portrait etching by Paul Helleu, 1905
Madame Louise Chéruit (died 1935) was among the foremost couturiers of her generation, and one of the first women to control a major French fashion house. Her salon operated in the Place Vendôme in Paris under the name Chéruit (French pronunciation: [ ʃeʁi ]) from 1906 to 1935. Chéruit is best remembered today as the subject of a number of portraits by Paul César Helleu, with whom she conducted an affair before opening her couture house  and for the appearance of her name in two celebrated works of literature, Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (1910) and Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies (1930). Her name is also frequently associated with the fashion photography of Edward Steichen whose favorite model, Marion Morehouse, often wore gowns from the house of Chéruit for Vogue magazine in the 1920s. One particular Steichen image has become iconic: Morehouse in a jet-beaded black net Chéruit dress, first published in 1927.
As one of the leaders of French style, Madame Chéruit and her house of couture took fashion from the Belle Époque through the Jazz Age. In 1910, one reporter wrote glowingly, "With taste, so original, so fine, and so personal, Madame Chéruit has placed her house of fashion at the first rank, not only in Paris, but in the entire world." During her career, she refined for her aristocratic clientele the creative excesses of some of her contemporaries. Her patrons favored soft, feminine, richly ornamented dresses, and, along with fellow designers Lucien Lelong and Louise Boulanger, she helped transition the couture industry from the glamour of high fashion to the reality of ready-to-wear.
Many basic facts about the life of Louise Chéruit are uncertain, although recent research shows that her forename was not "Madeleine," as so many traditional fashion resources claim. Vogue magazine described her as "a Louis XVI woman because she has the daintiness, the extravagant tastes, the exquisite charm, and the art of those French ladies who went gaily through the pre-revolution epoch." She received her early training in dressmaking in the late 1880s with Ernest Raudnitz at his house of couture, Raudnitz & Cie, located in the heart of Paris. The salon especially appealed to women who wanted ensembles that exuded an air of youthfulness and simplicity made of the finest fabrics. Mme Chéruit’s talent, and that of her sister – Huet, who remains a mystery – was such that they ascended to leading positions within the firm. Chéruit notably helped launch the career of Paul Poiret, one of the early twentieth century’s most visionary designers, by buying a collection of twelve of his first designs in 1898. By 1900, labels sewn into clothes created at Raudnitz bore the words, Raudnitz & Cie, Huet & Chéruit Srs., 21, Place Vendôme, Paris – with the names of the sisters in more prominent type. By 1905, the firm's labels read, Huet & Chéruit, Anc.ne Mon. Raudnitz & Cie ("Huet and Chéruit, formerly Mr. Raudnitz and Co.").
The next year, the fashion house with its more than 100 employees became her own, and was rechristened "Chéruit." The salon occupied the distinguished hôtel de Fontpertuis on Place Vendôme, built in the 17th century by Pierre Bullet. Louise Cheruit commissioned an architect to expand the premises to serve her growing clientele. By 1910 Mme. Chéruit was one of the most celebrated designers in Paris, the unveiling of her latest collections closely followed by the press, her image drawn by leading artists, and her name mentioned by the ubiquitous Marcel Proust in his Remembrance of Things Past.
In 1912, Mme. Chéruit signed a contract to collaborate with Lucien Vogel to produce the fashion magazine, La Gazette du Bon Ton. Six other top Paris designers – Georges Doeuillet, Jacques Doucet, Jeanne Paquin, Paul Poiret, Redfern & Sons, and the House of Worth – joined the project. Vogel hired leading Art Deco artists to fill the journal's pages with striking illustrations of the designers' fashions along with essays by noted writers. The magazine printed images on fine papers using the expensive pochoir technique, making it a truly exclusive venue for showcasing the couturiers' latest designs. Mme. Chéruit had a special affection for the artistic style of Pierre Brissaud, and he created most of the illustrations of her work that appeared in the pages of La Gazette du Bon Ton.
Mme. Chéruit’s aesthetic was traditionally feminine, incorporating soft fabrics, pastel colors and rare embroideries, but she was innovative in line and cut. In late 1911 she introduced the pannier gown, full at the hips and tapering to an ankle-length hem, which recalled French court fashions of the 18th century. Delicate evening dresses may have been her forte, but she was also adept at elegant street wear, and by 1914 her walking suits and afternoon gowns were fashion staples.
When World War I struck, most Paris fashion houses shut down or reduced production, but Chéruit remained fully operational. However, in 1914, following a scandal involving her lover, an Austrian nobleman and military officer who was accused of espionage, Cheruit was forced into seclusion, a startling end to her enormous celebrity in French society. Yet despite rumors that she was guilty of spying for the Germans herself and would be executed, she maintained an unswerving, if behind-the-scenes, influence on the artistic direction of her company. By the end of 1915, the house of Chéruit was acquired by its directors Mesdames Wormser and Boulanger, who, Vogue observed in 1915, kept the salon "to its original type" while bringing "much originality to it."
In addition to evening gowns, the house was known for chic cinema wraps, furs, lingerie, blouses, wedding trousseaus, even children’s clothing in rayon. Fascinated by the effect of light on fabric, Chéruit’s designers worked with taffeta, lamé, and gauze, and followed the latest trends in art, for instance hand-painting Cubist designs on dresses, coats and other articles of apparel. These striking creations drew the attention of silent film stars, such as Jeanne Eagels.
With Coco Chanel's move toward simpler fashions after the war, Mme. Cheruit's taste for opulence lost appeal and she retired in 1923. But for more than a decade, the house continued to produce beautiful, if no longer innovative, fashions including the flapper styles that defined the Jazz Age. In 1935, shortly after Louise Cheruit's death, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli famously took over her esteemed predecessor's 98-room salon and work studios.
Today, dresses by Chéruit may be found in the collections of major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The fashion house was reestablished at its original location, 21, Place Vendôme in Paris, in 2008.
Chéruit fashions, 1912–1916
- Childs Gallery, Paul César Helleu: "Madame Chéruit" (1900), commentary about a portrait, downloaded 31 March 2012
- Richard Dormant, ed., James McNeill Whistler (1995), p. 276.
- Marcel Proust (1919), À la recherche du temps perdu, tome 5, p. 165, « ... Non, répondait Elstir, mais cela sera. D'ailleurs, il y a peu de couturiers, un ou deux, Callot, quoique donnant un peu trop dans la dentelle, Doucet, Chéruit, quelquefois Paquin. Le reste sont des horreurs. »; Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies and Black Mischief (1958), p. 46.
- "Cheruit's Gown of Glittering Jet," Vogue, May 1, 1927, p. 59.
- La Ville lumière : Anecdotes et documents historiques, ethnographiques, littéraires, artistiques, commerciaux et encyclopédiques, Paris: Paris Direction et Administration, 1909, p. 97 (translated from French)
- Vintage Handbags, Madeleine Chéruit, includes quotes from Vogue, 1915
- Louise Cheruit, "La Mode," Harper's Bazaar, February 1915, pp. 18-19; Anne Rittenhouse, "Fashion Under Fire," Vogue, October 1, 1914, p. 110.
- M.D.C. Crawford, The Ways of Fashion (1948), p. 56.
- Linda Walters, and Patricia Cunningham, ed., Twentieth-Century American Fashion (2005), p.21
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, "Paul Poiret (1879-1944)"
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wedding Dress, Raudnitz and Co. - Huet and Chéruit (1900), digital image of dress label
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Suit, Raudnitz and Co. - Huet and Chéruit (1905), digital image of dress label
- Archivi della Moda del Novecento, Madeleine Chéruit, atelier
- Marcel Proust (1919), À la recherche du temps perdu, tome 5, p. 165.
- Mary E. Davis, Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism (2006).
- Antique Print Club, search: "Bon Ton" (Fashion/Pochoir), downloaded 31 March 2012
- "In Paris it is Written, 'Elegance Oblige,'" Vogue, January 15, 1912, p. 21; "The Designers Open Their Doors," Vogue, April 1, 1912, p. 108.
- Vintage Fashion Guide, Cheruit, downloaded 31 March 2012
- "Lady Duff Gordon Discusses the American Style Situation," American Cloak and Suit Review, November 1914, p. 115; M.D.C. Crawford, The Ways of Fashion (1948), p. 57; "It is the Skirt of the Times of Louis XV Which Cheruit Likes," New York Times, October 4, 1914.
- The Costume Gallery, Fashion Designers of Their Time, "Madeleine Cheruit, 1906-1935"
- Roaring Twenties, Classic Film Heroines, actress Jeanne Eagels
- Philadelphia Museum of Art Division of Education. "Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli - teacher's pack" (PDF). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Retrieved 2008-04-25.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Search the Collections, "Madeleine Chéruit"
- Chéruit, 21, place Vendôme, Paris, website