Today, November 25, marks the day where single French ladies celebrate the steadfast resolve of a fourth-century gal named Catherine of Alexandria, today our Patron Saint of Milliners and Couture. The story goes that Roman Emperor Maxentius had his eye on Catherine, but she refused to marry him and was promptly executed. (Another story, by way of the church, says she was executed for spreading Christianity across Europe.) Either way, Catherine was named the patron saint of unmarried women nine centuries later, and on this day, gals around France place hats on their heads—traditionally a starched cap on the eldest unmarried woman in town and paper bonnets on the heads of the others—and spend the day praying to St. Catherine for a worthy husband. The tradition of hats is what led to Catherine landing the patronage of millinery, as well as launching the term “Catherinette,” meaning an unmarried woman age 25 or older, and a French saying, “to do St. Catherine’s hair,” meaning “to remain an old maid.” Charming!
Thankfully, this holiday has morphed through the years from a humiliating experience for single women to one embraced as a kicky holiday by French couture and design houses and milliners. Young seamstresses traditionally shut the shop doors to the public and have an all-day party with champagne, dancing and sweets, while making elaborate and outrageous hats for the Catherinettes among them. Even the head designer—usually aloof to seamstresses throughout the year—would visit the workroom and give each Catherinette a kiss and a treat.
For centuries across France, Fete des Catherinettes was one of the liveliest and most colorful festivals of the year, as the new crop of 25-year-old unmarrieds paraded down the street in their bonnets and costumes to visit the local statue of St. Catherine, and then partied in the streets and cafés into the night—and hopefully find their future husbands at the same time. Never-married also implied never-kissed, so part of the festivities included young women apparently submitting to attacks from eager mouths. At least one instance in 1925 involved police intervention, when a woman was swarmed by “300 to 400 gay young Parisiens, fighting enthusiastically in the Place for the honor of planting the first kiss on her fair cheeks.” The report continued that the cops were kept busy into the night, “defending screaming femininity from too ardent advances of the Paris youths.”
In 1964 the New York Times reported on the elaborate festivities at the various French couture houses, including the one held at the salon of couturier Antonio del Castillo at Rue du Faubourg St. Honore. At noon, the designer arrived to inspect the workshops, where the seamstresses had regaled the two resident Catherinettes in full hats and costumes: one in traditional Japanese clothing and the other dressed entirely in the colors of St. Catherine: green (for wisdom) and yellow (for faith). Castillo toured the various rooms, one of which was decorated in a Moorish motif—the walls covered in fabric like a harem—as the other seamstresses dressed like veiled belly dancers and gyrated around. Another room was decorated to celebrate the recent Olympic Games in Tokyo, and all the models wore Vietnamese tunics and trousers. Each woman got $3 for lunch—a small fortune back then—and splurged on champagne, oysters and other treats before dancing and drinking into the evening.
Over the years, the holiday has lost some of its pluck, but perhaps it’s time for a revival. What do you think? Should single women reclaim St. Catherine’s Day as their own?
Photo: Top and Middle: Catherinettes celebrating St. Catherine’s Day in France, © 2010 Claudia Lynch from hatnola.com; . Bottom: Walking match of midinettes, Paris, St Catherine’s Day, 1931. Midinettes (Parisian salesgirls), celebrating the feast of Saint Catherine on 25 November. Illustration from the book “Paris” published by Ernest Flammarion, (1931). From Heritage Images.