Merci et Cie the Movie Modiste

Merci et Cie the Movie Modiste

Post World War 1 there was renewed optimism for the British Film industry and various moves were made to improve the quality of productions with effective and original costume design recognised as being of crucial importance. Between 1919-1922 this was evident by the formation of two dress-designing departments at the newly formed Islington studio for Famous Players Lasky, headed by Marcelle de St Martin and the Alliance Studios, headed by Gladys Jackson. But there were various other independent designers rising to the occasion as well. One such person was the fashion designer and costumier Mde de Petier of Merci et Cie (sometimes spelt Mercie) based at 90 Charing Cross Road, whose business was described as ‘milliners.’

Mde de Petier (was this her real name?) of Merci et Cie, was seemingly born in England and as a small child was passionately fond of dressing dolls. When the time came to choose a profession the lure of dressmaking became obvious so she went to work in one of the big Paris modiste’s to learn the trade. Eventually, she branched out on her own, and opened a small shop in the west end of London. Before war broke out she had a large number of well-known society women on her books but their patronage lessened as the war progressed. It was considered something akin to a crime to spend money on dresses in those times. As the famous British film star Violet Hobson said during the war ’one was obliged to be economical.’

A portrait of Madame Petier of Merci et Cie

Many big names were erased from her books but at the same time many film stars began to take an interest in her services. She claimed that ‘producers about that time realised the asset of good dressing in a film production’ and many of the actresses who had previously just bought outfits from wherever they could, came to Mde Merci so she could individually create, design and make their gowns.

By 1916 it was observed by one reporter on Film Fashions that ‘few, perhaps realise what care and consideration is expended both by producer and artiste on the subject of the toilette. There are so many things to be studied; period, social standing of the characters in the play, and shades and materials that reproduce well in photography; all have to be considered ad producers are now planning the dressing of their pictures on artistic and scientific lines. The cost, in many cases, instead of being placed on the etceteras list is often one of the big items, but the result certainly justifies the outlay.’

The first known documented appearance of Merci et Cie’s creations on screen came in 1916 for the actress Daisy Burrell in the GB Samuelson film Just a Girl directed by Alexander Butler. Samuelson had seen Burrell performing in the pantomime Cinderella in the London Palladium in 1915 produced by his brother Julian Wylie and had engaged her for film work. Just a Girl was the story of Esmeralda (Burrell) who was brought up in an Australian mining camp but discovered, at the age of 20, that she was heiress to millions and brought to England where she married a nice, young nobleman (Owen Nares) but complications arise. The film was regarded as lavish and tasteful and many of the depictions of the London social season, the debutante ball, the wedding and a grand ball gave great scope for the costuming by Merci et Cie. For example, Daisy Burrell’s bride’s dress was an artistic harmony of white satin and tulle with a plain medieval bodice outlined with orange blossoms and tulle draperies falling from the hips to the edge of the short shirt. The court train was composed of white satin, orange flowers and tulle. The six bridesmaids frocks were composed of blush pink taffetas, the bouffant poniers being caught up with roses and worn with pink, lace-trimmed hats.

The ‘going away’ dress was a dainty creation of apricot taffetas, trimmed with saxe blue ribbon and a small tulle hat. A distinctive travelling coat was of sand-coloured garberdine, relieved with a huge, stand-up collar of raven’s wing’s, blue satin and two oriental medallions. A lovely gown was of nattier blue chiffon velvet with its elegant simplicity set off with mink trimming. There was an artistic shantung gown trimmed with bluish green and fawn striped glace silk and a little shantung hat trimmed with tulle. Daisy Burrell’s ballroom dress was of white net over white silk, the full net short having white chenille flowers, giving the gown the effect of having been strewn with snowflakes. Another elaborate creation was of black tulle trimmed with many taffetas-edged tulle flowers with sapphire jewelled trimming gleaming through the diaphanous tulle draperies and an infinitesimal bodice of the glittering material clasped in front with an enormous sapphire butterfly and narrow sapphire straps as sleeves and sapphire butterflies poised on the shoulders.

One can only speculate about how Merci et Cie gained the contract to dress Just a Girl. Was Daisy Burrell a previous client of Merci et Cie? Did GB Samuelson find her? Was this the first time Merci et Cie had dressed a British silent film? There are so many unanswered questions.

One clue might be the location of the business itself. 90 Charing Cross Road was a big building that contained numerous businesses and it had been a focus for the film industry and several film companies had been based there such as Andrews, Tyler and the Elite Sales Agency. It was also the base for the theatrical and variety agents Norris and Clayton Ltd who in late 1915 had staged a farcical comedy revue called Who’s Who? with Daisy Burrell in the cast. Perhaps Merci et Cie was in the right place at the right time as a milliner and costumier and through contacts within the building gained access to British film companies and to Daisy Burrell.

One must also pose the question as to whether Merci et Cie dressed other films with Daisy Burrell like Valley of Fear (1916 / Samuelson), It’s Always the Women (1916 / Clarendon), Little Women (1917 / Samuelson) and further films in 1920 including The Pride of the Fancy, Convict 99, The Last Rose of Summer and The Bridal Chair (all Samuelson). Given later press interviews that she did indeed costume Daisy Burrell in a 1920 Samuelson film it is more than likely that this was the case.

Merci et Cie may well have costumed some stage productions too, since in late 1918 she was noted for her ‘beautiful and bizarre’ dresses in the regional touring show Zaza that was documented as being staged at the Hastings Gallery Theatre, The Royal Court Theatre Warrington and the Blackpool Opera House. Presented by WH Glaze it had Jane Wood in the starring role of Zaza a French music hall star.

In an interview in 1920 it was claimed Mde Petier of  Merci et Cie was the first costumier in London to realise the big part that clothes must play in film production and had been an invaluable aid to producers for the last 6-8 years. ‘nearly all the frocks worn in British pictures have been designed and made by her…’  One wonders exactly what films and which actresses she did indeed dress during the period 1916-1920.

In 1920, Mde Merci was described as ‘a mixture of radiance, optimism and art.. of English dignity and French naivete and the possessor of an almost uncannily wonderful creative genius where gowns are concerned.’  She thought that dress designing for film was an art that was unique and demanded a thorough and comprehensive knowledge of the vagaries of the camera including colour schemes. She would listen to a complete account of an actresses role in any forthcoming film and would then interpret what kind of outfits were needed. Her salon was daintily furnished with quaint Oriental hangings, little Chinese images and riotous cushions with Eastern influence and her actual workrooms were well-equipped, modern and comfortable apartments.

In February 1920, Mde Merci gave a presentation of her new ideas for film wear by showing fifty gowns of all descriptions to a special invited audience of noted film stars, film producers and the press. Several mannequins displayed the outfits designed for every occasion and incidental in the career of a movie heroine. There were gowns clearly suitable for the girlish heroine: graceful, flimsy creations with delicate boudoir caps and artistic pajamas, Vampire frocks brilliant in their sequinned glory and sparkling with flashing stones and oriental rest gowns and gorgeous wraps. There were also charming ball dresses of draped charmeuse and chiffon and frocks for brides and bridesmaids with flower wreathed waists and floating veils.

Popular themes or styles were frilled hip panels, long slender trains, floral crepe de chine and startling designs (such as large tigers and jungle effects on one ravishing coat). It was thought that these new film clothes ‘comprise everything from a sumptuous evening gown to a simple kimono, from an opera cloak to a severe day gown.’

Mde Merci had made a trip to Paris to observe styles but she had developed her own original ideas predicting what would be worn in the spring and summer of 1920. From the models shown it was obvious that the East would play quite an important part in ladies attire during the coming season both in styles and colouring. Many of the skirts showed distinct Harem tendencies whilst Eastern embroideries and materials were much used. The designing reflected the greatest credit on the artistry, originality and cleverness of Merci et Cie.

Two sketches for outfits created by Merci et Cie and to be worn by Daisy Burrell and Violet Hopson were depicted in one newspaper feature. One gown for Hobson was definitely attributed to Her Son (Broadwest, 1920). It is likely that the gown for Burrell was seen in The Last Rose of Summer (Samuelson, 1920) but Later in 1920, Daisy Burrell appeared in another Samuelson production The Pride of the Fancy which might also have been dressed by Madame Merci.

Two sketches for outfits created by Madame Merci and to be worn by Daisy Burrell and Violet Hopson (1920)

 (above left) A sketch of an evening gown worn by Daisy Burrell in a forthcoming Samuelson production most likely The Last Rose of Summer (Samuelson, 1920)  The gown had a pink satin foundation, a double skirt of palest pink georgette and a unique criss-cross trimming composed of pale mauve ribbon with tiny blue forget-me-not ornamentation that also adored the should straps.

 (above right) Sketch of a delightful evening cloak of the prevalent loose style tightening at the bottom worn by Violet Hopson in her new Broadwest picture Her Son (1920). Made of black chiffon velvet with white brooch skirt and collar and daintily embroidered with white flowers on the velvet, it was created by Merci et Cie.

Because Hopson was clearly one of  Merci et Cie’s major clients, with a confirmed credit for Her Son, it is worth looking at a few of her films at the time. Hopson, was one of the major British stars to cultivate a glamorous image and she always placed great emphasis on being well dressed. It was observed that she had  ‘the reputation of being the most exquisitely gowned British screen player.’  In late 1919, she revealed  ‘one has to make a careful study of the colours and material which photograph to the best advantage. Then every different film calls for a different style of dressing, for seldom does one find two films in which the characters are similar and the difference in dress is most important, for the mode of costume denotes a person’s character more clearly than anything else. My clothes always form one of the most important items in any film. So much depends on what one wears and what is still more important, how one wears it.’  She explained a sketch artist at her modiste developed  was required, the sketches are then discussed and approved, materials selected and the clothes made. Hobson added  ‘I think I have been fortunate in discovering one of the very few dressmakers in London who specialises in film frocks. It is surprising to me that a larger number of well known stage costumiers do not interest themselves in picture gowns.’  It is not a leap of faith to equate this dressmaker as Madame Merci.

Violet Hopson in a Madame Merci gown from Her Son (1920)

It is likely that Merci et Cie created Hopson’s gowns for The Gentleman Rider (September 1919) and it was made clear that all her frocks, costumes and hats were specially designed and made… ‘As these tiolettes will be ultra-fashionable, it will be interesting to note how correctly Miss Hopson’s modiste anticipated Madame fashion’s designs, which will be a la mode by the time the film is screened.’

Other possible credits could be The Romance of a Movie Star (August, 1920) and The Case of Lady Camber (1920). However, it is worth mentioning that Hopson’s gowns for In the Gloaming (1919) were made by an obscure house called Maxson in Paris and that her gowns in The Imperfect Lover (1921) were from another unidentified Parisian couturier.

Constance Worth, Heather Thatcher and Mercy Hatton along with various other fellow artists were in the audience of the fashion show at Mme Merci’s showrooms in 1920. As a result it might be possible to suggest that Merci et Cie dressed these three actresses in their 1920 film releases. Mercy Hatton (signed to Broadwest) was seen in Her Son, along with Violet Hopson and she was also seen in The Case of Lady Camber (1920). Heather Thatcher played the lead in the Granger-Binger film The Little Hour of Peter Wells (filmed summer 1920) and Constance Worth was the star of Fate’s Plaything (Anglo-Hollandia films, 1920)

One confirmed press credit was for The Black Spider (May 1920) produced for British and Colonial (B&C) and partly filmed in Monte Carlo starring Lydia Kyasht and Christine Maitland. Kyasht
was also regarded as one of ‘the best dressed women on the stage’ and her gowns for this production were promised to beat even her own record.

A scene from the Black Spider (1920) with Lydia Kyasht, Betram Burleigh and Ronald Colman

Since the film was for B&C it might indicate that Mde Merci was on a retainer by them to provide costumes. For example, Desire (January 1920) starred Christine Maitland and her ‘ultra-fashionable frocks’ were described as simple but beautiful and ‘specially designed for her.’

Clearly,  Merci et Cie was highly admired and used extensively. However, it is not an easy task to identify which productions or actresses she dressed. This is largely because British Film companies had little idea about how to exploit glamour for publicity purposes to help sell a film by using this valuable area of feminine exploitation. Overall, British studios and individual producers had little insight into the value of costume and dress design as a topic of press coverage, unlike their American counterparts. As a result the description of a film wardrobe and the identity of the designer was rarely discussed.

By 1925  Merci et Cie had moved from Charing Cross Road to 72 Newman Street, but what happened to her establishment and, if she continued dressing British films, is not known.

All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent

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