Si Jolie: A Virtual Exhibit Experience


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Si Jolie! French Fashion in Cleveland

This exhibition tells the stories of Clevelanders and how they experienced French fashion. We begin in the 1870s, shortly after the Franco-Prussian War destroyed much of Paris. The city rebuilt itself and once again lured tourists to make the sometimes harrowing sea voyage. Clevelanders were no exception: they packed their trunks, boarded ocean vessels, and set sail. In Paris, they shopped, saw the sights, and they basked in French culture. During the 1920s, interest in Paris and its daring modernity sent female entrepreneurs to scout the latest fashions for their boutique clients back in Cleveland. Women wore imports as well as runway copies to the theater and opera, flaunting their in-the-know style. During World War II, most Americans suffered from the restrictions of rationing, and those who could afford couture often chose to celebrate native designers. After the war, the Parisian designer Christian Dior revamped the fashionable silhouette, and Clevelanders once again traveled to Paris to shop. At home, they experienced the golden age of department stores: Higbee’s celebrated “Gay Paree” with its import fairs and Halle Brothers offered an exclusive French beauty salon. Paris again became cutting edge with mod style in the 1960s and continues, to this day, to be the epicenter of fashion. Many Clevelanders made French fashion part of their wardrobe, whether it was by shopping in Paris or sewing their own clothing with licensed French patterns. Through this exhibition, we hope to convey that they did, and still do, have worldly style.

The Rebirth of Paris 

Paris suffered its greatest destruction to date during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and 1871. As Napoleon III waged territorial battles with the Germans, the conflict affected trade, finance, travel, and spirit. As Parisian life returned to normal and the city completed construction of parks and grand boulevards, tourist flooded back. Clevelanders visited Paris to shop and see the sights, some on annual fashion-centered trips. They found their dressmakers in travel guides, but also through recommendations from friends or local tastemakers. In 1895, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine even criticized those who seemed to come only to have clothing made: “...American girls never see anything of Paris during their four weeks’ stay there each summer, because so much of their time is taken up at the dress-makers’.”

Ocean Travel and Packing

Clevelander Randall Wade and his family began their ten-day sea voyage aboard the SS Ville de Paris on June 11, 1870. The family traveled comfortably in their central state rooms, but upon their return trip, severe storms created a harrowing journey. Randall wrote: “...the ship rolled so much that I was obliged to put up lashings before our children's berths to keep them in, which caught Alice in her sleep and perhaps saved her neck.” As an adult, Randall’s son Jeptha traveled abroad with his wife Ellen, who was constantly seasick. When smooth-sailing, first class passengers enjoyed comfortable settings, entertainments, fine dining, and a social atmosphere. In 1890, Ellen Prentiss noted that ten Clevelanders sailed together on the SS Westernland. Most ships of that caliber included passenger lists, making it easier to find old friends or make new ones.


Adella Prentiss took these travel photographs during an 1890 trip to Europe with her mother. 


Tourist Photos

Not everyone spent days shopping while in Paris. Adella Prentiss also captured hikes, carriage rides, sea travel, and other sights with her box camera. Adella captured these images while traveling with her mother Ellen in 1890 and 1891. They probably used a Kodak camera, which was first produced in 1888--virtually ushering in the beginning of amateur photography. These early photographs were round, and shot on rolls of 100. Kodak boasted, “You press the button, we do the rest,” and their services made capturing a trip to Paris easy… but not necessarily affordable for everyone. In 1890 their box camera cost over $600 in 2019 dollars.

The Fashionable Shape

Amongst the many undergarments packed in a traveler’s trunk, the corset, crinoline, and bustle served as the foundation for the sculptural gowns popular during the late 19th century. Some women also shopped for these items in Paris, sometimes as part of a trousseau. Corsets served as the foundation for the sculptural gowns popular during the late 19th century. The multitude of layers needed to wear fashionable gowns meant bigger steamer trunks for the voyage abroad.

Helen Cowles Abroad 

From London, Helen Cowles wrote, “I am tired of this old England, now that I have left Paris there is nothing I care to remain for.” It’s no surprise that she longed for Paris: this is where Helen fell in love with the Comte de Rochemonteix. When he proposed, Helen’s family persuaded her to refuse on grounds of his Catholicism and lack of funds. Although she did not return home with a French husband, Helen did bring home Parisian clothes. She told her mother, “ things are beautiful - pretty enough for any trousseau, the only one I will ever have. I can’t come down to being plain Mrs. Smith after making my mind up to being a Countess.” This dress may have been part of her 1880 trousseau, when she married Clevelander George Pomeroy in Paris. Clevelanders in the same social circle would have recommended lesser-known couturiers to one another. Emma Sterling also visited Dumonteil, and wrote in her 1886 diary of about fittings sometimes lasting two hours. Her silk and wool gowns cost $76 and $90, roughly $1800-2200 today.


Helen Cowles around the time of her marriage to George Pomeroy, 1880


The Epicenter of Style

For centuries, Paris has been considered the epicenter of style, and the city served as a stage for fashionable encounters. In order to prepare for promenades in the park and evenings at the opera, Clevelanders frequented Parisian dressmakers. The 1888 Baedeker travel guide recommended Madame Mantel, who worked in the Compagnie Lyonnaise at 37 Rue des Capucines. Several Clevelanders followed this advice and shopped there, as well as the establishments of Gaillard, Galardi, and Raudnitz. For smaller, ready-made items such as gloves, shoppers visited vast department stores such as the Galeries Lafayette and le Bon Marche, which was enlarged by Gustav Eiffel’s firm in 1872.

Dressmaker’s shops filled Paris, but the most famous lined the Rue de la Paix. Jeptha and Nellie Wade spent more than a month in Paris in 1900, visiting both couture houses and the fashion displays at the Exposition Universelle. Nellie and Jeptha’s sister Alice also shopped at the most exclusive designers, including Charles Frederick Worth. The now legendary British-born Worth moved to Paris in 1845. By the 1870s, he was famous around the globe, thanks to his adept marketing and self-promotion. Prominent Clevelanders also shopped at Worth’s competitors, including Jeanne Paquin and Jacques Doucet.


All the World’s a Stage 

For some travelers, the opera was the center of their Parisian world. Clevelander Randall Wade’s travel diaries describe his delight with the view from his hotel of the new opera house, the Palais Garnier, which in 1870 was unfinished but impressive nonetheless: “[it is] the most elegant and grand specimen of architecture that I have ever imagined.” Nearby hotels and shops offered convenience, and the opera itself provided entertainment. In addition to enjoying the show, operagoers observed the audience’s fashion, sometimes with a critical eye. In 1890, Ellen Prentiss wrote, “[We] had a fine opportunity of seeing Paris dress, or undress, for some of the ladies wore shamefully low necked dresses. The opera was very fine.” 

Back home in Cleveland, the Euclid Avenue Opera House opened in 1875. After an 1892 fire, it lived on in a grander structure until its 1922 demolition. When the Hanna Theater opened in 1921, it largely filled the role of the Opera House. With four new theaters open, the press bestowed that strip of Euclid Avenue with the moniker “Playhouse Square.” Whether in Paris or Cleveland, elaborate coats and capes were an important part of opera fashion.


Learn more about opera fashion (left) and explore French fashion on a small scale with French dolls (right)


First Nighter Fashion

In 1920s Cleveland, the theater district boomed. Locals flocked to see performances in Playhouse Square, and the proud “First Nighters” opened the season. One of the most fashionable attendees was Phyllis Peckham. In 1928, the Plain Dealer wrote that “Miss Phyllis Peckham was, as usual, modishly frocked in a robe-de-style of eggshell shade.” Fashionable Clevelanders often chose Playhouse Square as their venue to flaunt imported styles like this, as well as chic hats, fur-trimmed coats, and sparkling dancing dresses.

For those who could or would not travel, Cleveland’s boutiques provided the latest in French Fashion. Katherine Quinn, former Halle Brothers dress buyer, and her assistant Gertrude Maahs operated one of the chicest boutiques: Quinn-Maahs. During the 1920s, business-women like Quinn, Maahs and Mary Kazhal traveled to Paris regularly, buying fashion but also scouting the newest styles. Busy VIP clients like Phyllis Peckham even sent them to Paris with detailed wishlists. Boutiques  also offered house-made garments inspired by (and sometimes direct copies of) Parisian couture.


The New Look 

The aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II reached far and wide, including the way people dressed. For reasons of expense and principle, many Americans eschewed French fashion in the early 1940s, but everything changed with Christian Dior. In 1947 he debuted the “New Look” which emphasized a return to traditional femininity (women were expected to leave wartime work and return to the home) through hourglass silhouettes and sumptuous materials. Clevelanders were no different than the French in seeking out the new cinched waist. Some wore designer clothing from Dior, Jacques Fath, or Pierre Balmain, and others copied the look with more affordable options.


Mary Bolton in Paris 

The Dior garments above belonged to Mary Bolton. While most Clevelanders could only admire French Fashion from afar, Mary lived in Paris and met the designers firsthand. Mary majored in French at Bryn Mawr, and then put those skills to use when she and her husband moved to Paris in 1947. Kenyon Bolton became the Special Assistant to US Ambassador David Bruce, and was in the Foreign Service Reserves. The couple lived in Paris with their five children for three years. Mary visited the showrooms of Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Nina Ricci, and others. She fit into their sample sizes, shopped the sales, and even modeled for a few designers such as Fath. Mary considered her purchases as works of art, and after the family returned home she continued collecting.


French Imports

Clevelanders demanded French style and the department stores answered. In 1935, Halle Bros. opened the Antoine Salon of Beauty, which used the methods of the Parisian hairdresser Monsieur Antione. Starting in 1956, Higbee’s organized a store-wide annual Import Fair, with fashion shows, specialty goods, and foreign foods. Both stores offered imported fashions year round, as well as their own designs inspired by the runways. This ice blue coat from Higbee’s mimics the fashionable, oversized shapes of Paris design houses such as Cristobal Balenciaga. For those unable or unwilling to pay haute couture prices, some designers created more affordable lines or licensed patterns. 

Higbee’s in particular was known for its annual Import Fairs during the 1950s and 1960s. Models strode down the Higbee’s runway in French fashion by designers like Dior, Chanel, and Lanvin, and visitors to the department store could view an electrified scale model of Paris.


Bringing Paris to Cleveland 

After decades of romance, Parisian designers looked to the future. In the 1960s and 1970s, Andre Courreges and Pierre Cardin created playful, futuristic looks like this dress worn by Clevelander Greta Millikin. Greta was an interior decorator with a collector’s eye. She filled her home with French furniture and her closet with French fashion. She traveled often, but could still find Parisian clothes at places like Halle Bros. and May Company. 


Western Reserve Historical Society is the oldest cultural institution in Northeast Ohio, the region's largest American history research center, and one of the leading genealogical research centers in the nation.

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