Merveilleuses. Fashion under the French Revolution. Directoire Period 1789 to 1802.
Table of content.
1789 Fashion in Paris before the taking of the Bastille – Mademoiselle Berthin – 1791 Fashion under the French Revolution – 1794 Fashion reverts to the Greek and Roman period – Disappearance of Louis XVI costumes – Paleness in vogue – Beauties à la Psyche – Varieties of hair-dressing at the commencement of the Directoire – Perruques came into fashion – The painter David, the revolutionary painter apostate – Debate on reformation costume – The Cothurn – The “Merveilleuses” – Greek robes – Roman dresses – Copé, the noted shoemaker
1789 Fashion in Paris before the taking of the Bastille.
UNTIL the taking of the Bastille, Paris fashion had come from Versailles. Versailles was the acme of all elegance. It was fashion itself, and it was said that Mademoiselle Rose Bertin (Marie-Jeanne Bertin 1747-1813) used to go there overnight to find the ideas which Paris would adopt the following day. Under the Revolution, fashion became democratised and common property. Every one had the power in turn to wield its tyranny, and in the anarchy of taste over which Madame Tallien reigned without governing, individual initiative and coquetry succeeded the omnipotence of the example of the Court. Thus, only just set free, fashion reverted to the Greek and Roman period, and, encouraged by the patriotic school, even went so far back as before Christ. Watteau and Lancret costumes and Pompadour robes disappeared; slippers, rouges, patch-boxes, all followed the fashion of the buried past. In vain did rouge endeavour to survive under the faint disguise of a vegetable liquid.
The picture of “Psyche and Cupid” by Gerard exhibited in the Salon in Van VI, brought paleness into vogue, and nothing therefore remained of the old tradition. The extreme of this reaction was reached when ordinary white paint was used by fashionable beauties in order to make themselves look interesting with faces made up à la Psyche.
To describe fashion as being in a state of chaos at this period is only to put it mildly. Fashions were made, lost, remade, and lost again within the space of a few days. It is therefore difficult to follow its vicissitudes, or to assign any definite dates for any particular caprice. Take hairdressing for example. After the 9th Thermidor, we have the “coiffure à la victime,” a souvenir of prison days and the gaoler rushing after the condemned person on his way to the guillotine to snatch his head-ribbon, and selling him a curved comb to replace it.
1791 Fashion under the French Revolution
Then almost day by day there were changes. At one moment Spanish nets for the chignon, next day no chignon at all; to-day curls over the ears, then curls on the top of the head, then at the back of the neck, then the hair fixed like a helmet, or arranged with ostrich or vulture feathers. Sometimes the chignon was loose and movable, at others it was imprisoned tightly in a purple silk net.
Whilst Bonaparte in the midst of his victories was collecting cameos to adorn later the hair of Madame Bonaparte in Paris, head-dresses were made entirely of jewellery of various sorts from gold chains and ropes of pearls to Oriental turbans of gold. Perruques came into fashion; for a time blonde, yellow, and even blue wigs were seen. Then suddenly it was remembered that under the Reign of Terror blonde perruques were forbidden, that in a speech before the Tribunal of the Commune, Payan had said: “A new sect has just been formed in Paris which is anxious to unite with the Centre Révolutionnaires, and a lot of thoughtless giddy women are eager to buy the blonde hair of young victims of the guillotine, and to wear thus on their own heads hair so costly.” The mere recollection of this speech recalled the horrors of those times, apart from the suggestion of the origin of the wigs they were wearing, and was sufficient to sound the death-knell of the perruque.
1794 Fashion reverts to the Greek and Roman period
The idea once started, that with the social change there should also be a drastic reformation in costume, the brothers de Goncourt tell us the inspiration came immediately, that it was in the Greek and Roman antiquities that suggestions for the projected revolution in the mode would be found. Where indeed could the new Republic seek for better models? Were there not, it was asked, paintings to give the characteristics of the Athenian and the Roman? whilst the artist David should advise as to what a virgin should wear.
For it might be of interest here to mention that that revolutionary painter-apostate, “le broyeur de sang du comité de sûreté générale,” had succeeded with great difficulty in getting himself released from the Luxembourg prison, where he had been incarcerated since the Thermidor reaction. Politics therefore had now no further attraction for a renegade of his type, so he had returned to his art. Paris was in too happy a condition of mind at this moment to wish to remember the past, so the infamous deeds of the talented painter were forgotten in the general rejoicings.
It has been said that David was the actual initiator of the new costume movement, but the justification for this statement is based upon the very slightest grounds, and the de Goncourts certainly give him no particular credit for it, not mentioning his name more than casually. The man himself, apart from the painter, was one of the most unpleasing products of the Revolutionary movement, and certainly nothing one has heard about him redounds to his credit. The Countess Brownlow in her reminiscences, describing a visit to his studio, says: “David himself was a sight, as well as his pictures, but not a pleasing one in any way. Unlike the smoothness and high finish and unmeaning faces which characterised his heroes, his face was remarkably coarse, and the expression of the countenance decidedly bad, fully confirming one’s belief in the accounts of his conduct during the worst days of the Revolution.”
To return, however, to the momentous question of the new costume; it now came to pass that two societies for whom the matter of costume was a personal one, the “Société républicaine des Arts” and “le Club révolutionnaire des Arts,” held meetings for the sole purpose of threshing out the momentous proposition. The whole idea resolved itself into points of consideration, declared the famous sculptor, Espercienne, who was the principal orator on one occasion. “Shall the Greek or the Roman costume be adopted? The Greek costume,” was the unanimous reply of the audience. “If so, then,” asked the orator, “shall the mantle or the chlamys be worn with it?” The question remained unanswered decisively, but it had taken root, and was discussed vigorously.
Meanwhile the news of the debate got abroad, and shortly after a matronly married person, who said she wished to dress herself in the antique style, applied to the “Société des Arts” for instruction how to cut out the pattern. Two experts, Espercienne and Petit Coupray, were appointed to help her, in spite of much railing on the part of Garneray, the painter, against the inconsistency of the female mind. It therefore came about that a dress cut according to the antique pattern, for the mother of a family (mère de famille), under the guidance of two sculptors started the new era in feminine fashion, and incidentally the most attractive of any of the modes the world has seen.
In a very short time the new vogue had caught on so rapidly, that every couturière of Paris was making nothing but classical dresses. There were robes à la Flore, robes à la Diane, tunics à la Ceres, tunics à la Minerva, coats à la Galatée, robes au lever de I’Aurore, robes à la Vestale; different dressmakers made specialities of different styles.
Nancy was noted for her Greek robes, Madame Raimbaut was without rival in turning out Roman dresses; and the, when the dress was completed, and the languorous élégante for whom it was made was satisfied with it, it was the turn of Coppé, the noted shoemaker, who drove up in his bluepainted gig, and brought various pairs of slippers in all varieties of material and color, of lightest possible make, for the goddcss to choose from.
The cothurn (buskin) was the rage; it fastened with a tassel, in the middle of the leg, and for twenty écus it was said that Coppé made them of a color, a freshness, an elegance, a poetry, that would not have been unworthy of the foot of a heroine of Retif, or that of Madame Staël herself.
There was a rather amusing anecdote related at the time of Coppé. A fair customer sent for him to ask him to give some reason for her new pair of cothurns coming to pieces the first time of wearing. The maestro, after having carefully and studiously examined the damaged foot-gear, nodded his head gravely as though vainly seeking an inspiration, then suddenly, after a long pause, tapped his forehead as though illuminated with a brilliant idea, and exclaimed: “Ah! parbleu! of course I know the reason: I would bet fifty louis that Madame has been walking in them.”
This revival of Arcadia appealed so strongly to the new “culte,” that they gradually began to aim at adopting the nude itself. Dresses were gradually withdrawn from the bosom, and the arms, which had been hitherto discreetly covered, were entirely denuded as far as the shoulder; then the legs and the feet followed suit. It as humorously remarked that women increased in value at the time as through the scarcely veiled transparency one could plainly see that their thighs and legs were encircled with diamond-studded bands. Soon even silk and wool did not meet with the approval of the belles; they found that they formed hard and ungainly folds which disguised rather than revealed the form, so the demand was only for soft material. Starch was entirely forbidden.
A little more, and it is extremely probable that women would have consented to wear wet draperies, such as the ancient sculptors used on their models. They refused to wear anything but muslin or lawn, all that outlined and modelled the contour of the body being in great demand, In this vision of muslin, lawn, and gauze, amongst all these ethereal beings light as a cloud of tissue, Madame Recamier was conspicuous, always draped in white. “It was the hour,” says Kotzebue, “when the good sense of decency warbled softly to those wives and mothers whose virtue found itself sufficiently sheltered behind an ell of cotton: “‘Grace à la mode Une chemise suffit, Une chemise sufit, Ah que c’est commode! Une chemise suffit, C’est tout profit.'” “It was a moment,” he continues, “when a journalist could thus sum up the feminine wardrobe; A Parisienne must have three hundred and sixty-five head-dresses, as many pairs of shoes, six hundred dresses, and twelve chemises.”
One fine day the latter article was suppressed. The Salons of Paris learned that it had been decided the previous evening that the chemise was no longer in fashion; the chemise spoilt the look of the figure, was awkward to arrange, and the stiff and ugly folds of this antique garment made a well-shaped tunic lose all its graceful lines. ” For more than two thousand years women have been wearing chemises, and it is time that such archaism disappeared.” Panard relates how, at the last conclave in Olympus, Venus was opposed to any woven garment, adding: “Les attraits qu’en tous lieux Sans voile aujourd’hui l’on admire, A force de parler aux yeux, Au coeur ne laisseront rien à dire.”
The new costume. The “Merveilleuses.”
Henceforth all the repertories of ancient times, the classical as well as the barbarous ages of men, all the countries and climes of the earth were ransacked to give variety and attraction to women’s attire. Under the jocular cognomen of “Merveilleuses” a contingent of fashionable women initiated a new era in costume which was destined by reason of its utter audacity to become historic. In this pursuit they were restrained by no consideration of decorum, nor abashed by any admonition of delicacy or modesty; whatever was necessary for the display of the special character of ancient history which the Merveilleuse assumed for the day, the metamorphosis was complete. A material was sought after that would reproduce the statuesque effect of clinging drapery, and in the latitude they thus permitted themselves it may easily be perceived that decency was being constantly outraged. The chemise was replaced by a flesh-colored silk tricot which, as was said at the time, no longer let one guess, but actually see, all the secret charms of a woman. This is what they called being dressed “à la savage.” Even stockings and shoes were abandoned in favor of sandals, at balls, whilst, to emphasize still further this caprice, many wore diamonds on their toes. The journalists, in direct opposition to the stern injunctions of the Directoire, who for a moment had endeavored to repress these excesses, described in terms of the most voluptuous eloquence the luxury that reigned in fashionable circles of the Metropolis, and, under the guise of affected censure and the pretence of being scandalised at the manners of the moment, they gave daily descriptions of the elegance, the levity, and the licence which the “Merveilleuses” gave to fashion.
Here is a description from a French journal of the time of the scene at a concert at the théâtre. Rue Feydeau: “It is not till towards the middle of the concert that the reserved boxes are filled: then the coup d’oeil becomes singular. You see suspended out of the boxes thousands of arms uncovered, not merely to the elbow, but to the shoulderblade, and these arms are ornamented with diamonds, pearls, and gold trinkets. You see plumes, diamonds, and head-dresses so rich that one of these would maintain a hundred creditors of the State for a twelvemonth. It is not enough to make us admire the arm – we must judge of all their other attractions. They stand up in front of the boxes, they display their collars of pearls, chains, zones, diamond ornaments, the richness of which surpasses anything the imagination can form. You can mark every lineament of their form and you see that linen is absolutely proscribed. How is it possible to resist this enchanting spectacle? The finest morsel of the concert is neglected, except when Garat sings because he is in fashion, the men are all debating to whom to give the apple as the meed of beauty. Last night the suffrages were divided between Mademoiselle Longe and Madame Tallien (Thérésa Tallien 1773 – 1835. Picture painted by Jean-Bernard Duvivier)
He paints the countess in a chaste version of the high-waisted dress she made famous) the first with a tight sleeve that covered her arm, and a modest though too much painted face concealed under a large hat of rosecolor; the other, Madame Tallien, recalling the antiquity of the Republic founded by Brutus. She was dressed like a Roman lady, but not unlike one of those matrons whose principal attire was their native modesty.”
The widow of the Marquis de Beauharnais, the future Empress Joséphine, who was at that time only the Citoyenne Bonaparte, divided the honors of the throne of fashion and beauty amongst the “Merveilleuses” with the graceful Madame Récamier (Juliette Récamier 1777-1849, In their time, Juliette Récamier was one of the most beautiful women and was painted by renowned artists, including by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Francois Gerard and Jacques-Louis David, who painted it on a Récamier, a piece of furniture was named after her in the style of a sofa.) and Madame Tallien, though there were many scions of the old aristocracy to be found amongst the leaders of the new vogue, as, for instance, Mesdames de Noailles, de Croisseul, de Morlaix, de Barre, de Beaumont, de Saint-Hilaire, to cite only a few whose names the newspapers were constantly mentioning. The dissolute and voluptuous Barras went so far as to extend the hospitality of the Luxembourg to this bevy of beauty, which at once gave the fashion a sort of chartered licence.
- The Execution of the King Louis XVI.
- Release of the Princesse Royal. The Execution of Marie-Antoinette.
- Gallery: Portraits by people during the French Revolution.
- The French Republic 1789 to 1802. Fashion during the directoire period by Augustin Callamel.
- Nymphs and Merveilleuses. Fashion History of the Directoire, Neoclassical, Regency, Empire by Octave Uzanne.
- Les “Incroyables et Merveilleuses”. “The Directoire Style” between 1795–1804. (gallery)
- Fashion during the french revolution. Paris 1793 to 1795.
- French Directory fashion in Paris after the Revolution 1796-1800.
DocuTV – The French Revolution.
Narrated by Edward Herrmann (The Aviator, Gilmore Girls)
- Dandyism in the Age of Revolution: The Art of the Cut., by Elizabeth Amann.
- The French Revolution: A Document Collection by Laura Mason
- Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787-1799
- Louis and Antoinette by Cronin, Vincent
- The Days of the French Revolution by Hibbert, Christopher
- King’s Trial: Louis XVI Versus the French Revolution
- Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama
- Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI by Michael Walzer.