Rachel E. Pollock - La Bricoleuse (labricoleuse) wrote,
Rachel E. Pollock - La Bricoleuse

History: Edwardian milliner(s) Mme. Anna Ben-Yusuf and Zaida Ben-Yusuf

Ever since my post the other day, i've been tracking down information on Mme. Anna, the Edwardian milliner who wrote one of the few surviving widely-available historical reference books on hatmaking. I'm leaning toward the theory that Madame Anna Ben-Yusuf and Zaida Ben-Yusuf were the same person, though i haven't ruled out the possibility that Madame Anna was instead Zaida's mother.

I do know that many articles on millinery techniques were published in a range of sources (from the Saturday Evening Post to the Ladies Home Journal to various millinery trade publications) credited both to Zaida Ben-Yusuf and Mme. Anna Ben-Yusuf, and that many of them had photographic illustrations by Zaida.

It's possible that Mme. Anna taught her daughter Zaida the millinery trade, and that Zaida subsequently became a skilled milliner and writer on the subject in her own right. Or, equally possible is that the unmarried Zaida operated as a milliner at times under the trade name of "Madame Anna," which was common for milliners to do--choose a pseudonym for a portion or all of their trade. Whether we're looking at one or two women's millinery careers, what details i did turn up is fascinating!

Here is a self-portrait of Zaida Ben-Yusuf:

photo property of the Library of Congress

Leslie's Weekly of December, 1897, notes that Miss Zaida Ben-Yusuf was "Algerian by birth, though reared and educated in England." I guesstimate based on the dates of her portraits and references to Miss Ben-Yusuf as a "young woman" in the press of the time that she was born probably no earlier than 1867, but more likely around 1872. Other sources refer to her as "Arabian and French by birth", from which i conclude that presumably her father was Algerian and her mother French. France invaded Algeria in the early/mid-19th century and remained in control of the country til the middle of the 20th century. If her mother was in fact a Frenchwoman, daughter of one of the invading French, and if she did in fact marry a native Algerian man, wow, what a Romeo and Juliet tale that must have been! Except, clearly, without the suicides.

In the course of researching Algerian history contemporary with Ben-Yusuf's birth and the decades before it (with an eye to learning what sort of climate her parents grew up in, and why they might have chosen to immigrate to England), I discovered another amazing woman's life story, Lalla Fatma N'Soumer. Lalla Fatma resisted the invasion of her homeland by the French--sounds like in general the Algerians did not bow meekly to French rule, and perhaps the young cross-cultural Ben-Yusufs chose to emigrate with their new baby daughter to a more peaceable foreign land, somewhere more cosmopolitan where their relationship would not be such a point of strife as it must have been in French-ruled Algeria. This history sheds some additional light on Zaida Ben-Yusuf's hypothetical adoption of a French trade name, or her French mother operating under the milliner name of "Madame Anna." Either seems likely.

Under her given name, Zaida Ben-Yusuf gained quite a reputation as a photographer of portraiture and vignettes, particularly posters and promotional cartes of actresses, and "illustration" photographs for the Saturday Evening Post, for whom she wrote articles on a range of subjects for many years. I compiled a list of every personage I discovered who'd sat for a portrait with her, and it includes such notables as Theodore Roosevelt, Edith Wharton, and the Buddhist priest Rev. Ekai Kawaguchi.

In this high-resolution .jpg in the collection of the library of Congress, you can see Miss Ben-Yusuf (left column) dressed in a gown of boldly figured fabric, posing on a longue.

Her photographic portraiture business began roughly around 1896, and she maintained a studio on 5th Ave at 16th St, reputedly richly hung with "Oriental" draperies, tapestries, and carpets. I found articles on millinery techniques published under the name Miss Zaida Ben-Yusuf as early as 1898, and the book by "Mme. Anna" bears a publication date of 1909. The biography printed in the millinery text cites Mme Anna Ben-Yusuf as a former instructor of the millinery trade at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, which was founded in 1887. Interestingly enough, if you poke around on Pratt's website, you'll learn that Pratt was founded to operate on steam-generated power, and in fact still does! Pretty cool!

I also learned that Zaida traveled to Japan, probably in 1903, and composed a photoessay thereon for the Saturday Evening Post--here’s one of my favorite quotes, dear to my own documentative-writerly heart, where she describes losing her only pair of shoes, whereupon her hired maid offered to give her her own tabi and geta:

We finally compromised, she keeping the geta and I accepting the tabi; and so we descended the six hundred wet steps and the muddy, stairlike streets of the village below. Stones and gravel hurt a little, and muddy water soon transformed the spotless white socks, whose digitated shape added to the queer sensation.

Ben-Yusuf also created artwork in the photographic medium. This piece of art, called The Odor of Pomegranates is an example of her vignette photography--looks like a Mucha illustration!

ARTnews has an article online about her by Robin Cembalest, entitled Flashback: 1905, which mentions at the end a frustratingly slim tidbit of biographical data--that she gave up "everything to go to the South Seas, but she later reappeared in New York" and apparently began pursuing the millinery trade (among other things, no doubt) far more seriously, becoming editor of its main trade publication and maintaining two regular columns therein.

Apparently the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute has a retrospective exhibition of Zaida's work in the gears, with an accompanying book on her life and art. It was initially slated for Fall of 2007, but it's not on their site as an upcoming exhibit so perhaps it's been delayed. Regardless, i'll have my eyes out for it.

I have to admit, i think the main reason i find Mme Anna/Zaida Ben Yusuf so fascinating is reflective--it's nice to discover some women who were people whom i might have been, had i been born in their time instead of my own...if that makes sense. That's something that's always bothered me with hypothetical discussions along the lines of "Which earlier time period would you like to have lived in?" Because my answer is always, the one i do live in, because i have such trouble envisioning the kind of person i am now, bound by my own era, trying to live within the strictures of a previous one, particularly times and cultural spaces where women had far fewer options for ways to lead their lives. The fact that Zaida Ben Yusuf was a successful artist, writer, photographer, and milliner a hundred years ago...that's exciting to me.
Tags: hats, history, millinery

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