Skip to Content

Search: {{$root.lsaSearchQuery.q}}, Page {{$}}

Reverb Effect Season 3, Episode 4 Transcript

[Reverb Effect Introduction]

Allie Goodman: In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryll Streep plays the cold, exacting, merciless editor in chief, Miranda Priestly, of Runway magazine. In the film, Priestly hires the fashionably clueless Andy as her assistant at Runway, a magazine rumored to be based on Vogue. And Andy, who took the position because she couldn’t find any other jobs in journalism, had to quickly learn a world in which every detail was made to measure. Andy’s lack of knowledge quickly landed her in hot water when she scoffed at the fuss made over two belts’ supposedly vast differences—which she could not see. Priestly went for blood. According to Priestly, the ugly sweater that Andy “threw on” that day was not blue, but in fact cerulean. It had its own history in the fashion industry—the color was showcased in collections that included some of fashion’s biggest names. It was more than a color, it was a statement. For Priestly, cerulean represented countless time and money and real peoples’ jobs. It was not just a color any more than the belt was just a belt. Priestly closed her lethal diatribe by asserting that rather than making a choice to wear an ugly sweater that seemingly excluded her from fashion, Andy had in fact purchased an item that was, at some point, curated for consumption by the people in that very room. Priestly reminded Andy that even though she professed not to care about fashion, she was still impacted and implicated in it. 

A sweatshirt or a sweater; a pair of jeans or slacks; leggings or khakis; a t-shirt or a button-down shirt. While, according to Priestly, some “take themselves too seriously to care” about the clothes they throw on each morning, these items have a history—one which is impacted by gendered ideas about labor and expertise, both for the wearer and the maker. Would the conversation in Priestly’s office have gone differently if they were discussing the quality of steel-toed boots? Underlying Andy’s judgments were gendered assumptions about utility and professionalism. When we put on a crisp, clean, button-down shirt as opposed to a “well-loved” logo t-shirt, we’re making a statement about how we wish to present ourselves to our immediate circles, be they friends, family, or employers. And our circles react accordingly, based largely on how those in fashion have dictated norms and informal dress codes. In particular, the white button-down shirt has become the epitome of professionalism. But where did that idea come from? Why did the button-down shirt—now a staple of any professional wardrobe—come to occupy such a privileged position in our closets? 

Welcome to Season 3, Episode 4 of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host and season producer, Allie Goodman. In this episode, John Finkelberg will show how a revolution in modern fashion was actually rooted in much older ideas about gender, expertise, and labor. John is a graduate student in the department of history. His dissertation is titled, “Becoming a Man in the Age of Fashion: Gender and Menswear in Nineteenth-Century France.” 

John Finkelberg: Imagine the following scenario. It’s a typical Parisian morning in the fall of 1838, a quick shower has covered the streets in a sleek layer of rain, but you, a recent university graduate who has secured a post in a thriving legal partnership, are determined to complete your new wardrobe before taking up your new position. 

You already visited your father’s tailor for a new jacket with a velvet lapel—like the one you saw on the heir apparent, the duke d’Orléans, last week at the Opera. You also bought a sturdy, but nonetheless fashionable wool coat, several bright silk waistcoats, and a couple pairs of tight-fitting pants. It’s all maybe a bit much but your father told you to put it on his account, so it is a problem for another day. 

Your mother was kind enough to buy you one of those elegant new beaver fur top hats that are all the rage these days. Your sisters gave you two new neckties and collars, and you splurged on a new pair of boots from the family cobbler. Obviously, you purchased the boots on credit, but you will have more than enough to pay the man back soon. 

Your wardrobe is almost complete, but you have one last errand.  You are determined to get your hands on the latest development in high fashion: a white tailored shirt made by the newest merchants in the city, a Parisian shirt maker. Your mother offered to have her maid, Sophie, make you several new shirts, but this won’t do. You are determined to be at the height of fashion, and don’t want to wear the uncomfortable undergarments Sophie usually makes. Instead, you want the new tailor-made shirt; a shirt that tells the world you are a modern, practical, elegant, and up-and-coming young man from a respectable family. So, armed with an umbrella and a fashion plate you ripped from a fashion magazine, you are on your way to the newest shop in Paris, Pierret and Lami-Housset’s Chemiserie. A new world awaits you, and you just can’t wait to get your hands on a tailor-made shirt.

In 1836, Catherine Pierret and Pierre-Antoine Lami-Housset transformed the Parisian fashion industry when they opened the first chemiserie, a shirt store, in Paris in the center of the city’s commercial district.  They had done something radical: they tailored a shirt. For centuries shirts had been nothing more than a rectangular piece of fabric sewn in half and worn as an undergarment. Subjected to the skills of a tailor, which included cutting multiple pieces of fabric, sewing in darts, and carefully measuring the fabric to fit an individual’s body, the shirt became a luxury item, one that elite men proudly displayed on their bodies. 

Catherine and Pierre-Antoine essentially invented the precursor to the modern button-down shirt, a now ubiquitous part of the masculine wardrobe and worn from “business-casual” to “black-tie” situations. When they were first introduced, however, fashion journals disregarded these new shirts, claiming it was indecent to discuss underwear in a fashion magazine. But within a few years, they had become one of the most sought-after luxury goods, especially as mens’ outfits began to change. 

In the eighteenth century, men’s shirts were hidden except for the collar and cuffs by long waistcoats that buttoned all the way to the neck. But in the nineteenth century, waistcoats became shorter and more open, revealing men’s chests in ways that were previously unheard of in polite society. Almost overnight a man’s shirt—now visible—became as important as his jacket or waistcoat as a means of displaying his class position and wealth. A fine, white shirt was an emblem of a new fashionable masculinity premised on adornment and display. 

In their legal patents, advertisements, and even in the way that they arranged their stores, Catherine and Pierre-Antoine perpetuated gendered discourses about production and consumption that were crucial to the development of modern capitalist economies. Shirt makers contributed to discourses, or understandings, that were emerging at this time that defined some forms of shopping as practical, rational, and by extension masculine, while other forms were denigrated as frivolous and impractical, or otherwise feminine. 

Created by expert men, the new shirt was defined as a revolutionary product, an inherently masculine garment men needed to buy, because it was believed it could change the way men experienced the world: it was more comfortable, it allowed for better movement of the body, and because it looked elegant—which aligned with an idea about creating a virile, robust, and economically productive kind of masculinity.

If we look even closer at the history of the white shirt, the same shirt so ubiquitous today for men in business settings, we can see these gendered ideas being played out in the archival records. In particular, how Catherine Pierret continuously passed herself off as a man, a Monsieur Pierret, in both her business records and advertisements. 

When I stumbled upon the final will and testament of a Madame Catherine Pierret in the French national archives, I was shocked, to say the least, that she was identified as Lami-Housset’s business partner. I had seen the name, Monsieur Pierret, countless times in advertisements and in their patent applications, but now this new document claimed that the monsieur was actually a madame. Why might she do this?  One answer is that Pierret and Lami-Housset’s business was all about creating a new type of shopping experience—one just for men—and so Catherine needed to claim to have the skills and knowledge to serve her male clientele. 

The division of labor in the clothing industry in nineteenth century France was also highly gendered; that is people expected men and women to have different types of jobs. These expectations were not new; in fact some of them dated from as early as the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. One of the oldest differentiations was between male tailors, who were expected to make clothing for men, and female seamstresses, who dressed women.

Within these different industries labor was gendered even further. The more quote “complicated” jobs, such as cutting fabric, were typically reserved for men who could claim to have superior expertise to women, while the work of actually sewing garments, for both men and women, was left mostly to underpaid women who worked on a put-out basis. That is, laborers were paid per each item of clothing they sewed. For example, a woman could earn one franc a day sewing one shirt for a shirt maker.

So in the shirt industry, while the final garments were almost always sewn by women, the shirt itself needed to be designed, measured, and cut by a man in order to qualify in people’s minds as one of the new and improved fashionable shirts.

To get a fuller picture of the pressures at work on Catherine and Pierre-Antoine as they worked on their modern shirt designs in 1836, we must step back a little further in time. Before the 1830s, shirts were garments cut and sewn at home or by a seamstress. Like the imaginary family that opened this episode, most French families purchased fabrics from a draper and then trusted family members, servants, or hired laborers like seamstresses to sew shirts for all family members. Even the poorest, most working-class people owned several shirts—from at least the seventeenth century, the shirt was considered an undergarment, a piece of clothing that protected the body from uncomfortable, and sometimes filthy, outer garments. They could be changed and washed comparatively easily. However, shirts were not necessarily high- quality or made with much skill.  

In the eighteenth century, in the celebrated compendium of knowledge, the Encyclopédie, French philosopher Denise Diderot described common shirts as follows: “la chemise est la partie de notre vêtement qui touche immédiatement à la peau… elle est une espèce de sac, fait d’un même morceau de toile, plié en deux.” 

Denise Diderot: “The shirt is the article of clothing that touches the skin… it is a sort of bag, made from a single piece of fabric folded in half.”  

John Finkelberg: These were crude but ubiquitous garments, and even after Pierret and Lami-Housset invented the new shirts, most people, including working-class people and elites, still got their shirts in the old-fashioned way—they were typically hand-sewn at home and rather unremarkable.

Both Catherine and Pierret had come from modest backgrounds and must have worked for several years to save enough money and gain necessary expertise to open their own business. Their tailoring skills were formidable, and they most likely worked in the clothing industry before setting off on their own. The stakes were high; they could lose everything, but they clearly understood that the fashion industry was changing and there was room for new products like theirs. 

The first time Catherine and Pierre-Antoine appear in French business archives was in 1836, when they announced their intention to form a legal partnership in a newspaper. Such announcements were standard practice for French businesses at the time. The basic conditions of their business agreement stipulated that Catherine and Pierre-Antoine were equal partners. The contract read: 

Contract: “both Pierret and Lami-Housset are authorized to purchase, make, and sell various articles, silks, novelties (nouveautés), shirts or other [goods], which constitute the commerce [they] have been engaged in to this day.” 

John Finkelberg: They also entered into their partnership on equal financial grounds; both Pierret and Lami-Housset each contributed 4,818 francs and 40 centimes, which included furniture, merchandise, debts, and claims, to their burgeoning business. This was no small sum. At the start of their partnership and business venture, Catherine used her full name—Catherine Pierret—on official documents. However, over the next few years, Pierret and Lami-Housset continuously referred to Catherine as a Monsieur Pierret in other legal documents and in advertisements—including on their application for a legal patent.

Several months after they formed their partnership, Pierret and Lami-Housset applied to the state for a brevet d’invention, or a legal patent, to secure their intellectual property and formal recognition of their efforts to transform men’s shirts. In patenting their new shirt, they were part of a growing cohort of men and women in the clothing industry who applied to the state, through the Ministry of Commerce, for formal legal protection of their intellectual property. 

First introduced during the French Revolution of 1789, a brevet d’invention, was a legal patent, secured through the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. One did not need to file for a brevet to be a successful shirt maker, but it did offer a distinct advantage. Patenting could transform a clothing maker’s abilities to market their wares. In attempting to secure legal recognition of their inventions, the owner of a brevet d’invention took an opportunity to claim ownership of a product and the knowledge and expertise that went into making it—a means of differentiating themselves from competitors. 

In August 1836, Lami-Housset and Pierret filed for a two-part brevet. They first applied to secure the title of “tailleur pour chemise,” or shirt tailor. They argued that after several years of working in the clothing industry, they were shocked at the current state of shirt making in France. Observing men on the streets, they claimed that most Parisian men wore shirts that did not properly fit them. In their patent, Catherine and Pierre-Antoine identified the problem as they saw it: 

Patent Application: “The fabrication of shirts, until now left exclusively to women, who without a precise method, work ordinarily from routine, as such neglect to make the shirt conform to the form and corpulence of the person who must wear it.” 

John Finkelberg: Their claims of repetitive, unskilled work and lack of attention to individual bodies cast the ordinary seamstress’s products as crude and ill-fitting. Here the duo was using creative marketing language to sell the legitimacy of their claim. They first identified (or created) a problem and then they provided the solution to that problem (whether or not it was a real problem in the first place.) Catherine and Pierre-Antoine claimed to be different; they used the skills of the tailor to make shirts with a refined and altogether new fit. By insisting upon a new title, they marked their work as different and, most importantly, as both skilled and masculine. This was the kind of work that needed to be officially protected from encroachment from or confusion with the work of the ordinary seamstress. 

Predominant notions about masculine knowledge meant it was important for the first shirt makers that they both presented, at the least on paper, as men. Catherine and Pierre Antoine knew that Catherine would face some resistance if she openly advertised herself as a woman stepping into a man’s world, so they did the next best thing, and pretended that Catherine was a man. When the duo filed for their brevet they identified themselves in writing as “Messieurs Pierret and Lami-Housset.” The two continued to advertise their store and new shirts as owned and produced by two men: two monsieurs. 

Catherine was not married, which meant that there was nothing stopping her from entering a business for herself. Moreover, there were several Parisian chemisiers who publicly identified as women. However, these women typically advertised as specialists in women’s shirts. This provides a clue as to Catherine and Pierre-Antoine’s motivations. Catherine’s passing as a man in legal documents and in the fashion press effectively claimed a form of knowledge and expertise that was in the process of being defined as exclusive to men, and to a certain extent masculine. By identifying as a woman on legal documents, Catherine would have associated herself with the feminine “seamstress,” which contradicted the very idea of what made these new shirts different. She had to instead embody a “tailleur pour chemise,” an inherently masculine title evocative of a new level of skill.  

Unfortunately, the patent clerks were not impressed and they rejected their request to patent the title of “tailleur pour chemise.” The partners, undeterred, continued to use the title throughout their careers. However, the same clerks did approve the second half of the application: a patent for a specialized shirt. 

The new shirt consisted of individually cut segments making up a collar, a front, a back, sleeves, shoulder yoke, and cuffs. The design submitted with Catherine and Pierre-Antoine’s application illustrated the various pieces of the shirt that needed to be cut and sewed together, along with the various practical skills needed to fashion the final garment. Instead of sewing the shirt from simple squares and rectangles that could fit an array of bodies, the new shirt was measured to the figure and cut from a pattern. Shaping seams and pleats, which were previously used to tailor jackets and waistcoats, were incorporated to mold the shirt to the body. The front and back, sleeves and the collar would be measured and cut to account for different levels of girth and musculature. 

The patent reads, succinctly:

Patent: “Having finally, in good time, dedicated their attention to the causes of the eternal complaints, which arise from all sides, about a shirt’s bad quality, or its poor fit, the undersigned believe they have found a solution to these problems, a happy solution, which is being verified on a daily basis.” 

John Finkelberg: Really, their innovation was a matter of fit. For the first time, shirts were supposed to fit close to a body, and needed to be made with individual measurements in mind.  

And it worked. Catherine and Pierre-Antoine’s new shirts were incredibly successful and sought after in the decade following their invention. They were sold in what became known as chemiseries. The chemiserie differentiated itself from the other fashionable shops by offering a new experience for male customers: the opportunity to have a shirt tailored to fit their body in a space dedicated for the making and sale of shirts. Catherine and Pierre-Antoine’s shop in the rue de Richelieu began attracting an increasing number of wealthy aristocrats and professional men such as lawyers, like the one who opened this podcast, as well as clerks, and bureaucrats. Customers entered the shop from the rue Richelieu and inside the shop customers were surrounded by several large wooden counters, large mirrors, and storage cabinets filled to the brim with an enormous stock of fabrics. Inside this sumptuous world, customers were met by the two shirt makers who would work with the customers to design their own shirts. They helped pick fabrics, suggested particular embroideries for the cuffs and collars, and sized and shaped the shirt according to the customer’s body. 

But wouldn’t customers notice Catherine was a woman when they went to her store? Well, it wasn’t unheard of for tailors to employ women as shop assistants and as seamstresses to do the actual sewing. When customers came to the store, they would presumably encounter Pierre Antoine, assume that his male partner was out, and that he was being helped by a woman. Or perhaps customers knew she was a woman and didn’t care. It could be that her passing as a man moved customers through the door, and once inside, they weren’t going to leave without the newest luxury good.

Frankly, it seems almost impossible that Catherine actually dressed and tried to pass herself off as a man in person. The inventory of her personal belongings, for example, shows she didn’t own any menswear. She did have a fairly large wardrobe that included the many dresses, petticoats, and accessories that went into a woman’s wardrobe of her class.

For Catherine, passing as a man on paper was a way of establishing her credentials in a world that expected men to design clothing for men, and women to design clothing for women. She used a man’s persona to create her reputation. And, it seems to have worked in her favor; and she counted amongst her clients wealthy aristocrats, military officers, and members of the professional classes including clerks, government officials, businessmen, and lawyers.

The success of the shirt making industry was predicated on its efforts to gender a particular form of consumption as masculine, as a form of consumption that men needed to engage with in order to properly perform their masculinity. Catherine and Pierre-Antoine did this effectively in two ways: First, they emphasized that their skills were honed and developed with male bodies in mind; that is, that they always shaped garments according to a man’s physique to make shirts more elegant, comfortable, and practical. Second, in trying to pass Catherine as a man, the partners presumably thought that in order for the business to thrive, they had to prove that the people behind the industry understood male bodies. In order to build their brand, the duo relied on the gendered assumptions that their contemporaries were bound to make—that men needed to dress men, and women should be left to dressing women

After her death in 1842, two men purchased the business Catherine had worked so hard to create. They continued selling men’s tailored shirts, capitalizing upon the business's reputation as one of the city's premier chemiseries. They also capitalized on the name Monsieur Pierret, invoking it in their advertisements as the original inventor of the shirt that changed the fashion world. Catherine died, but Monsieur Pierret lived on.

Allie Goodman: Thanks for listening, and a special thank you to our segment producer for this episode, John Finkelberg. Another thank you to voice actors in order of appearance Alexander Clayton and Frank Espinosa. Our editorial board is Professor Henry Cowles, Alexander Clayton, Christopher DeCou, and Hannah Roussel. Gregory Parker is our executive producer, and I’m your host and season producer, Allie Goodman. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode, for more stories about how the past reverberates in the present. This is Reverb Effect.