Ribbons played a serious role in the rise of Paris fashion. French style really got going during the 18th century, when it started to break away from rules established at court. But its clothes were still quite standard – what mattered was their decoration.
That was the art practiced by the marchandes de modes, stockist-stylists who dealt in ribbons and lace. Their star was Rose Bertin, counsellor to Marie-Antoinette, who became famous as the “Minister of Fashion”.
But it was marchand Louis-Hippolyte LeRoy who helped their profession survive the Revolution. LeRoy, who had started out as a hairdresser at Versailles, found a role giving fashion advice to the revolutionaries. He ended up with clients such as Empress Josephine, as well as other royals all over Europe. LeRoy was famous for having invented the ruban double face – reversible satin ribbons in complementary colours.*
From the days of LeRoy right up to the Belle Epoque, fashion here just kept exploding. The start of the 19th century saw one of its biggest cults, the grisette. Grisettes were those poor yet stylish girls who assembled the Paris fashions. They spent long hours stitching, trimming and delivering its ‘novelties’.
Celebrated in popular songs, best-selling novels and plays, grisettes were the personification of up-to-date Paris street style. They were identified by modest yet modish garb, slippers laced with ribbons and home-dressed bonnets trimmed in pink.
Their industry – French style – was now world-famous. It was seen as so refined that “even Parisian ribbons were prettier than those found anywhere else.” **
No longer were those ribbons, however, reserved for the rich. Through the new boutiques known as merceries anyone could buy them. Merceries sold what one needed to finish the latest fashions: ribbons, braids and lace; buttons and varied trims. Today they are known in England as haberdasheries and, to Americans, as stores that deal in “notions”.
Characters such as Rose Bertin, LeRoy and the grisettes helped to create a worldwide cult of Parisienne chic. Yet today few physical traces of them remain. The articles they made are the pride of costume collections, yet their famous ateliers and shops are long gone. For all the media stardom enjoyed by Paris grisettes, they have only a single and cryptic monument. ***
Yet near the 2nd arrondisement’s Passage Choiseul, a visceral glimpse of their legacy still exists. Here, facing one another on rues Choiseul and Monsigny, two unique merceries continue doing business. Although their roots lie in the mid-19th century, both are operated under one moniker, Ultramod.
The larger shop is filled, ceiling to floor, with drawers and shelves. They hold thousands of buttons, most of which are vintage. But there are also boxes and boxes, rows upon rows, of ribbon – in every kind of material, from loomed silk to rayon moiré. Random cutting tables are stacked with rolls of various sizes, while antique vitrines showcase special colours and textures.
The smaller shop across the street opens by request. Another space that bulges with overstocked tables and shelves, it is a discrete mecca for modistes and historians. Officially a millinery, its stock includes passementeries, woven straw fabric in checks and tartans, chevreau de soie – and the kind of imported wool and cotton ribbon taxed by the Directoire in the late 1790s.
Here there is failletine de soie: the fine, soft grosgrain which decorated hats and umbrellas during the Second Empire. Plus there are bits of silk ribbon à broder, in subtle shades such as ombre, marron glacé and chêvrette.
All these rarities exist in finite quantities so, once they are gone, the shop cannot restock. But the millinery has reserves of vintage grosgrain. Thicker and more luxurious than any modern counterpart, its colours – tallow and cyclamen, Parma grey and almond green – come straight from the palette of an Impressionist painter.
Even after his retirement, LeRoy continued imagining more “novelties” he could create. His final dream was to bring back a bit of the ancien régime – by re-introducing the paniers that had been worn by Marie-Antoinette.
Here in the second arrondisement, the ribbons he loved live on.
• Ultramod, 3 rue de Choiseul and 14 rue Monsigny, 75002
• The excellent exposition Josephine, from now until 29 June at the Sénat’s Musée de Luxembourg, has some of LeRoy’s wares, including a sumptuous court robe similar to that worn at the Empress’ Coronation. It reveals Napoleon’s consort to have been an elegant leader of both taste and fashion.
* Among LeRoy’s other famous inventions was Josephine’s chérusque: that rigid lace collar she wore for her Coronation.
** From Paris Fashion: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele, one of the best, most entertaining books on Paris fashion. Out of print but available through libraries, Consumers and Luxury: Consumer Culture in Europe 1650-1850 (Maxine Berg and Helen Clifford) has a great essay on LeRoy by Fiona Ffoulkes.
*** “The Grisette 1830” statue (1911) is by Jean-Bernard Descomps. It’s in Square Jules Ferry, near the Canal Saint Martin. Online, you can also read (in French) Les grisettes à Paris.