Saint Catherine and the Rise of the Unmarried Women

Each year, the 25th of November marks St Catherine's Day. A historical figure from the fourth century, Saint Catherine of Alexandria is the patron saint of lace-makers, spinsters, milliners and couture. The story goes like this ...

Catherine saw a vision of the Madonna and Child who persuaded her to become a Christian. Soon after the Roman Emperor and pagan, Maxentius (278 - 312), began to persecute Christians. Catherine challenged his ruling and asked him to leave the Christians in peace. The emperor, in his disbelief, called upon his best pagan philisophers and orators to try and turn her away from Christianity.

However, the emperor's plan failed. Catherine simply could not be swayed. In fact, many of her adversaries were so inspired by her that they declared themselves Christians. Maxentius was furious, putting them to death and imprisoning and torturing Catherine.

During her imprisonment, over 200 people came to see Catherine and converted to Christianity, including the wife of the emperor, Valeria Maximilla. Each of her 200 visitors was martyred. Maxentius' next plan was to try and win Catherine over by asking for her hand in marriage. She declined and told him that her husband was Jesus Christ.

The emperor was furious and condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel but when Catherine touched the wheel it shattered so he had her beheaded instead.

So how does this link to millinery?

Traditionally in France, women wear hats on Saint Catherine's Day. They go on a pilgrimage to St Catherine's statue to ask for her help in finding a husband ... lest they don St Catherine's bonnet and become spinsters or "old maids". Women who are 25 years old and unmarried by the time of the Saint Catherine's festival are nicknamed "Catherinettes". To celebrate Saint Catherine's Day they wear outrageous hats of yellow and green, representing faith and wisdom. 

In the 1900s, fake weddings were staged for unmarried women on St Catherine's Day. Bosses would marry the Catherinettes, who would wear bonnets that had been made for them by seamstresses. They would be kissed, pinched and proclaimed an "old maid".

Twenty years later and with the rise of the suffragettes, Catherinettes took matters into their own hands by crafting their own haute hats and parading them through the streets of Paris. This time, the unmarried women were chasing and pinching the men.

After WW2, the parade aspect of Saint Catherine's Day disappeared and was replaced by a festival of fashion. Milliners would showcase their new and most elaborate designs. The day is still celebrated today.