-8CF451422EE0Madeleine Vionnet


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Les petits plaisirs de Paris

E0DF439E-2DB1-4F4D-BA93-5DC9ECDFD88FThe summer brings so many occasions for which one needs a little present – graduations, hostess gifts, and there are always birthdays. I have a recommendation for the francophile on your list, the charming book The Little Pleasures of Paris, written by Leslie Jonath and illustrated by Lizzy Stewart. Divided by the seasons, the book features the gentle little delights of Paris accompanied by detailed watercolors. It’s as though someone shared their travel diary with you. Some of our mutual loves are the stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle, cassis ice cream, mint tea at the Grand Mosqué, and hot chocolate at Angelina. Leafing through the pretty pages just made me smile. And if you need to armchair travel until you get to Paris again for real, you could gift it to yourself. Pourquoi pas?

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Plus ça change

8390C6D4-0655-4280-8816-1D6E68A24712As I’m writing this, it’s June, the time for graduations and yearbooks. Graduation was held via Zoom at the school where I teach French, and yearbooks were released online and “signed” virtually. In my own high school graduation yearbook, I remember that I rather pretentiously chose as my motto Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (ploo sa shanj ploo seh lah mem shows), or “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” At eighteen, what did I know about either change or remaining the same? I just liked the sound of it. And it was French.

I just finished A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light, by David Downie. The theme is the incredibly interconnected lives and loves of the writers, artists, and musicians of the Romantic era, such as Chopin, Baudelaire, and Nadar. At first, I found the book hard to get into. The prose seemed choppy and more about Downie than the purported subjects of the book, but I found myself getting drawn into it.

Maybe it was the passages that talked about the comings and going around the neighborhoods adjacent to the Luxembourg Gardens. In a normal year, this is my summertime neighborhood. Maybe it was the tidbits of bizarre info, like the fact that Victor Hugo was knocked into the open grave by the hearse after giving Balzac eulogy.

E72B3F2F-A538-4A17-9A46-4B8CF74517ECMaybe it was the insights into the lives of women at the time. I had always thought that it was unusual that Aurore Dupin, better known by her pen-name George Sand, preferred men’s clothes. But Downie revealed that this was not unusual for women of her social class as it was so difficult for well-born ladies to move freely about the city by themselves. Dressed as men, they had liberty. Or maybe it was the fact that he kept weaving in my yearbook motto, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? 

In the end, I found it to be an engrossing read. I’m looking forward to visiting some of the places Downie highlighted when I can get back to Paris. What will have changed? Probably not much.

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Ma vie parisienne à mi-temps

0593C66B-EE8C-4046-BEFE-BDD237C99ED8Whether you are post-confinement or mid-confinement you may be needing a new book to read or listen to. And if you’re like me, you’re dreaming of when you can next get to Paris. I recently enjoyed the audio version of My (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home, read by the author, Lisa Anselmo.

Anselmo, a New Yorker in the magazine business, went from visiting Paris twice a year to using an inheritance and most of her retirement savings to buy an apartment there. At first, she stayed in the apartment every couple of months but some upheavals at work gave her the nudge to move full-time to Paris to write, and this memoir is the result.

D32788EF-A713-4950-9A0B-43AAEAF3CD90As a French teacher, my favorite parts of the book were when she was trying to communicate in fractured French. She would get some words of what the other person was trying to say, but the rest sounded like “Fah-fah fah fah fah-FAH!” She would have to mime and flail her way through transactions but found that people were willing to try to decipher what she was trying to communicate. I tell my students the same thing; sometimes you just have to go for it instead of worrying about perfection.

Anselmo’s perfect apartment turned into a cautionary tale of water leaks, mold, and bureaucracy just when she finally moved full-time to Paris. It reminded me that it really isn’t prudent to own a second home that is so far away, lest I give in to temptation. The book ended without a full resolution to the apartment fiasco but maybe that’s the truer tale. There aren’t always tidy little solutions in life but you can still find happiness along the way.

It looks like Anselmo’s got some YouTube videos, so I’ll have to check them out to see if there is a happy ending to the apartment. I hope so, because that’s how dreams of Paris are supposed to work out.

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Le mystère Henri Pick

8823DD47-9802-484F-970D-90C780A87784My Covid reading program is moving right along. I just finished Le mystère Henri Pick, by David Foenkinos. I picked it up when I was in Paris last summer. It was getting press after a film version – which I have yet to see – was released earlier last year (starring Fabrice  Luchini and Camille Cottin). I really enjoyed it and gobbled it up in just a few evenings.

F5504F25-8F10-4507-BA88-E61B96CE7750The story concerns a library in a small town in Brittany that includes a refuge for book manuscripts that were rejected for publication. A young editor and her boyfriend find a real treasure while rootling through the shelves one afternoon. The brilliant manuscript is attributed to Henri Pick, recently deceased, who had run the local pizzeria for decades. But no one knew he was a writer, not even his wife.

The manuscript is published to great acclaim and the book, the family of Henri Pick, and the whole town are getting lots of attention. But did Henri Pick really write the novel. And if not Henri, then who? A washed-up literary critic decides to investigate to bring a little lustre back to his own career by unmasking the true author. The mystery is only revealed in the final paragraphs and I totally didn’t see it coming. It was the sort of conclusion that made me want to go right back to the beginning to see the clues that I’d missed. Now I’d like to watch the movie. Maybe it’ll be playing on my next flight to Paris – whenever that will be.

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Le roi de la mode française

9A05CE9D-3EA8-45CD-B68A-A87A036C55D5French fashion designer Pierre Balmain was born on May 18, 1914. He was studying architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1934 when Edward Molyneux offered him a job. He had already undertaken some freelance design drawing work for Robert Piguet in previous years, but his post at Molyneux saw him abandon his studies. After five years, he joined Lucien Lelong and worked throughout the war alongside Christian Dior.

AB56CC84-6858-49C8-B777-484411C593D5Balmain opened his own Maison right after the war ended in 1945, a veritable year of crisis for the haute couture industry. Yet his first collection was one of the few that managed to attract favorable reviews that year – the most famous and arguably most influential one written by his friend American writer Gertrude Stein. He showcased long cloche skirts and small waists, hinting at things to come. His elegant yet wearable clothes gained him immediate success and celebrity customers, including the Duchess of Windsor.

8ED86C79-1AF2-4D0C-A710-A8AFED466C5DThe house became known for its daytime classics, but especially for its opulent and luxurious evening gowns that earned him the press title “the king of French fashion,” or “le roi de la mode français” (luh rwa duh lah mowed frahn-seh). Like those of his contemporaries, his designs had a sculpural quality that presented an uber-feminine essence. His use of luxurious silk brocades gave the dresses a shape of their own. He offset their stiffness through layering with delicate laces and with the resplendent finery and exquisite embroideries for which the Maison was most famous. His sophistication was particularly popular in the United States, where his designs were felt to embody Parisian ladylike chic – the perfect 1950s jolie madame. He capitalized on this reputation by selling prêt-à-porter lines in North America that earned him the Neiman Marcus Fashion award in 1955.

E2EE25F1-9592-4241-A8F2-7DF8421BBED1By the 1960s, Balmain had started presenting more pared-down shapes in line with the current fashion. He continued to make extravagant evening wear for theater and movie productions, for Hollywood actresses, and most famously for Queen Sirikit of Thailand, who all continued to turn to him for gowns befitting award ceremonies or official occasions. While Balmain was no exceptional design innovator, his version of Parisian elegance summed up a decade, furthermore, his international outlook and early ventures in prêt-à-porter marked him out as a truly modern designer.

64EC1270-B69F-447D-A201-B49ED7312280Fit for a Queen: Her Majesty Queen Sirkit’s Creations by Balmain (affiliate link)



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En coulisses

5A9EA8BE-A160-4796-9C56-00655AFB01C0Today I got the news that I knew was inevitable, the summer program in Paris where I have worked for a decade will not run this year. As the French economy begins to re-open, there is currently no word on when restaurants, museums, and cultural events may resume. Without those in place, we would be rather hard pressed to provide a full Paris experience to students from around the world.

043CED26-5E28-4159-B955-F3E0D64B44F6Since armchair traveling is still all that we can currently do, I was delighted to go en coulisses, or backstage of the most beautiful fashion exhibit I’ve ever seen, the stunning seventieth anniversary Christian Dior at the Musée des Arts Décoratif from 2017. Available on Youtube, Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams goes in depth with curators, skilled seamstresses, and designers about all that went into creating that magnificent exhibit.

C7706A52-8943-422E-AC84-2860F2548708If you saw it, you’ll remember the ethereal white paper flowers cascading from the ceiling. In this video, you can see people shaping each paper flower by hand. You’ll see how mannequins are padded to perfectly fill out a vintage dress from the archives. You’ll see a curator make sure that the mannequin displaying the iconic Bar suit is perfectly straight, “No, definitely one more centimeter. Now it’s perfect.” With care like this, it’s no wonder that this exhibit was amazing. If you got to see it, this video will give you more insight and if you didn’t, you can still experience much of the beauty. It’s good for armchair traveling until we have more options.

92866A1D-0DA5-4456-B02C-631E189A3582Christian Dior

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Les palais de Saint Petersburg

1581BD8A-E2A4-436E-87A1-ACED70C7B3D2I have a very nice husband. Not long after we moved to the States in the mid-90s, I saw an article about an exhibit dedicated to Russian Imperial treasures. Having been fascinated by the Romanovs for many years – even our bedroom was festooned with fabric adorned with Faberge eggs – I naturally wanted to see this exhibit. The only small catch was that it was in Jackson, Mississippi, and we were in southern New Jersey. We decided to have a road trip, taking in a few other stops along the way.

Off we went: one patient husband, one perplexed six year old, and one enthusiast of all things Romanov. We stopped at the Stephen Foster show in Bardstown, Kentucky in hommage to a trip my husband had taken in his childhood. We drove all 500 miles of the astounding Natchez Trace and gawked at alligators in cypress swamps. We toured historic homes in Natchez, Mississippi and stumbled serendipitously upon a fabulous exhibit dedicated to the Chinese terra-cotta soldiers when driving by Birmingham, Alabama on our way home. But how was the main event?

Portrait Hall in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, RussiaTruth be told, I’ve forgotten a lot of the specifics. I remember that entire rooms from the Imperial palaces of St. Petersburg were re-created by exceptionally skilled Russian craftsmen, from intricate parquet flooring to gilded ceiling medallions and that objects were placed in the rooms as they would have been arranged in the actual palaces. I remember the vast display of china belonging to Catherine the Great on a banquet table, as thought the guests were about to be seated. And of course, I remember the enormous coronation coach. In the gift shop, we bought a few mementoes, including something for that long suffering six year old. One of our purchases was the exhibit catalogue, Palaces of St. Petersburg: Russian Imperial Style. As one does, we put the book on a shelf and never looked at it.

4A2BC3C6-2771-4200-847F-86365CFD10F6My biggest takeaway from reading Marie Kondo was that books that weren’t read didn’t “spark joy” and should move on to new homes. I announced a general moratorium on new book buying (for me) and selected twelve books a year from the backlog. This year, the exhibit catalogue was in my stack and one advantage of living in a world that is temporarily on-hold is more time than usual for reading. Memories of the trip came back, to be sure, but I also made connections with exhibits or collections I’ve seen since, such as Marjorie Merriweather Post’s home in Washington, D.C. that I visited a few months ago in a time just before anyone was talking about Covid-19.

18C139D9-2732-494E-8C2D-1185A1304D45The catalogue also highlighted the influence of French art on this northern Russian city. Peterhof, the palace built by Peter the Great, was built to rival Versailles. Catherine the Great imported artisans from all over Europe to train local craftsmen so that Russia could enjoy the same artistic and cultural adornments as other countries. Other pieces of the French decorative arts in the palaces had been diplomatic gifts, such as the tapestry given to Alexander I by Napoleon or the mirror given to an Empress by Louis XV. If you removed all the clocks, candelabras, mirrors, and furniture by French craftsmen, there would be a lot less glitz and glamor in the Palaces of St. Petersburg.

5948D909-C01C-4B63-BC11-1B5A47399E27Another lesson of the book is the terrible toll that political conflicts take on the objects and places that represent our cultural heritage. Although the palaces were officially transformed into museums after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks sold many Imperial treasures in the 1930s, including the heiress Marjorie Post. Then came occupation by the German army in World War II. While many treasures were hidden during the war and then returned to their rightful places afterward, others were destroyed or spirited away. The work of rebuilding and restoring the palaces started right after the war. As of the time of the exhibit, many were only about halfway finished.

Some of the palaces have been enhanced replacing lost treasures with similar pieces that were in other collections throughout Russia. Some pieces have been bought back from collectors; others have been painstakingly restored. The most amazing restoration story was the intricate damask in the Portrait Hall of the Catherine Palace that adorned both walls and furniture. Although hundreds of examples were scrutinized from the best European manufacturers, none could rival the original. Since no modern machines were capable of reproducing the complex weave, the decision was simple, recreate an 18th century loom. Now the Portrait Hall looks the way Catherine the Great would have seen it.

00711606-003F-492B-90FF-F9F8159ABA89I wish I could use a way-back machine to return to that exhibit to see it with fresh eyes. Failing that, a visit to St. Petersburg remains on my list of dream destinations for a time when we can once again enjoy the luxury of traveling freely. Until then, I found this lovely film about the exhibit for us all to enjoy. Stay safe, stay home.

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Art Nouveau

A0ED6086-5631-4651-81D7-EBE2E5EA6C92At the end of my summer job in Paris last hear, my team game me a lovely coffee table book, Art Nouveau: Posters, Illustration & Fine Art from the Glamorous Fin de Siècle, by Rosalind Ormiston & Michael Robinson. I’ve long been a fan of Art Nouveau, as they knew from my purchase of a rather large vase in the curvy style that I found at a Paris flea market and then had to somehow get home to the US in one piece. I must admit that my first thought upon receiving the gift was, “Oh dear, and now I also need to transport a rather large and heavy book!” Most ungracious. Well, my ungracious self just finished the book. Here are my biggest takeaways:

75901946-A020-4804-A7A3-D8DB1FCC00151. Art Nouveau was the name of the movement in France and Belgium, but similar styles appeared at much the same time throughout Europe and the United States under different names, such as Arts and Crafts, Berliner and Wiener Secession, and Jugendstil, In Spain, you can see the style in the fantastical architecture of Antoni Gaudi.

648F4117-A821-4D46-90F6-FF68BB7CA81F2. All of these styles shared certain hallmarks that can be traced back to Japanese prints: curving lines, forms inspired by plants, flattened perspective, sharply defined outlines, and fairly large swaths of colors. (Monet was a major collector of these. I remember seeing them displayed at his home, Giverny.) The curving lines are often described as “whiplash” and women’s hair is frequently shown in “macaroni” tendrils. Peacocks are a recurring theme.

EBF52C14-BFF2-4BB0-83A4-B791608C6C953. Art Nouveau was perfect for the new medium of posters printed with a system of color separations. Many artists, like Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, and Steinlen, were kept busy creating art for advertising posters.

32465BD3-B17F-4564-BEB2-668BB671D2AD4. Although Art Nouveau was really only popular from about 1885 to 1905 and totally gone by the end of the Great War, it’s influence permeated the art world at the end of the 19th century. You can see elements of Art Nouveau in works by Gauguin, the Nabis, Edvard Munch, and Gustave Klimt, among many others. I’ve always loved Pointillism, and this style, too, was influenced by Art Nouveau. The book introduced me to a new (to me) pointillist, Theo van Rysselberghe of Ghent, whose work (above) is just so beautiful.


I’m more appreciative than ever of my thoughtful team for giving me this beautiful book. It was well worth bringing both it and my Art Nouveau vase back from France. When we’re all able to travel again, who knows what other Art Nouveau treasures I might find on my next trip to the flea markets of Paris.

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