Books I’ve Known and Loved

Demorest-Ad

Yes, the Irish population loved their bicycles and sewing machines, but the world loved Madame Demorest. Maybe it’s true that women were slaves to their horrible husbands  and to a society that looked upon business women with disdain in the 19th century, but Nell Demorest didn’t let that stop her. By odd coincidence she grew up in my son’s friend’s house across the street from us in Schuylerville, New York–a stones throw away from Saratoga.

Statuesque Arbiter of Fashion
Statuesque Arbiter of Fashion

Young Nell liked fashion–is that a crime? She loved watching the Southern beauties and new rich mingle and compete for the most extravagance in dress. Her father, obviously another decent guy, helped her start her own ladies’ hat design business at the age of 18. But just as it is today, New York City was the place to be if you liked fashion so off she went to open a shop in the big city all by herself.

Mr. Demorest was a widower when he fell for Nell. He had a thriving dry goods shop and the two decided to combine their talents. One day Nell watched her maid cutting a pattern for a dress out of thick old paper and came upon the idea of patterns cut of tissue paper for next to nothing and mass produced. Wasn’t everyone getting sewing machines these days? Even the Irish population.

Mr. Demorest loved the idea. “And how about we start a magazine of fashion so as to advertize your new mathematical methods that allow tall, short, fat and skinny women to modify their creations to enhance their body type?,” he said (or something like that).

Blue Lovelies
Blue Lovelies

They became famous for the patterns,  the colored prints in the magazine and the free patterns stapled into each issue. Nell came up with useful gadgets as well like the Imperial Dress Elevator which was a bunch of little strings and weights so when crossing the mucky roads in your long dress you could pull a string and the skirt would rise just enough to avoid a rotting dead animal or a puddle.

They had a big shop on Ladies Row and came back from trips to Europe with simplified versions of the latest styles changed to fit the more modest and sensible tastes of American ladies. And guess what–they hired black and white women. A lot of them. There was no outcry.

Except for the part where Martha Stewart almost ran over her neighbor and drove  her husband away with her insufferable perfection Madame Demorest was like Martha in that her image became synonymous with a bunch of products from face cream to dress elevators and even  tea. When Madame talked, people listened. Yet Nell was a woman of her times. She admired her husband’s business acumen and masculine qualities and saw no problem with him wearing the pants in the family.

She helped build a vast empire, but there is not a single instance recorded of her being a bitch. Being in business didn’t harden her. She held sway over a generation of women and girls with a gentle and admirable grace and self-made sophistication.

Crusades and Crinolines by Ishbell Ross

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