In France the custom of publicising the unmarried status of young men and women is still widespread in many parts of the country.
Young men who are not married by the age of 30, are expected to hold a huge party on St. Nicholas’ Day to which friends, particularly unmarried girls, are invited. The Batchelor Boy is required to wear one of these strange hats for the duration. St Nicholas’ Day is usually celebrated during the first week of December each year.
Unmarried girls are known as Catherinettes, and celebrate their day on the feast of St Catherine when they are 25, on the 25th of November. (also known as Catterntide) Many milliners still make special, elaborate hats for their unmarried workers, in the colours of yellow (faith) and green (wisdom ). To a much lesser extent, the practice exists in England, and I found this small prayer…”St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid, and grant that I never will die an old maid ”
I have not yet been able to find a Catherinette hat, but the man’s one shown here has some family history, and is completely genuine
This particular example is made of peach coloured silk, in a ‘dunce’s hat’ style, 35 centimetres long, tapering to a point. This is finished with a tassel of pale turquoise and peach coloured threads. The headband part has a length of fancy ribbon attached; pale cream with dark turquoise and yellow motifs along it. The crown of the hat bears the embroidered words, ‘St Nicholas 1931.’ Although they are/were available to buy, this one is clearly homemade, and may have been produced by a close relative.
We know the story about this little hat as it was passed down through a family I know.
It belonged to a young man called Henri Chix, who was born in Privas, in the Ardeche region of France in 1901. His Batchelor at 30 was held in 1931 and was the occasion of much merrymaking. The party presumably had the right result, and by 1934 he was married to Victorine Marey. They lived in Lyon, where he worked at the huge company Les Cables de Lyon. Sadly, there were no children.
Victorine was known as ‘Tantine’ amongst her nieces, one of whom was looked upon as the daughter she never had, and when she died in 1976 it was passed to this niece, where it remained in a drawer until 2013, when it, and the story, were given to the collection.
Further reading shows that the practice still continues, not just in the Ardeche region of France. St Catherine is the patron saint of milliners, and the colours green and yellow are particularly associated with her. In the book written by Oriole Cullen and Stephen Jones in association with their wonderful hat exhibition at the V&A in 2009, there are pictures of Catherinettes receiving their specially made hats from fellow workers
Another hat from the same source also came from Henri Chix, and is a metal helmet, probably dated around the time of World War I . The design is known as the Adrian helmet, and was used by many armed forces.
This has the insignia R F inside the coil of a hunting horn attached to the front, which was the badge of the Riflemen/Chasseurs, who were a body of cavalry and infantry men, trained for rapid movement. Henri’s helmet has a seam around the crown where the brim is attached. A later version, dated 1926 has the brim all in one with the crown, which made the helmet considerably stronger. I have been able to discover that this is the earlier pattern. There is a ventilation hole under the crest. Given its date and style, it most probably was worn by Henri’s father, as Henri himself was too young to have been in the first war, or if he had just caught the tail end of it, would almost certainly have had one of the newer design.
It certainly looks as if it saw some action !