She came to see the concerts, but this eccentric Quebec City seamstress was the real show

Henriette Belley started making extravagant costumes and dresses after she started a fortune-telling business. (Roger Guillemette/Collection Musée Madame Henriette Belley)

Henriette Belley knew how to make an entrance.

A legend at Quebec City’s Palais Montcalm in the ’60s and ’70s, the seamstress and fortune teller would regularly attend shows at the iconic music venue, flaunting extravagant dresses that she made for the public to admire. Belley, who was born in 1905 to humble beginnings and died in 1980 a public persona, became known for stealing the spotlight at the world-class concert hall.

“She was the big premiere of every concert,” said Palais Montcalm’s programming director, Nicolas Houle, during an interview with Breakaway.  

The landmark theatre built in Beaux-Arts style that overlooks Old Quebec’s fortified gates is opening a new performance hall on Dec. 1 and, naming it in her honour. 

“We thought, ‘why not name a place after a member of the audience instead of a popular artist?'” Houle said.

Belley was the obvious choice.

Belley used to show up right before the show was about to start to make her entry in the performance hall. (Roger Guillemette/Collection Musée Madame Henriette Belley)

Belley would arrive late, just as the lights were dimming, Houle said.

But the lighting technicians knew to train the spotlight on her as she descended to her front row seat, parading an outfit she had specifically designed for that show.

Her gimmicks were so well-known that even the famous Belgian singer Jacques Brel, who performed a handful of times at Palais Montcalm in the late 60s, waited for her arrival before starting his concert.

“She was really a special woman, you know, she was a character,” Houle said.

A space with personality, just like Belley

The new concert hall was originally meant to be a restaurant, but the venue later decided to create a space where emerging artists could be featured. 

“We wanted this place to have personality,” Houle said. “We wanted it intimate, but a cozy place, kind of a lounge.”

The room has a vintage look, with crystal liquor decanters, and navy blue and gold velvet chairs. Houle noted it is quite different from Palais Montcalm’s more formal music halls, where sombre decor draws attention to the performance.

Unlike Palais Montcalm’s more formal concert halls, the room Chez Madame Belley has a bar where spectators can order a drink during the performance. (Pascal Ratthé)

“There is a special atmosphere, and you can have a drink, and go to the bar, so that’s a different kind of concert and different atmosphere,” he said.

‘A bit of a mythical character’

Denis Angers, a historian and former journalist who specializes in Quebec City’s history, remembers seeing Belley at the music venue when he was a child. 

“I was, how could you say, absolutely flabbergasted,” he said, adding that at first he thought she was a bit bizarre and over the top.

But, eventually came to appreciate how Belley, who came from a very poor family, had managed to create such a flamboyant public persona, he said.

“She became a bit of a mythical character in Quebec,” he said. “We’d wait for Madame Belley, we’d hope for Madame Belley, we wanted to see her.”

“With time, she became almost a star, and she would be loudly applauded by members of the public who hesitated between admiration and laughter.”

Humble beginnings

Born in 1905 in Beauport, near Quebec City, Belley never had a formal education. She started working in the textile industry when she was 12, and began sewing.

According to Angers, her outfits became more extravagant after she opened a fortune-telling business in the late ’50s. She would put together different ensembles that, combined with her eccentric personality and knack for predicting her clients’ future, enhanced her aura, he said.

But it was after the death of her husband, Charles Belley, in 1965, that she really started making a splash, showing off her creations at the premieres of big shows in Quebec City.

“For each of these events, she would create a new attire, an attire that was totally exuberant, extravagant, [with] colours and shimmering,” said Angers.

“She’d make an entrance like a queen really, by slowly walking down to her seat, and by twirling and pirouetting to reveal her new [outfit],” Angers said.

She was cheeky at times, he said. She had a large collection of watches, but she didn’t wear them on her wrists. 

“She’d wear them often on her ankle or on her knee, which gave her the occasion to roll up her skirt a little.”

Fate of clothes remains a mystery

Belley went on to make about 5,000 pieces of clothing and accessories, according to Angers. She used her small apartment in Quebec City’s Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood as her personal workshop.

After her death in 1980, thousands of those items were retrieved, including 700 dresses, 300 jackets and capes, and 500 hats.

Her clothes were temporarily displayed at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. A small private museum called L’empire de Madame Belley was created in her honour a few years later. Some of her most spectacular outfits were exhibited there, but the museum closed in the late ’80s.

That was the last time they were seen, Angers said, and the whereabouts of her collection are unknown today.

“What’s clear is that out of the 5,000 pieces that she created in her career, very few survived,” he said.

The new performance hall, Chez Madame Belley, will open its doors to the public on Dec. 1, with a week of planned free concerts from budding local Quebec musicians.

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