Madame Carven and the Beauty of the Petite Woman

Madame Carven at her 100th birthday party at Galliera Museum, Paris. Photo courtesy Getty Images.

The couture designer Madame Carven is unfamiliar to even many enthusiasts of fashion history.  Born Carmen de Tommaso, her design name Marie-Louise Carven, or Madame Carven, was known to French women since 1945 when she opened her salon in Paris offering fashions designed to show off the beauty of petite women.

At the time, Paris fashions were dominated by men such as Christian Dior, Lucien Lelong, Jacques Fath, and Pierre Balmain, who were eager to prove that couture was back after the war and still relevant.  Madame Carven brought a different outlook to fashion which valued real women over muses and idealized figures. Like many other female designers before her and alongside her, she made clothes as a woman for other women.  Madame Carven took as her starting point petite women like herself and her friends, understanding that size and proportion are integral to clothes that flatter. Both Edith Piaf and Leslie Caron wore her clothes.  In 1950 with the launch of her pret-a-porter line she brought her aesthetic to a wider customer base.

Carven with a model in her signature dress ma griffe
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Her designs exude charm resulting from a care for elegance with a note of playfulness.  She had a good eye for proportion and balance in a silhouette.  Her approach is encapsulated in the very first dress that she sent out, a mint green and white striped full-skirted frock. Called ma griffe, or “my signature,” (also the name of her 1946 scent) the dress expressed a fresh, optimistic femininity, exemplifying the Carven aesthetic.  The design elements, however, are cleverly employed to address the petite body.  Her use of vertical stripes and open V-neckline elongate the body while the nipped-in waist gives womanly definition to a small frame.  Almost every Carven collection since has featured a similar green and white dress as a “signature” statement.

In a 1950 Women’s Wear Daily article, Madame Carven explained her focus on petites, stating, “I decided to make haute couture outfits in my size because I was too short to wear the creations of the top couturiers, who only ever showed their designs on towering girls.”  Carven herself was 5’1”.  That she patented the first push-up bra in France suggests that she understood how much petite women benefit from a defined silhouette.

Carven, “Esperanto” suit, Spring/Summer 1951, Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris.

Detail of Esperanto suit

Carven printed silk afternoon dress, Spring/Summer 1962. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Carven’s designs were less fussy and stiff than some other couturiers.  She eschewed the complicated formality of much haute couture. Instead, she brought an easy-care, happy sensibility to couture that fit the modern woman’s desires for clothes that were practical and pretty.  The influence of ready-to-wear, washable fabrics such as synthetics, and sportswear are evident in Madame Carven’s style. Cottons were featured regularly in her collections.  Fabrics such as broderie anglaise and pink gingham were also favored materials at the couture house.  A 1946 editorial in American Vogue shows her sports-inspired designs of ski-style pants and lace-up ballet slippers.

Vogue, 1946. Photo from Vogue archives.

Madame Carven was also inspired by her travels around the world to places such as Mexico and Thailand, often incorporating themes and fabrics from the places she visited.  She even showed her collections in other countries to build an international clientele.

Antilles dress, 1961. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

To further her brand, she engaged in many marketing and business endeavors, licensing her name in approximately 60 different ventures from a juniors line to fragrances., In 1950 she created a collection inspired by the film Gone With The Wind to coincide with its belated release in France.  She also designed uniforms for various airlines, Eurostar staff and traffic wardens in Paris.  Carven designed costumes for eleven films, including the classic suspense thriller, Les Diaboliques.

Though Madame Carven retired in 1993, her brand continued with different designers at the helm.  In 2009 Guillaume Henry was appointed designer at Carven bringing the brand back to the forefront of fashion.  The same year Marie-Louise Carven was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal for her contribution to French culture.  Until the current season, the designers for Carven have been Alexis Martial and Adrien Caillaudaud, though they have announced their departure.

Unfortunately, the new iterations of the Carven label no longer cater to petite women.  Many women are petite and most are not tall.  Outside the fashion world, being petite has long been considered desirable in a woman.  Yet “petite” lines of clothing today are the domain of mainstream workwear-friendly American retailers such as Ann Taylor and J. Crew.  Such petite lines, however, only shorten the length of pants and shirts of their “regular” designs. Petite women today are implicitly told via market positioning that they are out of bounds in the high fashion arena.  Madame Carven designed to specifically flatter petite women while still offering high fashion styles.  Let’s hope that with a new designer the label will return to its heritage.  Where is the next Madame Carven?

Further Reading

Picken, Mary Brooks and Dora Loues Miller, Dressmakers of France, New York: Harper, 1956.

Stegemeyer, Anne, Who’s Who in Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1988.

Carven Spring/Summer 2017 collection

Maison Doucet

During the Belle Epoque period, at 21 Rue de la Paix in Paris, stood Maison Doucet, one of the most fashionable couture houses of the day. Under the tutelage of Jacques Doucet, Paul Poiret got his start there, as did Madeleine Vionnet, before they went on to their own success as couturiers. The clients at Doucet, as with most top couture houses, ranged from social elites and nobles to courtesans and celebrity actresses such as Rejane and Sarah Bernhardt (Figs. 1 and 2). Notably, Doucet was also patronized by younger American socialites such as Carrie Schermerhorn Astor, Consuelo Vanderbilt, and Edith Wharton.

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Fig. 1: Actress Rejane wearing a Doucet at-home gown, cover of Les Modes, August 1902.

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Fig. 2: P. Nadar. Actress Rosa Bruck in Doucet, Les Modes, November, 1901.

To dispel the expenses of a trip to Paris, Doucet dresses were sold in New York at Arnold, Constable & Co. and Lord & Taylor’s and models were available at the exclusive dressmaking establishments of Madame Barnes and Madame Donovan. More than one woman who did return from Paris with a Doucet in her trunk reportedly tried to evade customs because of the excessive duties.

Turn-of-the-century fashions were characterized by exuberant surface decoration, where the materials, techniques, and styling of different decorative elements showed off one’s prosperity, indeed Doucet indulged heavily in such excess of beautification. One of the characteristic traits of the Doucet aesthetic is the use of fluid, unstructured fabrics such as lace, tulle, silk, fur, and satin (Figs. 3 and 4). From the turn of the century, with the body-skimming Directoire style and the taste for tea gowns, Maison Doucet’s expertise with fabrics put the couture house at the height of fashion. Doucet dresses were just a bit softer in their drape, delicate in their surfaces and the vision of beauty fit in with the more sensitive side of the time. That Doucet’s clients were daughters of great society matrons, wives of executives in the fashion retail industry, and popular actresses, confirms that the ultra-femininity of the Maison’s designs were fashion-forward and distinct from the stiffer prestige image of the House of Worth. Is it any wonder then that both Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust conjured up characters that answered to the siren call of Doucet frocks?

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Fig. 3: Doucet. Reception or ball gown. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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Fig. 4: Doucet. Afternoon or tea gown. 1900-1903. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

High society dressing was very much a public consideration, a performance of wealth, class belonging and taste in the age of crass overnight millionaires and dollar princesses. In the highly codified world of social elites, elaborate surface decoration gave expression to the complexity and power of social wealth, presenting ornate femininity as an index of masculine financial prowess in the new business order.

The Maison Doucet sensibilities dovetail with the eighteenth-century revival fashion trend to which he contributed and executed at the highest level, informed by his own art collecting and connoisseurship. The sinuous lines of a peach embroidered ball gown in the art nouveau style have their clear precedent and inspiration in the eighteenth-century meandering lines of Rococo design, found particularly in textiles (Fig. 5).

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Fig. 5: Doucet. Ball gown, 1898-1900. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art Nouveau tiger lily design reminiscent of the Rococo period. Worn by Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson.

Of all the dress styles in a lady’s wardrobe, it was the tea gown, or at-home gown, that most embodied and fulfilled the sensual femininity of the Doucet aesthetic. Due to its light and clingy materials that skimmed a woman’s uncorseted body, it had a naturally suggestive quality to it. The abundance of airy lace over fluid, unstructured silk of a 1907 tea gown conveys the romantic and delicate aesthetic of the early century under the lofty eye of Doucet (Fig. 6). The tea gown’s softness underscores the traditional relationship between femininity and the private sphere while also promoting modern modes of dressing for comfort. The secret to the successful Doucet aesthetic seems to lie in the unabashed sensuality of the clothes no matter what the occasion.

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Fig. 6: Doucet. Tea gown, 1907. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Further Reading

Cole, Daniel James and Nancy Diehl. The History of Modern Fashion. London:Laurence King Publishing, 2015.

Coleman, Elizabeth Ann. The Opulent Era: Fashions of Worth, Doucet and Pingat. New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1989.

Joslin, Katherine. Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion. Durham, New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire Press, 2009.

Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1998.