Nymphs and Merveilleuses. The Frenchwoman of the century; fashions – manners – usages
by Octave Uzanne, 1886.
The end of the Directory
A citizen, “lover of the sex,” Lucas Rochemont, dreamed, towards the end of the Directory, of opening a competition of new fashions among the truly elegant of France; the fashion which won the prize was to bear the name of its creatress. He communicated to La Mésangère ( Pierre de La Mésangère 1761–1831 Paris) this ingenious project in the following letter:— “You speak periodically, Citizen, of the wonders of fashion, of its multiplied forms, of its unheard-of successes; but you keep silent about the seductive objects which open for it so brilliant a career. What, indeed, would fashion be without the graces of the charming sex which makes it admired? A fugitive escaping the eyes of all. But it owes everything to the fair, its elegance, its wealth, its simplicity; nothing is good, nothing is beautiful without their co-operation. Is it not good taste which admits such extravagance of fashion? and is not good taste the stamp of beauty? Therefore is it my desire, O Citizen, that, at every epoch which brings us a new fashion, you should render justice to her to whom it belongs, and call it by her name who creates it; this would be a means of exciting emulation which w^ould give us the knowledge to whom we owe such and such a change in the dress of our ladies, and would open for us a temple where every one might have the means of carrying his incense to the feet of the divinity to whom he accorded the preference.”
This original project ended in nothing, which is a pity; for with the exception of some twenty pretty women, half celebrated in the vicinity of Notre-Dame de Thermidor, we are almost completely ignorant of the names of the leaders of fashion in the epoch of the Directory. All these nymphs and merveilleuses are anonymous; all these beauties, Greek and Roman, pass by veiled, and anecdotic history remains as mute concerning them as if they had been the smart little love-seekers of the Pres Saint-Gervais. These “proud and majestic beauties” are called Calypso, Eucharis, Phryne; they have allowed everything to be seen through their open robes by the Apollos of the day, under the yews laden with seven-coloured lamps of Frascati; but of that long masquerade in the republican gardens of Armida, few personalities sprang out; the water of pleasure, which made all their charms shine with eternal youth, has confounded them in one and the same ideal vision of charmers: of the Directory there seems only to remain a common grave of nameless courtezans.
However it may be, these extravagant fashions which, so to speak, “wiped the plaster” of the new society, these idle, incoherent, unseizable fashions which we have just described with cursive pen in the present desultory chapter, these fashions of our Impossibles may be considered as the fundamental types markino- the transition which influenced the civil costume of the whole nineteenth century. It is for this that they deserve to find their monograph. We should like to see written the History of Fashions under the Revolution and the Directory. Although we have only glanced over the subject, as a cockchafer lost in that immense wardrobe of gauzes, we are none the less assured that it would be a topic full of passionate charm for any determined scholar in love with the past, and sufficiently feminine to love to shake all these frivolities, which are so impressive and so sad because of the fair forms and the life which they once contained. Some moralists have pretended that the vestment of women has almost always undergone the same variations as their virtue. This is possible, and the study might be made in an amusing parallel; but carry, if you will, before the tribunal of fashion the cause of the merveilleuses of the Directory, the sincere friends of art will still recognise that amongst these pagan women pleasure obtained a brilliant victory over decency, and that their extreme grace made their absence of dignity forgotten.
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.