Edith Wharton Visits Her Dressmaker

Edith Wharton, 1905

Edith Wharton, 1905

August 1-2, 1914: World War I Breaks Out and Wharton Visits her Dressmaker 

One hundred years ago today, American novelist Edith Wharton was living in Paris, and like all Parisians, was waiting for news of war. Germany and Russia had declared war on each other only the day before. Everyone in Paris held their breath.

Edith Wharton visited her dressmaker.

I’m not making light of the tragedy of war, and neither was Wharton. I remember studying history in college and thinking to myself, there has to be more to history than the story of men marching into battle. What did the women do? How were the families affected? What did the women whisper among themselves?

Imagine yourself a woman in Paris on the eve of war. It’s the beginning of August. Everyone knows that Paris empties out for an entire month at the end of summer. Who knows what businesses would stay open if war came. If Edith Wharton needed to get fitted for new dresses, time was of the essence.

Wharton couldn’t just run into Galleries Lafayette, recently opened in 1912, because that kind of place provided fast fashion for the masses. Wharton was a high-society woman, and had been a long-time client of the fashionable couture dress designers of rue de la Paix in Paris, such as the House of Worth and Droucet.

In Fighting France (Scribner’s 1915), Wharton reports that she visited her dressmaker’s, but is discreet enough not to drop a name. We don’t know if she went to Worth, Droucet, or someone else’s shop, but it was likely on the rue de la Paix, just a short walk from the Hôtel de Crillon where she was staying. She later stated in an article for Scribner’s Magazine that she interacted with the seamstresses who were anxious about the prospect of war.

At the dressmaker’s, the next morning, the tired fitters were preparing to leave for their usual holiday. They looked pale and anxious – decidedly, there was a new air of apprehension in the air.

 

Seamstresses at the atelier de couture chez Worth, Paris 1907

Seamstresses at the atelier de couture chez Worth, Paris 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/

 

House of Worth Salon, 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/

House of Worth Draping blouses, 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/

 

 

After visiting the dressmaker, Edith Wharton returned to La Place de la Concorde, where she observed people standing on the street corner, reading a newly posted notice on the French Naval Headquarters. It was the French mobilization notice.

And in the rue Royale, at the corner of the Place de la Concorde, a few people had stopped to look at a little white piece of paper against the wall of the Ministère de Marine. “General mobilization” they read – and an armed nation knows what that means. But the group about the paper was small and quiet. Passers by read the notice and went on. There were no cheers, no gesticulations: the dramatic sense of the race had told them that the event was too great to be dramatized. Like a monstrous landslide it had fallen across the path of an orderly laborious nation, disrupting its routine, annihilating its industries, rending families apart, and burying under a heap of senseless ruin the patiently and painfully wrought machinery of civilization. . . .

 

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Later that night, Wharton dined at a restaurant on rue Royale, not far at all from the Crillon. It could have been Maxim’s, which was certainly a popular dining destination at the time. Wharton could see that the mobilization order was already being obeyed.

That evening, in a restaurant of the rule Royale, we sat at a table in one of the open windows, abreast with the street, and saw the strange new crowds stream by. In an instant we were being shown what mobilization was – a huge break in the normal flow of traffic, like the sudden rupture of a dike. The street was flooded by the torrent of people flowing past us to the various railway stations. All were on foot, and carrying their luggage; for since dawn, every cab and taxi and motor-omnibus has disappeared. The War Office had thrown out its drag-net and caught them all in. The crowd that passed out window was chiefly composed of conscripts, the mobilisables of the first day, who were on their way to the station accompanied by their families and friends; but among them were little clusters of bewildered tourists, laboring along with bags and bundles, and watching their luggage pushed before them with hand-carts – puzzled inarticulate waifs caught in the cross-tides racing to a maelstrom (Fighting France, Scribner’s 1915).

 

maxims_night

Inside the rue Royal restaurant a loud patriotic mood prevailed.

In the restaurant, the befrogged and red-coated band poured out patriotic music, and the intervals between the courses that so few waiters were left to serve were broken by the ever-recurring obligation to stand up for the Marseillaise, and to stand up for God Save the King, to stand up for the Russian National Anthem, to stand up again for the Marseillaise. “Et dire que ce sont des Hongrois qui jouent tout cela!” a humorist remarked from the pavement. [And to say that they are all Hungarians who play here!]

As the evening wore on and the crowd about our window thickened, the loiterers outside began to join in the war-songs. “Allons, debout!” and the loyal round begins again. “La chanson du départ” is a frequent demand; and the chorus of spectators chimes in roundly. A sort of quiet humor was the note of the street. Down the rue Royale, toward the Madeleine, the bands of other restaurants were attracting other throngs, and martial refrains were stru ng along the Boulevard like its garland of arc-lights. It was a night of singing and acclamations, not boistrous, but gallant and determined. It was Paris badauderie at its best

(Fighting France, Scribner’s 1915).

 

Families accompanying their soon-to-be French soldiers to the train station, August 1914. Source: http://vergue.com/post/2013/10/08/A-la-guerre-en-chantant-1914

Families accompanying their soon-to-be French soldiers to the train station, August 1914. Source: http://vergue.com/post/2013/10/08/A-la-guerre-en-chantant-1914

 

Mobilization in Paris, August 4, 1914. Source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6931124r

Mobilization in Paris, August 4, 1914.

 

Lines form for French mobilization at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. The official order was given at 4 pm on Saturday, August 1st, beginning the initial call-up of a million men for the French Army. Source: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/fr-mobilize.htm

Lines form for French mobilization at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. The official order was given at 4 pm on Saturday, August 1st, beginning the initial call-up of a million men for the French Army. Source: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/fr-mobilize.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*A note about dates: Edith Wharton’s exact dates get confusing in Fighting France, The Look of Paris. She often repeats herself by saying, “the next day.” The reader is left to wonder, the next day, or the same day as the last time you said the next day? For example, it appears the French mobilization order was issued at 4pm on August 1st, but it was dated August 2nd. So did Edith Wharton see the posted notice late in the day on the first or mid-day on the 2nd? Sorry to confuse you even further. My point is, I’m trying to get the dates right but I could be off a day or two. Let’s just all stipulate that it’s definitely early August? Good. Then I’m done worrying about it.

Recommended Reading:

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

 

 

 

Paris, August 1,1914: Edith Wharton Waits for War

August 1, 1914: Edith Wharton Wakes Up at the Hôtel de Crillon; Russia and Germany Declare War

Edith Wharton had been living in Paris for over seven years by the time World War I started. She first arrived in 1907 at the age of 45, along with her then-husband Teddy Wharton. She settled in along the rue de Varenne in the fashionable 7th arrondissement.

age of desire 1

 

For an enjoyable read about Edith Wharton’s early years in Paris, her surprising mid-life affair with Morton Fullerton, and her divorce from her American husband, you should definitely check out Jennie Fields’ 2012 novel, Age of Desire. (And follow along on my Edith Wharton Paris Literary Tour here.)

By the time war came in 1914, Wharton was a seasoned American in Paris. She knew Paris and Parisians well, and had claimed the city as her own.

 

 

On July 30, 1914, Wharton had just returned to Paris from a “motorflight” to Spain with her friend Walter Berry. She checked into her favorite suite at Hôtel de Crillon, her favorite Paris hotel on the Place de la Concorde. It was her habit to check into the Crillon to get settled back into town, even if she had owned her own home at 53 rue de Varenne since 1910.

Hôtel Crillon, Paris

Hôtel Crillon, Paris

The view of the back of Edith Wharton’s apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, which overlooked beautiful private gardens.

The view of the back of Edith Wharton’s apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, which overlooked beautiful private gardens.

Wharton woke up at the Crillon on August 1st, observing and listening as she moved through the hotel and the streets of Paris. As Wharton later reported:

The next day, the air was thundery with rumors. Nobody believed them, everyone repeated them. War? Of course there couldn’t be war! The Cabinets, like naughty children, were dangling their feet over the edge; but the whole incalculable weight of things-as-they-were, the daily necessity of living, continued calmly and convincingly to assert itself against the bandying of diplomatic words. Paris went on steadily with its mid-summer business of feeding, dressing and amusing the great army of tourists who were the only invaders she had seen in nearly half a century.

 

All the while, everyone knew that other work was going on also. The whole fabric of the country’s seemingly undisturbed routine was threaded with noiseless invisible currents of preparation, the sense of them was in the calm air as the sense of changing weather is in the balminess of a perfect afternoon. Paris counted the minutes until the evening papers came.

 

They said little or nothing except what everyone was already declaring all over the country. “We don’t want war – maid il faut que cell finesse!” “This thing has got to stop”: that was the only phrase one heard. If diplomacy could still arrest the war, so much the better – no one in France wanted it. All who spent the first days of August in Paris will testify to the agreement of feeling on that point. But if war had to come, the country, and every heart in it, was ready (Fighting France, 1915).

 

What Wharton does not say is exactly what the papers had reported. In fact, on August 1, 1914, Russia and Germany declared war on each other, just four days after Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. France was not yet at war, but all of Paris waited the news that was likely to come.

Coming Next: August 2, 1914 – Edith Wharton Visits Her Dressmaker; France Issues a Mobilization Order

 

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.