The Art of Passementerie
Revue des Arts Decoratifs 1874
By Rioux de Maillou
I want to begin with a definition. This isn’t bad in itself, for in the opinion of philosophers – both ancient and modern – a definition proves useful. Especially more so here, as we are concerned with a subject much neglected in art criticism, and as a result, often ill defined.
So what do we understand by this word “passementerie?” The Acadamie Francaise tells us in its dictionary that “passementier” is someone who makes and sells trimmings made of gold, silver, silk, etc. Then there is a definition for “passement” which says “cloth/fabric, flat and wide of thread made from gold, silk, wool, etc. put on clothes and furniture for ornament.”
The “Littré” Dictionary also gives the etymology: Provencal, passamen; Spanish, pasamiento; Italian: passamento. This meaning is extended to trimmings because they add to or extend to clothes or furniture.
Such a definition of passementier – perhaps sufficient in a dictionary of French language – does not appear to me sufficiently wide for the study with which we are concerned. It has the shortcoming of addressing only one side of a question. The art is merely indicated rather than characterised, despite the clever explanation given by the etymology and its logical explanation. It goes beyond this definition and breaks its narrow boundaries.
At no time has there been, correctly speaking, makers of trimmings, exclusively devoted to this calling. The ancient world gives no evidence of this. As for the Middle Ages, the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the various names given in France for example to the making of trimmings alongside other works as defined by the Academie Française, indicates that it was the same as in present times. This body of makers was called “trimming makers (passementiers) – “blondiniers”/dyers- fringe makers (crepiniers), with button makers (boutonniers) being added later. Let us note also that until the middle of the 17th century lace is also included in the same generic field of “passement” or trimming.
Translation – 2
Currently, passementiers continue to make things other than strictly trimmings. They have even infringed on industries that formerly were handled by other guilds – for example fringes which were manufactured by “tissutiers” (fabric/cloth makers), rubaniers (ribbon makers, frangiers (fringe makers) – eliminating the final lines of guild division which existed at the end of the 17th century. (That is, times have changed, and these days categories infringe into each others areas.)
Finally, people because of their geographical location outside the sphere of classical antiquity (and our own modern European civilisation) remain outside the previous classifications. As we can see, we are led to put aside these purely etymological definitions in order to give this historical classification an historical value valid for its time and place, as well as to examine the question from a wider point of view restricted only by its logical limits.
That said, there is no reason to restrict the art of passementiers to the primary material set out by the Academy: gold, silver, silk, wool. Have we not seen for some years now women wearing passementries made of jet (hard black stone) and black feathers? Why should what passes for passementeries in our civilisation no longer exist when primitive peoples are concerned? Why should we reject trimmings made of plants, stalks decorated with feathers, artistically manufactured by one savage race or another? Why should we ignore animal skins braided by the Kanaks of New Calodenia? The natural tapa of Tahiti? The coconut fibre made into thick fringes in Gabon?
We must no longer allow ourselves to be impressed by the special character of these primary materials as we are by the passing industrial categories.
What then is passementerie? In its most accepted form, it is the art of making – with the help of any material capable of being used – trimmings, braids (galons) , cords (ganses), braids (soutaches), fringe (crepines), bullion fringe (torsades), pompoms, tassels (glands), (agrements), (crete), (lezardes), “des fiocchi” (Ital), etc.
This definition which is none the less quite empirical, and we haven’t been able to find a better one, since it speaks to our senses and defines (if not absolutely) at least clearly, and practically covers the subject which we intend to pursue. It has the value of a label on a bottle. And so we can continue the study.
Translation – 3
The origin of passementier is lost in the mist of time. It is impossible to define the beginnings of this art in a precise fashion. It can be said that it is as old as the world. Even before seeking to dress oneself in a comfortable manner, that is to say in relation to the necessities of habitats, men, after tattooing their bodies, decorated themselves with trimmings. Amongst primitive peoples, artistic ideas come after practical inventions, as the imagination acts on the mind. This is the first sign of nobility, which unconsciously delineates the human species. An ill-defined ascetic manifests itself in many different ways. Driven by his natural needs, man looks around him and takes advantage of natural products, which he can use to this end. In this way are born the most diverse decorations according to his needs and his dreams. Animal skins cut into strips and braided give him cords, fringes, etc. Shells are soon started to be added, bringing wonderful new elements of colour, then fruits, brightly coloured grains with nice shapes, stones, glass beads made in various designs and added to cloth or attached to the ends of threads as well as pearls or even bells.
Thus belts which make a noise when walking are very highly sought after by primitive people, and maintain their attraction during their long and frequently nomadic lives. A typical example of this type of belt is found in tribes on the coast of Guinea (Africa).
The Gallas Tribe provide a no less typical example of the richness of decoration that a mixture of shells and glass beads with leather can produce. Their belt is a long strand of animal skin with little shells fixed on the threads in the fringe. The Senagalese are also remarkable for their leather work which they use for making bracelets and amulets of Negroes (grigris). They also use seeds as decoration. And the neck pieces of the Senagelese women are strands made of several rows of little brown seeds which have a strong smell and come from near the borders of The Gambia. The Pahouins of Gambon/Gabon(?) decorate their tote bags with a long fringe of coconut fibre – an admirable primary material. The natives of the Caroline Islands (in the Pacific) also use coconut fibre for their belts. The Madagascans weave fibres from the Raffia palm. Natives in New Caladonia also know how to decorate their body with the skin of the flying fox (rousette), which is the size of a large rat and has a red coloured fur. Sometimes for the netting which decorates the bottom of their war masks, for example, they will mix in the plumes of a common pigeon of the region, attached with knots and tufts. The inhabitants of New Guinea, The New Hebrides, The Solomon islands, etc. also demonstrate that for their trimmings, pearls, seeds and shells can be substituted for the teeth of pigs etc, as well as bat jaws.
Translation – 4
The natives of Tahiti have a great preference for work with plant fibre which they make into many different cords, and extremely light fringes – both artistically mixed with yellow, black and red flowers. More than any others, they can work tapa (a type of cloth made form the mulberry bark). To make it, they soak the bark for 24 hours, after which it is taken out and beaten continually with a long wooden implement. So the fibre is extracted from which they make various trimmings. Samples can be seen in the various ethnographic sections of the Louvre.
Mr. Racinet in his wonderful work on polychromatic art shows a picture of a braided (soutache) material coming from Oceania, and a piece of braided leather coming from Central Africa, both of which are exhibited in the Marine section of the Louvre. The one from Oceania shows the braid rising in blue on a green background with a white thread. The design borrows from the plant kingdom. The leather from Central Africa shows, besides the red and yellow lines, a braid of blue, white and yellow in alternating lozenge shapes.
In “The Grammar of Ornament” by Owen Jones there are several other examples of primitive passementierie.
The geometric decorative idea is older than any, because in the Stone Age we find the beginnings of trimmings decorating weapons, which shows this particular style. Cords which decorate certain axes also show this particular style of decoration, i.e. geometric. See also the nets of the Australian aborigines, the least advanced of all the savages. The Dayacks take from the decapitated heads of their enemies tufts of hair which they make into ornaments. (This primary material appears to go beyond the laws regulating passementerie!)
The Redskins, if they use the scalps of their victims as pompoms, at least give them place of honour by attaching them to the tips of their spears.
The Indians of Guyana as described in “The Guide of the Ethnographic Gallery of the Museum of Artillery” are “decorated rather than dressed, with costumes influenced by the brightly coloured birds of this country.” There is an impression from all these decorations of being more in common with the passementier than the tailor. The first duty of this passementier is to show himself as a colourist, which he frequently is, with nature as his master.
Translation – 5
In regards to the Indians in Brazil, fringes of coloured feathers as well as pompons and braids are also very common and may have a large and important part of the costume. We find these fringes decorating hammocks, mixed in with artistically woven reeds.
The Artillery Museum also has a Peruvian garment found in the great necropolis of Ancon not far from Lima, and therefore quite close to the Inca kingdom. A large piece of fabric from this garment, which covers the head and hangs down the back, is decorated with fringes, to which are attached green parrot feathers. Leaving America to move into Asia, the inhabitants of the Alleutian islands take their primary materials for their passementerie from their seal companions. To this end, they use the whiskers decorated with pearls.
As can be seen, this art has no limits. Thus, we will finish our study of primitive peoples and the origins of passementerie.