Hats by Madame Paulette

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L: Black velvet chignon-cover with two ostrich-feather pompo
L: Black velvet chignon-cover with two ostrich-feather pompo© Topfoto

A new book unearths the story of Madame Paulette, the milliner favoured by Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, fought over by Richard Avedon and William Klein, and largely forgotten in recent years

She was "the queen of milliners and the milliner of queens". Her Parisian atelier was the meeting point for the most elegant women in the world. Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon and William Klein argued over which one of them would be the first to shoot her newest collections on the pages of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. Between 1939 and 1984, Madame Paulette was a star hatmaker… and yet today she remains largely unknown by the general public. That is the reason why her daughter-in-law, Annie Schneider, decided to dive into the family archives and write a book (the first ever) about her. Hats by Madame Paulette explores the milliner’s work and innovative ideas through the years.

“I never cease to be amazed at the great expectations women place in a hat” – Madame Paulette

Born Pauline Adam de la Bruyère in 1900, she started learning hat making techniques immediately after the end of the First World War and went on to open her first shop in 1921. In 1929, she changed her name to Madame Paulette. It proved a good decision: over the next few years, her hats would become must-haves worn by Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. They all credited her as a knowledgeable artisan and an intuitive designer who knew her clients’ needs and desires before even they did. “I never cease to be amazed at the great expectations women place in a hat”, she once said. She enjoyed unveiling the personality of each one of her customers (the self-effacing lady, the strong, dominant woman, the shy girl wishing she could be more confident, the peacock…), coming up with the perfect hat for her and observing her reaction as she tried it in front of the mirror, stating that “the hat is more than an accessory; it is a behaviour.”

Madame Paulette is perhaps best known for launching the turban as a fashion accessory during the Second World War. She claimed the idea came to her while cycling around Paris and looking at girls. The concept (at a time when shampoo was scarce and the feminine population was too busy at work to go to the hairdresser regularly) was a huge success. An enthusiastic patriot, she celebrated the Liberation of France by designing a series of flamboyant tricolour berets. A few years later, as the New Look became prevalent and women started changing hats several times a day, Madame Paulette saw her business thrive. She started designing hats for every Royal Family in Europe and collaborated with fashion designers. She was commissioned by Cecil Beaton to create all the millinery of My Fair Lady and Gigi and later went on to work with Pierre Cardin, Pierre Balmain and even Coco Chanel (who started out as a milliner herself). At the time of her death in 1984, she was still contributing to the haute couture collections of Jean-Louis Scherrer and Louis Féraud with her impossibly chic silk-and-feathers turbans and her bombastic fur hats.

Hats by Madame Paulette is out now, published by Thames & Hudson.

Text by Marta Represa