Nymphs and Merveilleuses. The Frenchwoman of the century; fashions – manners – usages
by Octave Uzanne, 1886.
The Merveilleuse and the Nymph
The Merveilleuse and the Nymph are, indeed, the typical creatures of this epoch of profound corruption and open libertinage, in which all minors emancipated themselves, and which proclaimed the Sacrament of Adultery. Merveilleuses and Nymphs were the divinities recognised at the décadis and all the pagan festivals of the Republic; plastic beauties, priestesses of nudity and the god of the gardens, women doating on their body from which the soul had deserted, lost in a false mythology which induced them to Grécise for love of the antique until they were able to compare themselves to the Venuses of statuary and the heroines of Fable.
Description of Incroyables
The young men of fashion were their worthy partners. Listen to a contemporary who shall sketch their portrait in a few lines: ” Presumptuous more than youth ordinarily is; ignorant, since for six or seven years education had been interrupted, following up gallantry with license and debauch, picking quarrels more than would be allowed to men living continually in bivouac, inventors of a jargon almost as ridiculous as their immense cravat, which seemed half a piece of muslin wound about them, and, above all, stupid and impertinent. At war with the royalist party of the Club de Clichy, they adopted a costume which differed at all points from that of the young aristocrats: a very small waistcoat, a coat with two large swallow-tail flaps, pantaloons of which I could have made a dress, small boots à la Souvarow, a cravat in which they were buried. Add to this toilet a little cane in the shape of a club, about as long as half your arm, a spying-glass as big as a saucer, hair frizzled in little snakes which hid their eyes and half their face, and you will have an idea of an incroyable of this epoch.” (Related: Pen-Portrait of an Incroyable by Honore de Balzac.)
After the coiffure à la Titus.
For the Merveilleuses, let us look at them at the date of the year V., when were re-established New Year’s Day presents, and that promenade de Longchamps, of which the defile was nothing but a contest of luxury and beauty, and an incredible rivalry of dress. We shall be able to trace them thus, through the éphémérides of fashion, up to the last years of the century. Nothing less French than the attire of fashionable women at this commencement of the year V. It is nothing, according to the messengers of fashions (Variations des costumes français at the end of the eighteenth century.), but Greek tunics, Greek buskins, Turkish dolmans, Swiss caps—all speak of travellers disposed to travel. That which ought not to surprise us less, after the Titus, the head-dresses à la victime and à l’hérisse, is the blind preference accorded to wigs. Formerly, at the mere name, a fair one would shudder; but the sacrifice of one’s hair in that republican year had become a triumph… ; with that, dress tucked up as far as the calf: this easy style, in accord with flat shoes, crave to women a decided and masculine walk little in harmony with their sex.
The birth of caps gathered in folds
On their coiffures was set a coquettish biggin, like enough to the caps of infancy, or else a spencer hat with high crown fluted with vultures’ feathers. The same year witnessed the birth of caps gathered in folds, the child’s cap trimmed with lace, sometimes of lawn, sometimes of velvet, black, cherry, violet, or deep green, with a flat edging over the seams, and gathered lace about the rim. Even the turban was worn with a flat crown adorned with pearls, and with an aigrette, brought into fashion by the arrival of a Turkish ambassador in Paris; then, too, there was the English hood trimmed with crape, the bonnet à la jardinière, the hat casque-ballon, the bonnet à la folle, trimmed with many-coloured fichus, blondes and laces, half hiding the face; the mob-cap in lawn gauze, the white hat à la Lisbeth, over a cherry cap which the Saint-Aubin had brought into vogue in the opera of Lisbeth at the Théâtre-Italien; the chapeau à la primerose, also borrowed from the piece of that name, the casque à la Minerve, the turban in spirals, and twenty other head-coverings, each more gracious than the other, which, however extravagant they were, marvellously suited all the pert and provoking faces.
The Parisian beauties
The fichu was indifferently worn as undress, draped, or crumpled at hazard; no rule determined its form, taste alone presided at its confection, and it was, indeed, the most adorable coiffure in the world, the most roguish: no chignon, a few hairs scattered over the forehead, a drapery amply bouillonnée, a black band, and attention to manage the three points, that is all that usage generalised. We ought to have seen the grisettes in their morning undress. An engraving presents us with a Parisienne in this dress of the first hour; the first white fichu at hand serves her for a coif, her hair wanders at random, and the chignon remains invisible; white close-fitting jacket, and striped petticoat, low at the corners, slippers of green morocco: thus attired, the fair one went to seek provisions at the nearest market; no basket, but a white handkerchief to hold eggs, flowers and fruit. With this mighty bargain you see her returning delighted, holding in one hand the little parcel, and with the other her petticoat, raised very high, as far as the knee, to allow the white chemise to be seen and the calf well placed, enclosed in an immaculate network.
For the morning promenade, the Parisian beauties, in order the better to receive the caresses of Zephyr, did away with all superfluous ornament; a slight robe delineates the shape, a shawl of yellow lawn, citron, or pale rose, took the place of the fichu; on the head a simple biggin, the lace of which escapes under a gauze adorned with spangles; on the feet small red buskins, where ribbons of the same colour roll round the leg. Such was the costume in which the graces assisted, somewhat late in the day, at the sunrise.
The fashion of transparencies
By day nothing was to be seen but chemises à la prétresse, robes of lawn cut in the ancient fashion, robes à la Diane, à la Minerve, à la Galatée à la Vestale, à l’Omphale, leaving the arms naked and marking the shape like moist draperies; so to all the women of the Directory this couplet of the Conseils à Fanny, by the Prévot d’Irai, might be applied:
To rouse the love you’d have us feel, You choose light stuffs which nought conceal; The very finest gauze you take Our sense of pleasure to awake. Believe me, what we fail to spy Inspires still more of ecstasy; To hide your charms below, above, Is your true skill to heighten love.
Costumes which revealed the shape, and were transparent, were desired. The doctors did their best to declare, in a thousand ways, that the climate of France, temperate as it may be, admitted not the lightness of costume of ancient Greece. No attention was paid to the counsels of Hippocrates, and Delessart could affirm, at the end of the year VI., that he had seen more young girls die in consequence of the system of gauzed nudities than in the forty years previous.
Some audacious ones, among them the fair Madame Hamelin, ventured to promenade entirely naked in a sheath of gauze; others showed their breasts uncovered, but their immodest attempts were not renewed. The popular good sense made them abortive from the first, and the extravagant women, who had no feeling of their immodesty, were made at least conscious of their impudence when hootings and apostrophes pursued them home.
The fashion of transparencies, however, became modified by degrees: all quickly changes in the feminine empire. Towards the month of Brumaire, in the year VII., (1798) robes à l’Égyptienne, turbans and spencers à l’Algérienne, Fichus au Nil, and bonnets en crocodile occupied awhile the spirit of our frivolous ladies. The country of Egypt brought into fashion enormous many coloured turbans, worn on one side, with reflexed plumes, of which the foundation was of a plain colour opposed to the toque; the réticule, or ridicule, came again into favour under a military form; it was varied infinitely, and devices, emblems, arabesques, cameos, cyphers, ornamented it in turn.
The multiplicity of fashions
The hair was disarrano-ed with the hand à la Titus or à la Caracalla; jockey caps were worn, courier caps, hunting caps trimmed with corn, poppy, velvet; the balloon cap and the casque a great success. The multiplicity of fashions which rivalled, crossed, succeeded one another “with the rapidity of lightning,” at last confused and frighted even the directors of the appointed journals. Shawls above all were a theme for the chronicler; they were worn crosswise, amply draped over the shoulder and brought over the arm, the ends floating in the wind. Refinement introduced the liveliest colours, red, poppy, orange, apricot, with borders, black or white à la grecque; they were of every shape, of every material, of every colour; they were made in cloth, kerseymere, serge, silk network, and, more commonly, in grey rabbit fur. Shawls with tags, square shawls, overcoat shawls, for winter and summer. The fashionables began to cover their charms, and the buskin shoes disappeared by degrees.
The costume of the men in the middle of year VII.
As to the costume of the men in the middle of year VII. here is a sketch. The hat, half high in form, has a small border raised at the sides and depressed before and behind; the hair is always à la Titus, as well as the whiskers, which fall to the middle of the cheek and sometimes descend under the chin; bon ton requires that the whiskers should be black even although the hair be light: the impossibles have more than one means to satisfy the fashion. The cravat is high, always white, and with bows pointed like rats’ tails. It smothers the neck up to the ears. The frilled shirt is of fine cambric; it is seen through the large slanting cut of the waistcoat.
The coat is ordinarily of a deep brown, with black or violet collar, crossed with buttons of plain metal. The pantaloons, very close fitting, are of chamois kerseymere; over the seams dominates a small edging of gold, like the hussars. Fashion implicates an enormous show seal at the extremity of the watch chains, in place of the cane a simple small hook of bamboo, soft boots, coming up to the birth of the calf; ball dress, a black coat, coloured breeches, and shoes. The colour of the breeches is canary yellow and bottle green.
From the Book: The Frenchwoman of the century; Fashions – Manners – Usages, by Octave Uzanne. Illustrations in water colours by Albert Lynch. Engraved in colours by Eugène Gaujean.