Paris after the Revolution 1796-1800.

French Directory fashion. merveilleuses costumes. Directoire, Octave Uzanne. Albert Lynch
Three “Merveilleuses” walk through the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.

French Directory. Fashion in Paris after the Revolution 1796-1800.

Directoire. Semi-nude women in the Champs Élysées – No pockets – Mademoiselle Mars makes yellow velvet the rage – Rivalry between Mesdames Hamelin and Tallien – Extraordinary prices for dresses’ – “Assignats” – Open-air fêtes – Race meetings – England the costume market of the world – Disappearance of the “Merveilleuses.”

Semi-nude women in the Champs Elysées.

THERE is audacity even in the audacity of the nude: one summer evening in the year 1796 two women, almost in a state of nudity, made their appearance In the Champs Élysées, one wearing simply some gauze tastefully draped, while the other had her breasts entirely uncovered. At the sight of such gross indecency, hooting was heard on all sides, and the two “Grecian” ladies in their statuesque garb were conducted to their carriage amidst the taunts and apostrophes of the crowd which had surrounded them.

The fashionable women resigned themselves to the inevitable after this, and henceforth allowed their forms to be slightly more hidden. The papers announced that Madame Hamelin had decided to take to wearing chemises again. The fashion of “no chemises” had lasted exactly a week, and women had so well fashioned themselves to the costume of the antique in their war to the knife on all superfluous drapery, that they carried their fans in their waistbands, and their purses in their bosoms. Everything except the absolutely necessary was therefore discarded until, as the result of a brilliant idea, in place of pockets handsomely embroidered, reticules to be carried in the hand were introduced.

Curious makeshifts for pockets.

In connection with this it was amusingly recounted that one of the élégantes, inconvenienced by the new fashion of carrying a satchel with her handkerchief, smelling bottle, purse, etc., on one occasion went to a reception attended by a page to carry the bag, and hand the articles as they might be wanted. So well was the page qualified for the delicate post, being good-looking, well-made, active, and just one-and-twenty, that it was said the innovation would be extremely successful, and pages would probably take the place of lady’s-maids.

Continual changing of fashions

For women of fashion, in those unsettled times, in those days of governmental vacillation, it was a period of feverish unrest, in which modes changed and unchanged almost every day. What was a success in the evening might be a failure the following morning. It was a succession of bewildering adoptions and abandonments, revivals, novelties, sensations, transfigurations.

It was fashion so Protean, so diverse, and so varied from day to day that the slightest wave of its magic wand was sufficient to make a vogue appear new and up to date in the Faubourg Saint-Germain when it had already become démodée on the Boulevards. Flat solid shoes replaced shoes with heels; colours changed in equally rapid succession: green, proscribed under the Reign of Terror, on account of the green hat of Charlotte Corday (By the assassination of the radical journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat she became famous), came into fashion for a time; then followed a peculiar shade of violet, called “mouche,” after which there was a delicate tint called “fifi pale effarouché,” a name I find impossible to translate into English; then all three were outdone by jonquil, which was adopted at the same time by Madame Tallien and the Jacobin posters, which therefore made it a partisan color. The waists of the dresses were one day cut heart-shaped, the following day in the shape of butterflies’ wings. For a short time dresses, fichus, sacs, were all “quadrille,” then skirts, sleeves, backs, bodices, were all laced.

Charlotte Corday. French Revolution costume. Murder of Jean Paul Marat.
The last portrait of Charlotte Corday 1768-1793.

At this period two novelties, or rather revivals, made their reappearance in the “impoverished” toilettes of the fair sex-straw, in the shape of hats, night-caps, bonnets, ribbons, plumes, waistbands, tassels, and even fans; and yellow velvet, which became the rage through a rather amusing incident, which is worth relating. Mademoiselle Mars (Anne-Françoise-Hippolyte Boutet, 1779-1847), the famous actress, was performing an engagement at Lyons, when one morning a manufacturer of that noted city of rich stuffs asked for an interview.

French Revolution Feminist. Merveilleuse French actress Mademoiselle Mars. Directoire Fashion. French 18th century costume. Regency period
Actress Mademoiselle Mars 1779-1847

On entering, he proceeded to spread out before the astonished actress a lengthened fold of costly yellow velvet.
Will you please accept this, and make my fortune?” said the gentleman.
Explanations over, it was soon understood that it was to be a business affair altogether: the shrewd tradesman knowing well that the superb woman before him set the fashion as to cut and material of dress for all Paris.

Note:  Costume Robe de Velours. Chapeau de Velours.

Yellow velvet was what he knew best how to make, and nobody wore it! It was obsolete – the colour trying; but the entreaties of the eloquent pleader of his own cause overcame the kind heart of the actress. The velvet was handed over to her dressmaker, and made up for the tragedy which she was to play with Talma the week after. However, on seeing herself in the full-length mirror of the greenroom, before the drawing up of the curtain, the heart of the actress gave way. “I look really ridiculous!” she exclaimed, “ just like a huge canary, and I cannot appear. Call the manager, and postpone the performance.” On receiving this sudden intelligence Talma rushed from his dressing-room. “Is that all?” he exclaimed as he surveyed the magnificent woman. “Why, you never looked so superb in your life! Chance has favoured you. The toilette is a miracle of effective beauty!” The play went on.

The Salons of Paris with yellow velvet

Ten days afterwards the Salons of Paris were perfectly golden with yellow velvet. Every woman of fashion must appear in that, and no other colour; and this was the reason for the grand fête given by the wealthiest manufacturer to Mademoiselle Mars on her return, years after, to play again at Lyons. It was at a superb country house on the banks of the Saône, and he had purchased it with the fortune made out of yellow velvet.
Spangles which had been banished a year previously now suddenly reappeared in this vortex of changes, and became the rage. They were applied to almost every article.

“Paillette aux bonnets, Aux toquets, Aux petits corsets; Aux fins bandeaux, Au grand chapeau, Paillette. Au noir colliers, Aux blancs souliers, Paillette. Paillette aux rubans, Aux turbans, On ne vois rien sans Paillette.”

Madame Hamelin and Madame Tallien

Portrait Madame Tallien. French Revolution History. Directoire costume
Thérésa Cabarrus, Madame Tallien, “Notre-Dame de Thermidor” 1773-1835.
Madame Tallien. French revolution fashion. Directory Merveilleuses Costumes. Notre-Dame de Thermidor
Madame Tallien, Notre-Dame de Thermidor 1773–1835.

In all these vagaries of capricious fashion, there was only one woman who rivalled the beautiful Madame Hamelin (Jeanne Marie Ignace Thérésia Cabarrus, 1773-1835) in following its impetuous course, and who, it is stated, was never a moment late in adopting the cut of a robe or the style of a head-dress. This was Madame Tallien (Jeanne Marie Ignace Thérésia Cabarrus 1773-1835), who was the first to spend forty livres on a simple muslin gown to wear at a reception at the Hôtel d’Alligre” Rue d’Orleans-Honoré.

Note:  Timeline of the French Revolution 1789 - 1799.

She it was also who first appeared at a ball at the Opera with rings on her toes, whilst at the Salon of I796; at the height of the fashion for blonde wigs, she only had to make her appearance wearing a black one, for the fashion to change immediately. As a further instance of the intense rivalry between these two queens of Parisian fashion, we learn that on another occasion, when Madame Hamelin, during the agitation against clothing the figure, was the first to adopt the new mode, and to appear as an undraped statue, Madame Tallien burst into sight one evening garbed only in a transparent veiling, with her throat and breasts encircled with a rivière of diamonds, which scintillated with a thousand flames at every movement of her exquisite body. Such a vision of loveliness was sufficient to eclipse any further rivalry for the time.

French Revolution Feminist. Merveilleuse Madame Hamelin. Directoire Fashion. French 18th century costume. Regency period
Madame Hamelin French Directory Feminist 1773-1835

Assignats” and their depreciation

By reason of the depreciation in the value of the paper money which had been issued under the name of “assignats,”* the most fantastic prices were paid by women in 1795 for fashionable articles of dress, as, for instance, 64 livres for making two bonnets; gauze for these bonnets, 100 livres; 3,400 livres for two dozen cambric handkerchiefs; 1,640 livres for a brown taffeta dress; 2,500 for a dress of batiste trimmed with silk. A year later 7,000 livres was paid for a tarlatan-trimmed mantle; making a hat, 600; a dress and a fan, 20:000; taffetas for a mantle, 3,000. These extraordinary prices continued to rise in proportion to the depreciation in value of the “assignats.”

(* The finances of France were in so critical a condition in 1789, that a decree of December 21 of that year ordered the creation of four hundred millions of notes to bearer, carrying 5 per cent. interest, and called “assignats.” The first series was in notes of a thousand and five hundred livres apiece. In I79I a fresh series of twelve hundred millions was issued in five-franc notes. But forgery and other various causes combined with the Reign of Terror to bring about their fall in value to an almost incredible extent. One can form some idea of the terrible fluctuations in the prices of every commodity by the rapidity in the depreciation of the assignats. They were at par towards the end of I793, that is to say, the louis in gold was worth twenty-five livres. The depreciation commenced early in 1794, and never stopped afterwards. In 1795 the louis is in gold was worth 1,020 livres paper money; going down almost inconceivably in value the louis in gold was eventually worth in paper money as much as 8,600 livres. They were exchanged in April I796 for territorial mandats in the proportion of thirty to one. They were finally annulled on May 21, 1797.

Outdoor costumes of the Merveilleuses.

In their outdoor costumes the “Merveilleuses” displayed an utter disregard for the inclemency of the seasons, going about on all occasions clad in less than what would be now considered light even for a bathing-costume, showing thus an indifference which stood in marked contrast to their menfolk, who in cold weather swaddled themselves in waistcoat upon waistcoat, numerous ties, and heavy hats pulled down over their foreheads. The “Merveilleuses,” on the contrary, were content in the winter, to cover their scarcely veiled nudity with a velvet cape or cloak lined with fur or swansdown, while in summer a flimsy scarf by way of a wrap was considered all-sufficient.

Note:  Linon shawl, trimmed with applied tape. Regency 1798.

Open-air fetes and race-meetings were inaugurated around and in Paris, and many of them became celebrated. The Fete Champêtre in the Tivoli Gardens, the Champs Élysées, and the Palais Égalité, were for their utter licentiousness the talk of Europe: so much so in fact, that a London paper of the time hinted that the reports of the fascinating delights and the unbridled gaiety at them were only a “ruse de guerre”, for no expedient could have been invented in the then state of European politics better calculated to engender a universal desire for the return of peace, and so giving every one, even the emigrant-aristocrats, a chance of going over to Paris and seeing and judging for themselves.

It must not be said that French fashion, however much it may have broken with the traditions of the eighteenth century in taking up with the Greek costume, had become exclusive or refused to receive suggestions. It continued, so the chronicles tell us, to take ideas on all sides: the tippet from Germany, the flounce from the fifteenth century, the dress coat from Warsaw. It authorised its votaries to submit to the influences of all people. Like Rome, it appropriated from the vanquished all it considered worth the taking.

Therefore, in putting Spain, Italy, Turkey, and England under contribution, it made France the costume market of the whole world; but Anglomania was in full bloom: all that was not English was proclaimed by the “Merveilleuses” to be “shockingly bourgeoise and ungainly enough to give one hysterics, and everything that came from the country with which the Republic was at war, was feted and applauded.Thus “Prusso-mania” reigned in France during the Seven Years’ War, and the Parisiennes avenged themselves for Rosbach by wearing hats “à la Frédéric.” Turbans, shawls, hats, “spencers,” were ” delightful clothing,” and only appreciated by Revolutionary elegance if they had come across the Channel.

“John Bull” the costumier French fashionable beauties

“What a miracle!” exclaim the de Goncourts, “that this John Bull who usually orders the dresses for Madame Alblon on the Continent has suddenly become the designer and costumier for French fashionable beauties. A miracle indeed, if we did not know that London is the new home of the work-girls of Mademoiselle Berthin, and of some emigrants, become through necessity dressmakers, and inculcating in others the taste that in happier times they displayed on their own persons.” Anglo-mania was, however, but a sort of diversion rather than an innovation, and soon died out.

The disappearance of the “Merveilleuses”

The “Merveilleuses” disappeared with the Directoire,but not entirely the mode they had inaugurated, for it still survives, though in a modified form. Although reprehensible perhaps from the point of view of the immoral influence it exercised on the masses, the fashion was not void of considerable artistic merit, and as such was a welcome change from the hideous styles of the’ years preceding the Revolution.


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