Abstract: International Couture: Expansion and Promotion in the Early Twentieth Century

Lourdes Font

Abstract

This paper is a survey of haute couture businesses—concentrating on Paquin, Drecoll, Redfern, Boué Soeurs, and Lucile—that expanded across international borders during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The story of Drecoll, which became successful in Vienna during the 1880s and opened in Paris in 1902, suggests why couturiers were drawn to Paris. In addition to several practical advantages, only by becoming Paris couturiers themselves could they escape the tyranny of the "Paris model." By 1910, twenty years before Mainbocher, two Americans had opened businesses as ladies' tailors or couturiers in Paris. Paquin is said to be the first Paris house to establish a foreign branch, in London in 1897. However, considering that the Paris branch of Redfern became its design headquarters, that distinction may belong to Redfern, which opened in New York by 1884 and over the next decade had eleven branches in France, Britain, and the United States. The American branches imported materials, model garments, and workers, and encountered problems with labor laws and high tariffs on imports, issues which also affected Boué Soeurs and Lucile. The reaction to Paquin's 1914 fashion show tour of five American cities further demonstrates the obstacles to the transatlantic expansion of the Paris couture, which nonetheless looked to its foreign markets during World War I. By the end of the 1920s, most Paris couturiers had branches in French resort towns, but the heroic days of international haute couture were over. Had the handful of houses who were the pioneers succeeded in the long term, the history of twentieth-century fashion would probably have been very different.