My lovely daughter turns 30 on December 3. She shares her birthday with an early French couturière whose name has all but been forgotten. Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix was born in 1863, and her Parisian salon operated from approximately 1889 to 1929, so this year marks the centenary of her business. By the first decade of the 20th century, her name could be found in many of the better fashion publications, and she had an extensive and loyal clientele. Her success is affirmed by the fact that her store interior on Boulevard Hausmann was designed by a leading arbiter of taste Louis Süe, of Süe and Mare, whose commissions did not come cheap.
Her style appears to have been a variation of the latest “line” executed in wearable colors and fabrics. In an article for The New York Times in 1912 entitled “Do Women Like Eccentric Clothing?”, Margaine-Lacroix set out the relationship between haute couture showpieces and what ladies actually purchased and wore, thus demonstrating her sound, realistic understanding of her market. She described how Paris presents extravagant and daring creations, but that these are primarily about ideas and that their role is to invite change; no woman of taste would choose to wear them. Instead, these outlandish garments are stripped of their bewildering embellishments and modified to form the new fashion. These comments may go a long way to explaining why she was forgotten because fashion historians have often preferred to focus on the spectacular exception instead of the more mundane rule.
Despite her realistic design ethos, Margaine-Lacroix’s career was not without innovation – quite the opposite. Her most important contributions to fashion were her sheath dress, the Sylphide corset, and the sinuously curved Sylphide dress. Like their creator’s name, these garments have gone mostly unrecorded in fashion histories. However, while visual and material evidence of her legacy are scarce, descriptions of these garments provide proof that it was Margaine-Lacroix, and not Paul Poiret, as is commonly believed, who gained widespread acceptance for the Empire line at the end of the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908, three models wearing her tight Empire-style gowns caused an uproar when they attended the Longchamp racecourse (see photo, below). Their dresses were considered too shocking for the time, not least because they were split at the side as far as the knee. (Horrors!)
Margaine-Lacroix’s commercial success and perfect mediation between design innovation and understanding of the commerce of fashion – in addition to her being a female pioneer in the field of haute couture – should have been sufficient to ensure her legacy. Instead, her absence from mainstream histories of fashion speaks volumes about the uneasy relationship between commercial success and credibility. Happy birthday to two originals, my daughter and Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix.