The little story of Saint Catherine and how she became the saint patroness of seamstresses…
On November 25th in France, we are celebrating Saint Catherine. As being named Catherine, since I can remember, this day has always been always my day, a second birthday if you want, with people calling, sending messages, even postcards once upon a time, to congratulate me. And I can’t forget this sweet tradition my paternal grand-mother had on that day. When I was coming back from school, I was sure to find a small vase filled with Christmas roses at my place. Christmas roses, also called “helleborus niger”, are maybe the last flowers to flourish so late in the season. Even though I really loved the attention and to be the star of the day, I didn’t really like the meaning of Saint Catherine, the patroness of old maids. Until not so long ago…
In this article:
We will learn more about Saint Catherine herself and how she became associated with old maids, or, at least women wanting to get married.
We will talk about the traditions linked with Saint Catherine as the one to create and wear a green and yellow hat to “put a hat on Saint Catherine’s head” and the “Catherinettes”.
We will discover how Saint Catherine got associated with the seamstresses, the small hands of the French Haute Couture.
And we will see what luxury houses do to celebrate not only Saint Catherine but their small hands on November 25.
Being named Catherine was more of a curse than anything else for me when I was a kid. I didn’t like my name to be honest. I found it harsh to pronounce, not romantic, not poetic, old, out of fashion, linked with historical figures, as Catherine of Medici and Catherine the Great of Russia who I didn’t find, at that time, glamorous. I didn’t like the qualities, or absence of qualities, the name “Catherine” had when I was looking at books about babies’ names. And, above all, I couldn’t understand how you could name your child after a saint who was the patroness of old maids, thus destining me to never find true love and never get married in my life! It felt so unfair!
But then I grew up, started to study Russian, moved to Moscow where the name “Ekaterina” was more common and perceived as a beautiful and strong one. And I started to appreciate it. Moreover, studying about the lives of the above mentioned historical figures with whom I share this name, made me also reevaluate my first impressions.
And, then, after I came back to France, I discovered that Saint Catherine was not only the patroness of old maids, but she was also the patroness of seamstresses. Working in the fashion industry, this association made completely sense for me and I decided to learn a bit more about the link between Saint Catherine, the fashion industry and the seamstresses…
This topic should have been the topic of an episode of My Fashion Stories Box Podcast this month. But November didn’t really go as planned and, as I still wanted to talk about this subject, I thought I would do an article instead. And, maybe next year, it will be a full dedicated podcast’s episode 🙂
Who was Saint Catherine?
“Catherine” is a name taking its roots to the Greek word “katharos”, meaning “purity”. Catherine was born in Egypt at the end of the 3th century. She is said to have had a strong personality and a wide erudition. She was converted to Christianity and proclaimed the only wedding she did was the one with Jesus, thus being nicknamed “the Christ’s fiancée”. At that time, Egypt was under the Roman Empire laws. The Roman Empire didn’t convert yet to Christianity and the Emperors of that time were chasing the first Christians to kill them.
The Roman Emperor Maxence was no exception. Having heard about Catherine, who was said to be very beautiful too, he set himself to make her renounce her God and to marry him… Poor guy, he would have known… You can’t force a Catherine into something she decided not to do…
Catherine took on the challenge to convert him, stood up in front of philosophers and scholars (remember, she was smart) and even managed to convert some of them to Christianity. Emperor Maxence didn’t take it that well and decided he had enough. He got her arrested and subjected her to the wheel torture. But the wheel broke and Catherine survived. She got beheaded on November 25 310, according to the legend.
She became a martyr and a saint for having refused to renounce her religion and for having stayed pure, meaning a virgin.
Her day has been celebrated on November 25 since the 10th century and her cult was very popular during the Middle Ages. Saint Catherine represented purity, intelligence and dedication. Young women willing to get married would ask her to find a good husband.
If you want to know how to recognise Saint Catherine in the paintings or stained glasses the next time you will visit a church, here are some elements associated with her. Saint Catherine is usually represented with a wheel, symbolising the torture Emperor Maxence submitted her to, with a white halo, symbolising virginity, a green halo, symbolising knowledge, and with a red halo, the halo of the martyrs.
Saint Catherine is also considered at the patroness of philosophers.
The “Catherinettes” and “putting a hat on Saint Catherine’s head” to find a husband
As we just saw, because of her refusal to marry a Roman Emperor, Saint Catherine got associated with old maids, with women looking for a husband. For that, different traditions appeared throughout the Middle Ages up to the 70s, at least in France, young women had to follow.
The one that I knew before working on this article was the tradition of the hat. When a woman was still single at 25 years old, on Saint Catherine day, on November 25, she needed to have a hat, either done by herself or for her, featuring the colors green and yellow, that she would wear, thus visually signalling that she was available to get married. The color green was symbolising youth and hope, the hope to find a husband, and the color yellow was symbolising wisdom.
The hats had to be as eccentric and original as possible to really tell apart single women ready to get married from already married women. Then, she would go to the church and decorate the statue of Saint Catherine with flowers, ribbons, hats. Thus the expression “putting a hat on Saint Catherine’s head”.
25 years old and over non married women were also nicknamed “Catherinette” (little Catherine).
I remember having celebrated Saint Catherine on November 25 in Moscow at 25 years old with another single friend. We created for each other a hat with the required colors that we wore to go to a restaurant with other friends. The one I had was based on the wool hat used to go to the bania, the Russian baths, and the one I did was from a Soviet military cap for women decorated with green and yellow ribbons. Or maybe it was the contrary…
The second tradition I’ve learned about for this article is the tradition of the needle. And this tradition was a bit strange for me because, you see, it’s a tradition we associate with another saint in my village…
Let’s come back to Saint Catherine and the needle. When a woman was reaching 25 years old and still single, she would pin a needle on a statue of Saint Catherine. That way, she signalled she was leaving the group of women to be married. If still not married at 30 years old, she would pin a second needle. If the woman was still single at 35 years old, she would pin a third needle, a sign that she was now considered as an old maid with no hope anymore to find a husband.
The needle tradition I knew was also linked with finding a husband but not linked with Saint Catherine. This tradition was linked with Saint Christophe. In the village where I live, we have a church dedicated to Saint Christophe. When you enter that church, the first thing you see is a massive statue of the saint with his cane. If you come closer, you will notice that the knees of the statue have been jabbed. The tradition had it that if a woman wanted to find a husband during the year, she needed to pin Saint Christophe’s knees with a needle. No age limitation here. It went to such an extent that the statue had to be protected in order to prevent its deterioration…
From the old maids to the seamstresses…
But, how did Saint Catherine go from being the patroness of old maids to the patroness of seamstresses? It’s quite a stretch, right?
From the Middle Ages to nowadays, the mentalities changed and the role of women wasn’t revolving only around being a wife and a mother. With the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, more and more women went working into the factories. By working, women earned their financial independence and didn’t need a husband to provide to them. The fashion industry was where we would find the most of them. They were the small hands behind the luxurious creations of the House of Worth, Jeanne Paquin, Jeanne Lanvin, Paul Poiret…
By the 20s, Saint Catherine was celebrated as the patroness of the seamstresses, the small hands of the Parisian luxury houses, who contribute in the shadows of the success of these brands.
Saint Catherine wasn’t just linked with being single, being an old maid, useless for the society as not being able to do what was expected from women: getting married and having babies.
Saint Catherine was now associated with freedom and independence from men. Saint Catherine, the first feminist! A point of view I share with Anne Monjaret, Director of research and ethnologist at the French CNRs-EHESS and author of different books on the cult of Saint Catherine, in an article published earlier in the newspapers Le Télégramme (article in French).
Saint Catherine and the luxury sector
Saint Catherine is now less and less associated with being a single woman and more and more associated with the celebration of creativity and the work of the small hands in the luxury industry.
The hat tradition, with its green and yellow colors, is still here. You will still “put a hat on Saint Catherine’s head” but you will do it to foster creativity. Competitions will be organised, catwalks will be set up. Celebrations in the fashion houses’ workshops will be done.
Before Covid 19, the main Parisian luxury houses, as Chanel, Hermès, Jean Paul Gaultier or Yves Saint Laurent, would even participate to a catwalk featuring the Catherinettes’ hats in green and yellow in the City Hall of Paris to celebrate the know-how and the creativity of their small hands.
I wish this tradition will be brought back soon!
This year, as every year since the creation of the house, Dior organised a celebration of the Catherinettes in their workshops as you can see in this video by Loïc Prigent:
Fashion schools also organise competitions and catwalks to foster the creativity and imagination of their students.
Saint Catherine is part of the French folklore and intimately linked with the French luxury industry and know-how. I hope you liked this article and you learned more about some behind the scenes of the luxury workshops.
See you soon!