Born: Maggie Besançon de Wagner in Paris, 1896. Career: Designer for company owned by parents, Drécoll; own house opened, 1929, specializing in sportswear and lingerie; retired, 1948; daughter, Anne-Marie, took over; retired, 1960; house turned briefly to ready-to-wear; closed, 1960s. Awards: Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur; Conseilleuse du Commerce Exterieur. Died: 7 August 1971, in Paris.
Ce que j'ai vu en chiffonnant la clientéle, Paris, 1938.
La philosophie de l'elegance, Paris, 1942.
L'Amérique vue au microscope, Paris, circa 1948.
Latour, Anny, Kings of Fashion, London, 1958.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, Couture: The Great Designers, New York, 1980.
Steele, Valerie, Women of Fashion, New York, 1991.***
Harmony and simplicity were cornerstones of Maggy Rouff's belief in elegance as a way of life, and the way of fashion. A truly elegant woman was in harmony with her environment and herself, and to Rouff this meant being properly dressed for every occasion. Even in her early work at Drécoll in Paris, Rouff addressed a basic longing in the relationship between many women and their clothes. Patrons of her salon were secure in the knowledge that they would emerge with the right clothes, clothes that were fashionable, flattering, and appropriate. This did not mean she was conservative; rather, she believed novelty, and even surprise, were good for fashion. Novelty when allied with taste yielded chic, but novelty without taste was only eccentric.
As a result, a Rouff design considered "too much" was rare. She took care to establish a focal point in every costume. An evening gown in which the skirt was trimmed with a crossover hip wrap and little side puffs had simply-cut sleeves and bodice. Afternoon dresses with plain skirts might have an asymmetrical cowl neckline with a jeweled clip at one side, or a platter collar and shaped belt in a contrasting color. She enriched some surfaces with shirring, quilting, or trapunto, as in her 1936 "plus four" playsuit and 1938 button-quilted evening dress, but very lush fabrics and furs were handled in accordance with her less-is-more philosophy.
Common themes ran through Rouff's designs, always enhancing the underlying sense of femininity. She had a fondness for draped details, whether the sarong-like side drape of a skirt panel or soft cowl folds at the neckline. Rouff often highlighted the upper body, drawing attention toward the face with a few favorite devices such as wrapped and tied surplice fronts, unusual necklines, and dramatic sleeves. Accents were important: belts and sashes were wide, buttons were bold, silk flowers were substantial, yet somehow they were always in proportion. Contrasts of color, texture, or luster were also used as accents, and with the same sense of balance.
Historical allusions were frequent, but true to her beliefs she used historicism as a tool and not a crutch. The Directoire collection she showed in 1936 was striking for its theme, with variations on cutaway and frock coats turning up in corduroy with a bias-cut plaid skirt, in printed floral shantung with a black crêpe skirt, and in velvet with a wool skirt and an oversized watch chain pocket detail. Usually her references to the past were less direct, perhaps expressed in gigot sleeves, or apron and bustle effects.
In 1942 while Paris was occupied by German troops, Rouff wrote La Philosophie de L'Elégance. Her justification for what might have been considered in such circumstances a frivolous topic, was her belief that even in darkest times there must be faith in the future. An intelligent woman who had already lived through one world war, she could not help but understand that a different world than the one she had known would emerge from the second. Her book was, in a sense, an affirmation of the value and substance which the arts of elegance had given to her life and her success. Within the framework of her expertise—fashion—Rouff gave her readers a thread to tie the future to the past.
Rouff's daughter, Anne-Marie Besançon de Wagner, took over the designing upon her mother's retirement in 1948. The house maintained the attitudes toward dress it had always expressed, and the clothes were still elegant and feminine. For the first few years she was inclined to overdo, and some designs seem to have been fussy or hard-edged. As the 1950s progressed, however, she found her own sense of focus and greater sureness of line. Particularly beautiful were her full-skirted organdy evening and cocktail dresses from 1952 and a group of short, bouffant gowns with floor-length trains from 1959. Engaging day ensembles included, from 1953, a sleek tweed sheath with standaway cornucopia-shaped pockets at the bust and from 1952, a fur-trimmed swing coat worn over a pleated wool dress belted at the waist.
The house of Maggy Rouff did not survive the make-or-break period of the 1960s. Three designers worked for the house in the 1960s, during which time the business was transformed into a ready-to-wear house. The collections seem to have been aimed at a younger customer, but the original precepts of the house may have made it difficult to become established with a clientéle more interested in the pursuit of youth than the pursuit of elegance. The company was closed before Rouff's death in 1971.