October 15, 2009

Petite main? Well...

At my most recent visits to my local library, I stumbled across a treasure trove of fashion history related books. Usually the really good stuff remains well hidden, or more likely is grabbed by other people first.
One of the books I'm holding on to for at least another week is the impressive catalog to the 'Golden Age of Couture' exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, almost two years ago. I wish I could have visited the exhibition itself, but unfortunately I didn't have the time or the money to go back then. The book however is great: pictures of the dresses and suits in the museum's collection, loads of period photographs and tons of interesting information.

It is in this information that I learned some interesting facts about the inner workings of the mid 20th century couture house. I did explain to you, a while ago, that 'petite main' was a term for a couture seamstress didn't I?
Well, let me just say that the details are staggering: each couture house would have seperate ateliers for tailoring and dressmaking. A seamstress would spend her entire career in the same division. Actually, she would be expected to specialize in working with one particular material.

Coming to work as a couture seamstress, you'd have to start out as an apprentice for two to three years. Then, if your work was good, you could become deuxieme main debutante, or second hand. There were two more second hand levels before one could be promoted to premiere main qualifee, the lowest level first hand. Only after about ten years, you would reach (only if you continually and consistantly produced excellent work, of course) the position of premiere main hautement qualifee and be allowed to have full responsibility over the creation of a piece, from cutting to finishing.
Obviously, we are talking about women who worked at the atelier (workrooms where a lot of women worked literally side by side under the constant supervision of the head of the workroom) five full days a week (more when a show was coming up), all year round.

Now, I can see how far a stretch it was to adopt the name of 'petite main' for this blog. At the rate mentioned above, I might just have passed apprenticeship, which would mean I would be allowed to do some actual sewing (not just finishing) but I certainly wouldn't be trusted anywhere near the cutting table.
Maybe it's good I made that little error in my French grammer... this way, I could claim I didn't want to put my betters to shame...


  1. If you want to see some amazing construction, perhaps you'd be interested in the Vionnet exhibit in Paris on right now. I'm planning on seeing it next month as she's my favorite.


  2. I'm enjoying your work. You're creative and fearless, making cool things to wear and read! I admire your designs,and though I am in my late 40's I can relate to your journey through fashion and history. (I fell in love with sewing when I was in my 30's and knitting in my 40's. I have always love history. I'm learning something new every day.)
    You really are incredibly talented. Have fun with it. You're going to be fine.