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ORIGIN OF HAUTE COUTURE: Jacques Doucet (1853-1929)
An Old Master of Fashion Design

Jjacques Doucet, born in Paris in 1853, is described as one of the great old masters of fashion design. He was also one of the greatest art connoisseurs and patron of writers of his time. His couture was inspired by the eighteenth century paintings he collected. His ensembles were therefore as romantic, luxurious and opulent as the ladies in his tableaux (Met Museum, n.d.).

In 1817, the Doucet family established the House of Doucet in Paris. Over the years the House’s lingerie, fine linens, and ladies apparel business had flourished. Between 1896 and 1912, the reputation of the House of Doucet attracted noteworthy young fashion designers such as Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1897), Paul Poiret (1897-1944), and Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975) who eventually founded their own Houses of haute couture.

Jacques joined the family business in 1874 and sold laces, ladies apparel, and later on evening gowns. Over the years, he gained eminence as a designer. He dressed society women and the demi-monde as well as notable actresses. For many years he alone dressed Réjane, the famous actress of Madame Sans-Gêne and Zaza (Boucher, nd, p. 391). Other prominent women who wore his outfits included Cecile Sorel, Liane de Pougy de Belle Otera, and Sarah Bernhardt, to name a few. He had designed the famous white costume worn by Sarah Bernhardt in l’Aiglon. Actresses of the time wore Doucet’s creations both on and off the stage (Met Museum, n.d.; The Fashion Model Directory, 2011). Doucet’s garments gained popularity with American clients. By 1895, American merchants were buying his models to export and copy. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Doucet House was one of the largest in Paris. It had a yearly turnover in business of more than thirty million francs (Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia, 2009).

Doucet’s designs:

  • Doucet created the most luxurious feminine and romantic gowns.
  • His elegant dresses were soft, delicate, airy, billowy and dreamy. They were made out of filmy translucent materials in superimposing pastel colors.
  • The palette of pale pastel colors he selected for his models was influenced by the spectrum of colors in eighteenth century paintings (The Fashion Model Directory, 2011).
  • Doucet utilized pale silk crêpes for creating sinuous looking gowns.
  • He fabricated entire dresses out of rare gros point de Venise lace.
  • Doucet adorned his enchanted gowns with such frippery as frills; lace ruffles the colors of faded flowers, silk ribbons, flowers, feathers, beadwork and embroideries. In his embroideries he used floral and insect interpretations (Clothing Fashion Encyclopedia, 2009).

Doucet was a promoter of two innovations:

  • The tailored suit or tailleur which remained part of a woman’s basic wardrobe until this day;
  • Techniques for working with furs as if they were fabric, specifically for the making of fitted coats.

Doucet the Connoisseur of Art and Literature: The sale of his fashion designs to wealthy women ensured Doucet a fortune which allowed him to purchase art and bibliophile. During his lifetime Doucet was a passionate collector of:

Eighteenth century paintings, drawings, sculptures, woodworking and furniture. At his death he had a magnificent collection of Post-Impressionist and Cubist paintings. He was the first to own Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1924) which he bought directly from Picasso’s studio in 1924. In 1912, he sold his first collection to buy paintings by Monet, Cézanne, Degas, Van Gogh, Bakst, and Arthur Jaquin (National Institute of Art History, 2011);

Manuscripts by well known French authors such as Appollinaire, Baudelaire, Cocteau, Gide, Giraudoux, Maurius, Maurois, Montherland, Paul Morand, Proust, Stendhal, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Paul Valery. He also collected manuscripts of his generation and was the patron of writers like Andre Suares, Max Jacob, Pierre Riverdy, André Breton, and Louis Aragos. He had all the manuscripts covered with modern binders before giving them to the library at University of Paris in 1917(National Institute of Art History, 2011). In 1920, the University of Paris Library became the Jacques Doucet Library of Literature (Met Museum, n.d.);

Historic garments, histories of garments, and the history of art. In 1909, he supported research programs on the history of art in its completeness. To undertake this task he surrounded himself with leading experts such as the famous librarian, Jean-René. These projects resulted in the establishment of a library covering the art of all times and all countries. His collections are housed at the Library of Art and Archaeology, the Library of the National Institute for Art History, and the Museum of Angladon at Avignon (National Institute of Art History, 2011).

World War I was devastating on the early designers of haute couture. The Great War changed not only what women wore, but also how they wore it. A new type of woman had come into existence. Life became freer for women, they were trained to work, they enjoyed sports and dancing, therefore fashion had to be functional. The aging Doucet, a man with eighteenth century tastes and imagination, remained fixed in time. As a consequence, his designs went out of popularity in the 1920s. In 1924, the House of Doucet merged with the lesser the firm of Doueillet. These combined firms ceased to do business in 1932 (Laver, 2002, p. 233-234; The Fashion Model Directory, 2011).


  • Boucher, François (n.d.) 20,000 years of fashion. The history of costume and personal adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
  • Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia (2009) Jacques Doucet.
  • Laver, James (2002) Costume and fashion. A concise history. 4th Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.
  • Met Museum (n.d.) 1853-1929 Jacques Doucet .
  • National Institute of Art History (INHA) (2011) Fonds Jacques Doucet (fashion designer). and
  • The Fashion Model Directory (2011) Jacques Doucet.