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The Montagne sisters, Catalonia’s haute couture pioneers

10 June, 2010

One of the few gowns by the Montagne sisters that has survived and around which Cristina Rodríguez Samaniego devised her speech at the BAU cycle of conferences. / Rocamora collection of Museu Tèxtil i d'Indumentària de Barcelona.

Totally individualised garments. This was the concept the Montagne sisters imported from Paris. It was an innovation that, according to experts, made them the forerunners to haute couture at the beginning of 20th century.

Exclusivity, however, was not the only distinguishing feature of the work done by Carolina and María Montagne, two of fashion history’s almost forgotten creators. As Cristina Rodríguez Samaniego, PhD in Art History and a teacher at the Bau Higher Design School points out, “these two sisters created a network of small, specialised couture workshops alongside their shop in the Rambla Catalunya. These were used to make adjustments to garments on the spot to meet customer demand”. The service they provided, and their designs, that ignored Spanish trends and followed the avant-garde Parisian movements, had put them at the forefront of Barcelona’s fashion scene by the late 19th century.

The visionary Montagne sisters also used the services of emerging figures in the European fashion sector. This is normal business practice these days, but at the end of the 1800s it was considered very eccentric. “Jeanne Lavin, creator of the prestigious firm at Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, was engaged in 1885 at the tender age of 15 to make hats and caps for the house of Montagne”, revealed Dr Rodríguez Samaniego.

The sisters’ sample collection was a very close reproduction of the creations of the great Parisian haute couture fashion designers. They were ahead of their time, using the same strategies favoured by today’s large fashion chains and they travelled to the capital of France every year to attend fashion shows by prestigious designers such as Charles Frederick Worth and his disciple Paul Poiret. Worth, the father of haute couture, stimulated the Montagne sisters’ imagination, who arrived back in Barcelona with irresistible ideas for the Catalan bourgeoisie of the day.

The feminine side of history

According to several studies, including that carried out by Dr Rodríguez Samaniego, never before in Barcelona had anybody thought of completely personalising design to create unique outfits and follow the freshest European trends at the beginning of 20th century. That is why Carolina and María Montagne were the authors of such a decisive chapter in the history of Spanish fashion. Rediscovering their work, and that of other leading figures of the time such as María Molist, is one of the most important challenges facing Catalonia’s fashion historians who, like Rodríguez Samaniego, confirm that all these creators were women. “Unlike France –Rodríguez said-, the driving forces of Spanish haute couture were women. However, we know very little about them because, like other side branches of art, the study of fashion only began in the 1970s. Before this, preference was given to architecture, sculpture and painting”. In contrast, today there is a great deal of interest in drawing attention to their work. As the specialist pointed out, one of the reasons for this is that without the Montagne sisters haute couture would not have been developed in Barcelona”.

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