There is a holiday more feminine than Thanksgiving and it is today: the feast day of St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose hagiography established her as the patron saint of philosophers and students in the Middle Ages, and of unmarried women and milliners in the modern era. An interesting evolution from the spiritual to the secular, like many medieval saints, with librarians and all penitents in need representing the transitional beneficiaries. According to her Legend, Catherine was a lovely young woman of noble birth in the early fourth century who converted to Christianity following a vision. She caught the eye of the Emperor Maxentius (r. 306-312) and her refusal to marry him resulted in her martyrdom: after she shattered the first instrument of her torture and execution, a spiked wheel, with a mere touch, she was put to the sword and beheaded. Catherine is seldom seen without these attributes as reminders of the strength of her faith, but there is also a genre of Renaissance depictions which show her rising above them and vanquishing the evil emperor.
Friedrich Pacher, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 15th-16th century, deYoung/Legion of Honor Museums, San Francisco; Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with the Defeated Emperor (c. 1482), Philadelphia Museum of Art.
I’m not sure of the precise transition, but at some point in the later eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, Catherine evolved in a patron saint for spinsters, or more precisely unmarried women over the age of 25. This was particularly a French development, and young women began to commemorate the day by praying to Saint Catherine for a husband, donning hats specially made for the occasion, and sending notes and cards to each other as a form of comfort and companionship. The emphasis on hats led to another evolution of Catherine’s patronage, and she became associated more specifically with unmarried women who worked in the fashion and millinery trades of Paris, where large “Catherinette” celebrations occurred on this day in the 1920s and 1930s, a “tradition” that was revived after World War II and apparently continues to this day. As would only be fitting for the women who worked in these creative industries, the hats worn by the Catherinettes were often (but not always) confined to Catherine’s colors of yellow (for faith) and green (for wisdom), but also exemplified unlimited forms of structure, substance and style. And still do.
Catherinettes in the 1930s (from Ernest Flammarion’s Paris (1931)) and 1950s; a modern print of vintage Catherinettes; a St. Catherine’s Day card from the 1940s, and a Chanel Catherinette creation, 2013.
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