Les Midinettes, from the march of 1903 to the demonstrations of 1917

Every week with RetroNews, the BNF’s press site, we take a look at a sports story as told by the press at the time. This Saturday: the Midinettes race, in 1903.

Before designating a young ingenuous woman with an artichoke heart, so naive as to be touching, the term “midinette” almost evoked a social class. That of the employees of the Parisian couture workshops of the beginning of the XXe century. Working far from home, poorly paid, they had to settle for lunch on the go, often on the bench in a square. Not really a midday meal, rather a dinette. Noon + dinette = midinette. The latter will become an essential character of a Parisian folklore which caricatures them in very nice and frivolous young brainless when they are rather exploited workers.

In 1903 the newspaper the sports world imagine them organizing a “midinette market”. In its September 24 edition the Echo of Paris is enthusiastic about the initiative of its competitor and welcomes “The gracious and original idea of ​​Georges Breittmayer, which consists in organizing a walking test exclusively reserved for honest little Parisian workers who generally go on foot.” Gas industrialist, Breittmayer was an active craftsman in the development of sport in France. He notably organized marches and races in the big Parisian parks. These demonstrations are so successful that man is forced to create a structure to supervise them. Thus in 1882, he founded with his brothers, which would become an institution of French sport: the Racing Club, later renamed Racing Club de France, still in operation today. “The race will take place on Sunday October 25, on the course from Paris to … Nanterre!” Why these ellipsis and question marks? Because the city of western Paris was then known for its Fête de la Rosière, created in 1818 by the municipality in close collaboration with the local parish priest. It rewards each year a particularly virtuous girl. A quality that we do not necessarily lend to the midinette, considered light.

Under the title “Midinettes do sport“, freedom of October 25 says that what looked like a pleasant collective walk is surprisingly successful. “Consider that there will be more than two thousand five hundred, more than two thousand five hundred, tomorrow, streaking with gait towards Nanterre. Two thousand five hundred ! The strength of two infantry regiments. The most lively animation reigns in the world of couture and fashion, continues the newspaper. He is not a small arpette who feels strong legs did not come to bring his commitment to the Sports world [le journal organisateur]. Some practice, others point […] There are favorites, outsiders. “ “Nanterre is completely in revolution, warns the newspaper. Admirable and unique, the city council unanimously decreed that the town hall square being too small to accommodate such a battalion, the market would be moved. Move the market! If you have lived in the province, you will feel the importance of such a decision. ” The race will lead to the most crazy awards. We will not distinguish only the first three. The newspaper lists the prices: “A candy box with the first brunette with blue eyes. A bodice embroidered in 13e… ” The newspaper suspects that the midinettes will compete for the 17e square. She will indeed be rewarded with a “Car ride offered by a sportsman”. “It could be that in this case, on arrival, some of them gallantly let pass one or two competitors in front of them to have a favored place. Driving a car will be the envy of manys. ” But beware warns the newspaper, “Prince Charming may be just an old and ugly driver.”

The midinette race was an incredible success. And a terrible mess, reports Gallic October 26. “The start was to be given at 10 am in the Tuileries. The “starter” could not lower his flag until 10:30 am, so crowded was the place de la Concorde and the avenue des Champs-Elysées. It was a dreadful crowd, which pressed, jostled among cars, bikes, cabs, buses and cars of all kinds broken down. What sovereign are we waiting for? Curiously, a peaceful bewildered stroller asks us. ”

Gallic criticizes the lack of organization and deplores that “Too many”, the midinettes “not'[aient] little originality in their costumes: all or almost all of them are cyclists – skirts or breeches – wearing berets or polo shirts. There are 14-year-old girls and women far too old to be classified in the midinette category. ” The newspaper, however, highlights the clothing efforts of teams from major fashion houses. In addition to the physique of certain competitors, including “A delicious young girl with light brown hair, slim, slender and fine in an exquisite racing costume”, it’s for Gallic the only positive point of this Barnum. In the rush, “It’s not the best walker who holds the head, it is the one whose punches were best distributed.” In short, for the newspaper, this farce is not sporting and does not honor the fairer sex: “Let’s make the midinette a follower of graceful sports, still going on, but what good is it to put these poor little ones in the awful position of the pedestrian, elbows to the body, handkerchiefs to teeth and pacing the asphalt like nerves”, lash the Gallic

The newspaper found the same confusion as Gallic but he enjoys it more than he takes offense. He even found “Sensational” this race won by Mshe Jeanne Cheminel, bib number 284, who covered the 12 kilometers in 1 hour 28 minutes. “A very pleasant person: brunette, around 24 years old, of medium height and of determined appearance”, enjoys everyday life. At the arrival, “We cheer him on, we kiss him. It is perched on a car where it is stared at by a thousand small crystalline eyes from the objectives brandished towards it which surround it in a discreet and threatening circle. […] The crowd escorts him triumphantly in an hourvari of horns and gasps of auto horns. “

The author of the article “Could chat for a few moments with the winner”. “She told me that her victory, while very pleasant to her, did not surprise her too much. She had, indeed, trained seriously. – Are you tired, at least? we ask him. – Not at all, she replied valiantly. Ready to start again? – Who knows ! You shouldn’t challenge me. And, as I ask Mshe Cheminel her road impressions, she answers me, very simply that she has none. Not once, she said, have I looked behind me. I was going straight ahead, impatient to arrive. A cannonball would not have made my head spin. “

And the newspaper to moralize: “May the compliments including Mshe Cheminel was the object upon arrival and at the banquet that followed, not to make her head spin any further. May this attitude also be an example for the other “midinettes”, sometimes tempted to turn around when the old gentlemen – often the young too – put themselves in charge of their compliments. ” A starlet destiny is offered to the midinette but on the shoulders she keeps her head: “The triumph of Mshe Cheminel would not be complete if it did not receive proposals from our music halls. Several, already, yesterday evening, were made to him. She is determined to repel them all. A milliner she is, a milliner she intends to stay. ”

Continuation of the story. Fortunately, the midinette will not go down in history for this Paris-Nanterre difficult to qualify or the handful of pseudo-races that were reserved for it in the first half of the XXe century. Nor for having given its title to a film by Louis Feuillade in 1909 then to aillustrated newspaper ”intended for a young and feminine public which appeared between 1926 and 1939. No more than for having given birth to the Catherinettes, these young girls who still today, a doubtful folklore sometimes obliges to wear a hat on November 25 (Saint Catherine’s Day), if at 25, they have not yet married.

No, you have to see in the midinettes “The forgotten vanguard of the proletariat”, in the words of sociologist Claude Didry, specialist in the history of work and social struggles. In May 1917, in the name of the war effort, these young girls who labored to make dresses for wealthy and idle women were asked to give up half a day’s work, Saturday afternoon, and the related salary. An unthinkable sacrifice. We speak of “the English week”. Except that in the UK, this half day of forced rest is paid.

The little hands of Jenny are the first to go on strike. They are joined by those of the Maison Cheruit in Place Vendôme. On May 15, 2,000 of them demonstrated in the streets of Paris. Their image of frivolous young girls attracts them the sympathy of the population but quickly the paternalistic and condescending comments are transformed into political analysis, as underlines the file that RetroNews devoted to this movement.

“You shouldn’t deny the Midinettes. It is not in a good spirit to tax them for frivolity because they work in dresses, they are young and pretty and they are adorned with a bouquet laughing, joyful, to life, écrit West-Eclair May 26, 1917. Laughing and singing does not save them from suffering, being hungry and bending, sometimes in pain. We must not criticize their strike. ” More than a hundred fashion houses were then arrested because of the strike.

After two weeks of protest, the midinettes obtain satisfaction: they will now be entitled to a day and a half of rest without cut in salary. June 11, 1917, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies adopt the law “Tending to organize Saturday afternoon rest for women in the clothing industries”. “It’s undoubtedly a victory for feminism, comments Ouest-Eclair. It is above all a workers’ victory. The female proletariat […] is the victim of dishonest exploitation. When the working women of France have all obtained the English week, they will remember that it is at the Parisian fashion strike that they will have this advantage. “

Gilles Dhers


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