Meet Madame Demorest: Gilded Age Fashionista
I had the idea to write a dressmaking heroine before I even knew about Madame Demorest. And I had the idea to write a secret ladies club before I even knew about Madame Demorest’s real life friendship with Jane Cunningham Croly, the founder of the Sorosis club upon which my Gilded Age Girls Club is based. Their biographer notes “Together these two women were a more potent force than an army of noisy feminists.”
I discovered mentions of Madame Demorest through my research about 19th century fashion and I tracked down a biography about her. I ordered a very used copy of the one and only biography about her. With a title like Crusades and Crinolines, how do you 1) not buy it immediately and 2) not write a romance heroine inspired by her? Especially when it turns out that Madame Demorest is really Ellen Louise Demorest, founder of a successful magazine, inventor of the paper pattern and basically the Anna Wintour of 19th century.
Ellen was born in 1824 and at the age of 18, she decided to become a milliner and so she set up shop and was successful enough that she moved her business to the big leagues: New York City. It’s here that she met her husband. But Ellen is not famous for being a milliner.
The story goes that Ellen noticed her maid cutting a dress pattern out of a brown paper bag and that sparked the idea to make dress patterns out of tissue paper. She then figured out the mathematical formula that would allow the maker to adapt the style and pattern for different sizes. Genius! Needing a way to promote their patterns, the Demorests naturally started a magazine—Mme Demorest’s Mirror of Fashion—which include fashion plates and a paper pattern with each copy. At the peak, they were selling 3 million copies per year!
The magazine expanded to become the Demorest’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine and Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions. Fun fact: Jane Croly (Real life founder of the Sorosis club and #inspo for my character, Harriet Burnett) was super tight with Madame Demorest. She wrote for the magazine under the pseudonym Jennie June, dispensing advice on “how to dress for church, how to launch a club, how to guide an erring husband, how to garnish a dinner table, how to hang pictures…whether a pink satin bodice would be good over a white tulle dress…whether or not to do fancywork in the parlor when a gentleman called to spend the evening, and what George Sand’s marital status chanced to be at the moment.”
In fact, their lives were so entwined that a good portion of Ellen’s biography is devoted to Jane.
The popularity of their magazines and patterns meant that Ellen and her sister took yearly trips to Paris and London to take notes on the latest styles, which she brought back to America via her paper patterns. She invented a new style of hoop skirt and corset. She established a mail order business and a network of lady-led showrooms across the country. What she didn’t do—alas—is patent her patterns. The business declined in the face of competition and was sold in 1887.
Ellen and her husband turned to advocacy work. She was a temperance and equal rights advocate. She always made a point of employing white and black women equally, to work side by side. She also helped Jane found the Sorosis Club.
She is one of those women I wish I had known about growing up–an inventive and successful business woman with a full life of family and friends, an activist spirit and the very best dresses.