ChéruitJune 29, 2012 Fashion
I never know whether I should talk about objects that are not in rude health. I guess most of you suspect that we have the odd thing that is more than a little worse for wear or for storage. Many of these objects are nevertheless beautiful, maybe even more so because they are slightly withered and so obviously belong to a moment long gone.
Despite many odds, we are continuously improving the storage of the clothes in our care, I hasten to add. I often take out, say, a dress for a visitor only to realise that it does not have the right cover, is not on the right hanger, should not be hanging at all and/or might benefit from a stint in the freezer. Usually this happens when I really, really don’t have time for this kind of thing but nevertheless I almost always end up repacking. I cannot sleep if I don’t (I’ve tried, it doesn’t work).
I don’t quite remember how I first came across the gown you see a detail of above. Perhaps it was stored in one of our old boxes and folded more than it should have been. I think I ‘found’ the dress, rehoused it, was very excited for a short while and then something else must have happened. When a researcher recently requested highly embellished Edwardiana, it all came back to me.
Imagine my delight, twice over, when I realised/remembered that we had a dress by Chéruit! Before we continue, let’s get that pronunciation thing sorted. I always used to pronounce the ‘t’ and also went for ‘oooeeeh’ as in ‘Louis’. However, and I’m still not entirely sure about this as I never really got the hang of the phonetic alphabet, I am now inclined to believe that one should say something like ‘chérie’, which is much more lovely.
Claiming that I ‘always’ pronounced Chéruit in a certain way gives the impression that the name was on my lips practically every day. Far from it. I had been only vaguely aware of this French house, most likely on account of the lovely Steichen photo of Marion Morhouse. I became more interested recently when rereading Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. I was using the novel as an anchor point for discussing clothes between the wars. Vile Bodies, published in 1930, might not be everyone’s first choice for that kind of purpose but then I quite like those novels you really have to scavenger for allusions and references to dress, beauty ideals and such like, rather than the ones that lay it all out for you (please don’t ever make me read American Psycho again!).
Chéruit is the only couturier mentioned by Waugh, I think, and appears when Miss Mouse attends a party at Archie Schwert’s in ‘a very enterprising frock’ by the couturier. Proust also namechecks Chéruit, referring to an earlier time. His character Elstir states that ‘there are very few good couturiers at present, one or two only, Callot – although they go in rather too freely for lace – Doucet, Chéruit, Paquin sometimes. But all the others are ghastly’. (In Search of Lost Time, Part Two: Place-Names: The Place, Vintage 2005, p. 555).
But let’s get back to our dress. When I repacked it, I just laid it carefully into a long box without much re-arranging. In those situations it’s a toss-up between potentially damaging an already fragile object by too much handling, or damaging it by not arranging it in the most beneficial way. That I favoured less handling means that it is hard to see the gown’s shape properly, which also makes it difficult to date it (I’d love to see it on a figure but I doubt that will happen soon).
The dress was part of a group of objects that were donated to the museum during the war, in 1942. Unsurprisingly, the documentation from that period is often a bit sketchy. In our register (there is no file), this particular object is described as an ‘evening gown in white net over a foundation of white chiffon + white satin, blue satin sash. The dress is embroidered with heavy [?], dull silver paillettes, the larger ones in the shape of shells [illegible] mother-of-pearl sequins 1910?’. While experience has shown that one cannot always trust the register, the date seems to make sense.
In search of further clues, I decided to do some super-careful handling after all to photograph the label, annoyingly quite badly, as usual (I will have to do some sort of course, it is getting ridiculous). You might just about be able to make out the following: ‘Ancienne M.on Raudnitz & Cie / CHERUIT / 21, Place Vendôme, Paris’. Once you’ve perused the Wikipedia entry on Chéruit (assuming you might not have done this on a previous occasion), you will see that the company, and the labels, underwent many transformations and that there remain quite a few known unknowns.
Madeleine Chéruit herself sounds pretty amazing and I am surprised that there is not more about her and/or her company but I suspect her story is more well-known in France. This book seems to have vital information but I have not yet got hold of it: Guillaume Garnier, Annie Sagalow, Fabienne Falluel, Paris-couture-année trente, Musée de la mode et du costume, Musée Galliéra 1987. In the meantime, I’ve put together a Pinterest board with the Chéruit labels I could find online, half for research purposes and half to see whether Pinterest is for me (so far I don’t seem to have the stamina for making boards, but many others are putting together super useful and beautiful stuff). This is the story I have pieced together so far:
Aforementioned fabulous Madeleine Chéruit took over a Paris company by the name of Raudnitz, also mentioned by Proust (what is the equivalent of being mentioned by Proust today, I wonder):
To change the subject, Mme Swann turned to Mme Cottard: “But you’re looking very elegant today. Redfern fecit?” “No, you know, I always swear by Raudnitz. Besides, it’s only an old thing I’ve had done up.” “Well, it’s very smart!” (In Search of Lost Time, Part Two: Place Names: The Place, Vintage 2005, pp. 201-2).
Apart from demonstrating that women’s reactions to compliments about their wardrobe have not changed much, this snippet is probably supposed to say something about Mmes Swann or Cottard, one of them is probably meant to look old-fashioned. But which one? Be that as it may, the quote lead me to an issue of the Bulletin of the Society of Friends of Marcel Proust and Friends of Combray, where it is stated (on page 510) that at the end of the 19th century two couture houses by the name of Raudnitz operated in Paris (if this came up in a crime novel, you would not believe it). Ernest Raudnitz, founded in 1883, was based at 8, rue Royale and Raudnitz et Cie, founded in 1875(-ish) at 21, Place Vendôme (both companies had different addresses at different times but let’s not dwell).
In around 1901, Madeleine Chéruit and a certain “Huet” took over the Vendôme Raudnitz and for a while the labels read ‘Huet & Chéruit’ with a reference to the former house, or ‘ancienne maison’ of Raudnitz. At some point Huet, who was apparently Madeleine’s sister, disappeared and only Chéruit remained. Our dress falls clearly into that period but when exactly this started or ended is not entirely obvious. Bits and pieces of information seem to suggest we are talking about 1905ish to 1915ish, which seems about right for our dress. I would have put my money on 1910-12 on account of the high waist.
That’s all we needed to know, really, but of course my curiosity did not stop here, so let’s just go all the way. Around 1915 Chéruit is taken over by a certain Mme Wormser, probably Julie Wormser, and Louise Boulanger and both dutifully appear on yet another incarnation of the label. Boulanger seems to have left around 1920 and set up her own salon in 1927. Mme Wormser continued and one label, probably from the 1920s, suggests that she set up shop(s) in fashionable Biarritz and Deauville. In 1932 Mme Wormser is mentioned in L’Officiel de la Mode (no. 136, 1932, page 15) as ‘directrice et propriétaire de la Maison Chéruit’, having just been made a Knight of the Legion of Honour (I don’t need to tell you that this is quite something). In 1935, after Madeleine Chéruit’s death earlier in the year, Schiaparelli took over 21, Place Vendôme and this is where our story ends. For now.
Our next investigative subject will be the former wearer of the gown, who turned out to be a bit of a known unknown herself, before having a closer look at the very unusual embroidery. À bientôt!
PS: I know it has been a long time but, honest, there were rather a lot of things to do and quite a few people to see and smile-inducing videos to watch and footballers’ tattoos to wonder about …