November 25th is Saint Catherine's Day. Catherine is the patron saint of unmarried women, potters, lace-makers, dressmakers and milliners.
Saint Catherine was the daughter of Konstas, ruler of Alexandria, and lived during the 4th century CE. She is remembered as beautiful and well-educated in poetry, philosophy and medicine. A devout and virtuous believer in Christ, Catherine refused to marry. She was deeply alarmed by the pagan rituals and animal sacrifices encouraged by the Emperor Maximinus and accused him of worshiping false gods. Catherine was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death by spiked wheel, but the wheel miraculously broke apart when she touched it. She was then beheaded and martyred; accounts claim that milk, not blood, flowed from her severed head. There is a Monastery of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Josse Lieferinxe (1493-1508)
Saint Catherine was originally associated with students and scholars, then with crafts and trades in which a wheel was used - potters, lace-makers, spinners, etc. The word “spinster” derives from “spinner.” It originated in the mid-1300’s and referred to a woman who spun thread and yarn. Unmarried women often ended up with lower-status, lower-income jobs like combing, carding, and spinning wool. By the 17th century, “spinster” was being used in legal documents to refer to unmarried women. (Merriam-Webster)
The tradition of Catherine as the patron saint of unmarried women was particularly developed in France, where many young women worked in the needle trades. By the early twentieth century, Paris fashion houses had established November 25th, Saint Catherine’s Day, as a celebration of women’s work in the dressmaking and millinery trades, as well as an opportunity to recognize the unmarried women who had reached the age of 25.
Catherinettes in 1909
And in 1932
The day’s celebrations often included a parade (or pilgrimage) of young women to a statue of the Saint, to whom they would pray for a husband. The “Catherinettes” wore outrageous hats made by their friends, typically in yellow and green. In the couture ateliers of Paris during the 1920's and 1930's, the day was a highly anticipated occasion and a festive display of talent and camaraderie.
Vintage St. Catherine's Day postcards from my personal collection.
Christian Dior was especially fond of Saint Catherine’s Day and it has been celebrated each year since the founding of Dior in 1947. In his memoir, he wrote: “It’s the day when I feel the House’s heart beat. Nothing is more touching than the Sainte-Catherine. Nothing more cheerful, either."
St. Catherine's Day at Dior, 1960
"Catherinette" inspiration on the Runway
John Galliano for Christian Dior, AW 2005 Haute Couture
Other French ateliers, including Chanel, Hermes and Givenchy, still mark the day with fanciful hats and a parade. Smaller celebrations are hosted by milliners around the world, including an annual Saint Catherine’s Day dinner held by the Milliners Guild in New York and a hat parade in New Orleans. If there's any interest in organizing a Saint Catherine's Day event in Texas next year, please let me know. It's a great excuse to dress up and wear a fabulous hat.
St. Catherine's Day at Chanel, 2013