Introduction

Various definitions of fashion—The grave side of its history—Quotations from the poets-Character of Frenchwomen—The refinement of their tastes and fancies—Paris the temple of fashion—The provinces—Mile. Mars' yellow gown—The causes of fashion— A saying of Mine, de Girardin's—A remark of Mrs. Trollope's—The dress of actresses—• Earliest theories of fashion—The Gynseceum of Amman—First appearance of the "Journal des Dames et des Modes"—Latnesangere—Other publications—An anecdote concerning dolls—Plan of the History of Fashion in France.

Fashion is the expositor, from the standpoint of costume, of our habits and our social relations; in a word, of everything appertaining to the charm of life.

Therefore to write the history of female fashion in France is a more serious task than it might seem to be at the first glance. The levity of the subject is mastered by its moral interest. Montesquieu remarks, in his "Lettres Persanes," cc A certain lady takes it into her head that she must appear at an assembly in a particular costume; from that moment fifty artisans have to go without sleep, or leisure either to eat or drink. She commands, and is obeyed more promptly than a Shah of Persia, because self-interest is the mightiest ruler upon the earth/'

Far from serving only as a source of frivolous talk, even when it is specially concerned with our dress and ornamentation, the subject of fashion, it has been wisely observed, has its value as a

1 b moral sign-post, and supplies the historian, the philosopher, and the novelist with a guide to the prevailing ideas of the time.

Fashion, in fact, acts as a sort of thermometer of the infinitely various tastes of the day, which are influenced by many external circumstances. It is the continuous development of clothing in its thousand varying forms, in its most striking improvements, in its most graceful or most whimsical fancies. The type of dress scarcely changes within the limits of a century ; but its adjuncts and characteristics vary frequently every year.

To the proverb. " Tell me your friends, and 1 will tell you who you are," might we not add, after serious reflection, "Tell me how such a person dresses, and I will tell you her character

Numerous poets. have defined Fashion, and for the most part petulantly and disdainfully. One of them says,—-

" La mode est un tyran, des mortels respecté, Digne enfant du dégoût et de la nouveauté."1

" Les modes sont certains usages Suivis des fous, et quelquefois des sages, Que le caprice invente et qu'approuve Pamour."2

A third remarks with truth, and less severity,—

" Le sage n'est jamais le premier à les suivre, Ni le dernier à les quitter." 3

And La Bruyère asserts that " it shows as much weakness to fly from Fashion as to follow it closely." We must not limit the causes of Fashion to three only,—love of change, the influence of those with whom we live and the desire of pleasing them, and the interests of traders in the transient reign of objects of luxury, so that their place may be supplied with fresh novelties. There remains to be pointed out a fourth and nobler cause ; it is the frequently though not always successful desire to improve the art of dress, to increase its charm, and to advance its progress.

1 " Fashion is a tyrant, respected by mortals ;

The fitting offspring of distaste and novelty."

2 " Fashions are certain usages, invented by caprice, and approved by love, which fools, and sometimes the wise, observe."

8 "The wise man is never the first to follow, nor the last to abandon them."

We do not undertake to relate the history of fashion in male attire, albeit its variations and singularities are by no means less numerous and remarkable than those of the history of fashion for women, which in every age has proved itself both powerful and tyrannical.

We must restrict ourselves to the garments worn by women in each succeeding age, and indeed we must confine ourselves to France alone, if we would achieve as complete a picture as possible of the transformations in female dress from the time of the Gauls to the day on which we shall have accomplished our task.

Grace, vivacity, and, we must add, caprice, are the distinguishing characteristics of Frenchwomen. With some very few exceptions we shall find the qualities or the failings of our charming countrywomen reproduced in their mode of dress. Be she a peasant or a dweller in cities, a working woman or a duchess, every Frenchwoman in town or country reveals herself frankly by the clothes she wears. Her innate desire to please makes her especially object to wear garments of any one particular fashion for long. She is ingenious in devising countless novel accessories to her dress, and adding to its effect. She adorns herself with embroidery, with lace, and with jewels, and, if need be, with flowers, that she may be irresistibly attractive.

A Frenchwoman endeavours to supplement those gifts bestowed upon her by nature by the refinements of the toilet. She maintains that fashion is never ridiculous, because good sense is never wanting in France to curb extravagance, and good taste will ever preserve the harmonious proportions that are an inherent necessity in dress.

It has been said by a woman of tact and observation, " It is perhaps allowable to be sentimental in a sky-blue bonnet, but one must not cry in a pink one."

This remark as to the fitness of dress shows that Frenchwomen are properly attentive to the harmony that should exist between the moral state of a person and the garments suitable for her wear. Mme. Emile de Girardin observes acutely, <c There is but one way of wearing a beautiful gown, and that is to forget it."

aGo where you will," wrote (in 1835) the travelled English-

woman Mrs. Trollope, " and you see French fashions, but only in Paris do you see how they should he worn. ... The dome of the Invalides, the towers of Notre-Dame, the column of .the Place Vendôme, the windmills of Montmartre belong to Paris less essentially and less exclusively than the style of a bonnet, a cap, a shawl, a curl, or a glove. . . when worn by a Parisian in the city of Paris."

It is therefore perfectly true to say that a history of fashion in women's dress in France has a singular likeness to a history of the French female character. There exists not a woman, according to Mme. de Genlis, who does not possess at least one secret in the art of dress, and that secret she is sure to keep to herself.

In France, the classic land of fancy, the empire of Fashion has assuredly been more deeply felt than elsewhere. From time immemorial Frenchwomen have altered their fashions each succeeding day. An eminently French poet was thinking of his countrywomen when he composed the following lines, which sum up all that has been said on our present interesting subject :—-

" Il est une déesse inconstante, incommode, Bizarre dans ses goûts, folle en ses ornements, Qui paraît, fuit, revient, renaît en tous les temps ; Protée était son père et son nom est la Mode." 4

Now, Proteus the sea-god, in order to escape from questioning upon the future, changed his shape at pleasure.

It might be said that the poet we have just quoted was referring to Parisian ladies in particular ; but this would be a mistake ; for a great number of elegant women reside in the provinces, and have quite as fervent a devotion to the inconstant goddess as their Parisian sisters. In former times Fashion reserved its great effects and its utmost brilliancy for the rich only ; in the present day it pervades every rank of society, and exercises its influence even over the national costume of the peasant ; for a cotton gown will now be cut on the same pattern as a velvet one.

4 " There is a goddess, troublesome, inconstant, Strange in her tastes, in her adornments foolish ; She appears, she vanishes, she returns at all times and seasons ; Proteus was her sire, and { Fashion ' is her name."

All Frenchwomen like perpetual change in dress, and foreigners follow French fashions almost implicitly. Spanish women only, actuated by their national pride, refused for a long time to make any change in their costume, yet even they are now beginning to dress " à la Française."

At present the type of feminine dress always originates in Paris, and spreads thence, throughout France, into the most distant regions of Europe, and even into Asia and America. In both those countries our fashion-books are widely circulated. " Paris," writes a contemporary author, " possesses the undisputed privilege of promulgating sumptuary laws for nations. The fashions of Paris are and will be the fashions of the world ; that of which Paris approves will endure ; that which Paris condemns must disappear. But for the good taste and the fickleness of Parisians, but for the inventive genius and manual dexterity of their artisans, mankind might be clothed indeed, but never dressed."

And what of womankind ? Where is the Frenchwoman, the Englishwoman, the Italian, the German, or the Russian, who does not require her milliner to make her a bonnet on the pattern of those which emanate from a Parisian f atelier '* ? " France," as Victor Hugo has said, "will always be in fashion in Europe." Those nations who are least in sympathy with her accept and observe her laws on elegance and c ton.'

This can be proved by figures. The exportation of articles of fashion manufactured in France reaches a very high figure ; our importations of foreign goods of the same kind are, on the contrary, quite insignificant.

The word " fashion " seems to convey to young people an almost absolute sense of novelty. Yet are there distinctions. There is new and new, just as, according to Molière, there are " fagots " and " fagots/' That which is new to-day may be but a revival of what is old, a reminiscence of the past. The axiom, " There is nothing new under the sun," applies with special force to Fashion.

What 1 nothing new ? No, absolutely nothing. Who knows whether the pretty trifles, the " mouches " worn by women at the present day, are not a reproduction or at any rate an imitation of similar adornments once worn by the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, or the Gauls ?

The ruffs which are so generally worn at present were in fashion in the time of Henri III. They were then an adjunct to masculine dress ; they hold their place now in a lady's wardrobe.

As we study the history of the variations of Fashion in France alone, we perceive that feminine fancy describes an endless circle ; that a particular garment is readily cast aside just in proportion as it has been eagerly adopted ; that supreme, unjust, and unreasonable contempt succeeds to irresistible attraction.

Fashion changes her idols at times with such rapidity, that one might exclaim with reference to female dress,—

"Je n'ai fait que passer, il n'était déjà plus!" It frequently happens that the general public will adopt any costume, however eccentric, which has been worn by a celebrated person. That which seemed hideous before the whim of a celebrity induced her to appear in it, becomes the height of fashion immediately afterwards.

We may quote as an instance of this an anecdote that appears in thecc Indiscrétions et Confidences " ofAudebert, a work published a few years ago.

Mlle. Mars was giving some performances at Lyons, and was not a little astonished, on the day after her first appearance, to receive a morning visit from one of the principal manufacturers in that city.

cc Mademoiselle/' said he, cc I hope you will pardon the motive of my visit; you can make my fortune."

cc I, monsieur ? I should be delighted, but pray tell me how ? " f c By accepting this piece of velvet."

So saying, he spread out on the table several yards of yellow terry velvet. Mlle. Mars began to think she was being " interviewed "by a madman.

cc Mon Dieu ! " she exclaimed in an agitated voice,cf what do you wish me to do with that velvet ? "

cc To have a gown made of it, mademoiselle. When once you have been seen in it, everybody will wear It, and my fortune will be made."

ff But nobody has ever worn a yellow gown."

fC Exactly so; the point is to set the fashion. Do not refuse me, I implore you."

"No, monsieur, I will not refuse you," replied Mile. Mars. And she moved towards a writing-table on which lay her purse.

" Mademoiselle will not affront me by offering payment. All I ask is that mademoiselle will have the goodness to give the address of my factory, which I may say stands high in reputation."

Mile. Mars promised, and was delighted to be rid of her visitor. On her return to Paris she saw her dressmaker, and in the course of conversation said, " By-the-bye, I must show you a piece of terry velvet that I have brought back from Lyons; you must tell me how it can be used."

if It is of beautiful quality—quite superfine. But what is to be done with it ? "

" A yellow gown ! I never sent one out in my life!"

" Well, then, suppose we make the experiment."

tf Madame can venture on anything."

A few days later, Mile. Mars, who had gone early to the theatre, put on the yellow terry velvet gown. When her toilet was finished, she inspected herself in the glass from every point of view, and exclaimed,—

"It is impossible for me to appear on the stage in such a gown!"

Vainly did the manager, vainly did her fellow-actors implore her not to ruin the performance by refusing to appear. Mile. Mars was obstinate. i£ She would not," she declared, " look like a canary bird." At length Talma succeeded in persuading her that her dress was in perfect taste, and eminently becoming.

Convinced by his arguments, Mile. Mars at length ventured, though with some misgiving, on the stage, where she was received with a murmur of admiration. All the ladies inspected her through their opera-glasses; there was loud applause, and " What a charming gown ! " was uttered on all sides.

The next day all Paris was ringing with Mile. Mars' yellow gown, and the week was hardly over before a similar one was to be seen in every drawing-room. Dressmakers were overwhelmed with work, and from that day yellow has held its own among the colours considered as the right thing for gowns.

A few years later Mlle. Mars revisited Lyons ; the manufacturer, whose fortune she had made, gave a splendid fête in her honour, at his charming country house on the banks of the Saône. He had paid for the mansion out of the profits arising from the enormous sale of yellow terry velvet.

How often since Mile. Mars' time have actresses decisively set the fashion in dress ! The Théâtre-Français, the Gymnase, and the Vaudeville have been, as it were, exhibitions, where the feminine world has taken lessons in dress. Who does not recollect Sardou's comedy, " La Famille Benoîton," in which for several years there was a continuous show of eccentric costumes ?

It must be admitted that actresses, who charm by their genius, their gestures, and their diction, confer on costume all the expression of which it is capable, and lend a significance all their own to the achievements of the mantua-maker.

Is it enough to be brilliantly attired ? to be remarkable for eccentricities in dress ? to display costumes of the most fantastic kinds? Certainly not. Besides these things the wearer must know how to make the very most of her attire. Fashion and coquetry are twins. It matters not how far we may look back into antiquity, among the Egyptians, the nations of the East, the Greeks, the Romans, or the inhabitants of Gaul, we shall always find these two sisters linked together, giving each other mutual help, and adapting themselves to the climate, to the peculiarities of the soil, and to the passions of the inhabitants.

From earliest childhood our French girls are trained in coquetry by their own parents, innocently enough no doubt, but still such training is not without its dangers.

cc Louise," says a mother to her little daughter, cc if you are a good child you shall wear your pretty pink frock on Sunday, or your lovely green hat, or your blue socks," &c. The little girl accordingly is " good," in order to gratify her taste for dress, and her budding love of admiration : both of these qualities will develope as her years increase.

" Cast a glance on the graceful perfection, on the inimitably attractive charm which distinguishes the dress of a Frenchwoman from that of all other women on earth," says a contemporary writer, " and you will soon see a difference between mademoiselle and madame ; the very sound of their voices is not the same. The heart and the mental faculties of a young girl seem to be wrapped in slumber, or at any rate dozing, until the day comes when they are to be roused by the marriage ceremony. So long as only mademoiselle is speaking, there is in the tone, or rather in the key of her voice, something limp, monotonous, and insipid ; but let madame address you, and you will be fascinated by the charm with which rhythm, cadence, and accentuation can invest a woman's voice."

As we have said, Paris and the whole of France have for a very long time inaugurated the fashions which every other nation has adopted. Yet the first journal especially devoted to fashion was not published in France. One Josse Amman, a painter, who was born at Zurich, and who died at Nuremberg, brought out, in 1586, a charming series of plates on the fashions of his day, under the title of " Gynaeceum, sive Theatrum Mulierum," &c. (" The Gynaeceum or Theatre of Women, in which are reproduced by engraving the female costumes of all the nations of Europe"). This work was published at Frankfort, and although it cannot be duly appreciated by women, because it is written in Latin, it must be regarded as the origin of all the Journals of Fashion which have since grown and multiplied*

Under the title, " Les Modes de la Cour de France, depuis l'an 1675 jusqu'à l'année 1689," two folio volumes of coloured fashion-plates were published in Paris ; but they principally related to special costumes for the courtiers of Louis XIV. ; the " city " was treated with contempt, and admiration was reserved for fine " court-

dresses." There was no periodical paper in France, relating to novelties in female dress, before the time of the Directory, in the closing years of the eighteenth century. Until then there had been no development of theories on this interesting subject. Our neighbours imitated our dress, after having visited our salons or our promenades, or they consulted some desultory drawings of costume.

In June 1797, Selléque, in partnership with Mme. Clément, née Hémery, founded the K Journal des Dames et des Modes." They were joined, in the matter of engraving only, by an ecclesiastic named Pierre Lamésangère, a sober and grave personage, who a few years before had been Professor of Literature and Philosophy at the College of La Flèche, and who by reason of the evil times was embarking on a career very far opposed to that of the Professor's chair. On the death of Selléque, Lamésangère carried on the journal, and made it his chief business from the year 1799.

The <c Journal des Dames et des Modes " was published at intervals of five days, with a pretty coloured plate of a lady in fashionable dress. On the 15 th of each month there were two plates. Lamésangère himself kept the accounts, edited the magazine with as light a touch as possible, and superintended the engraving of the plates. He attended the theatres and all places of public resort in order to observe the ladies' dresses.

So successful was the undertaking that Lamésangère acquired a considerable fortune. His own attire was above criticism. At his death his wardrobe contained a thousand pairs of silk stockings, two thousand pairs of shoes, six dozen blue coats, one hundred round hats, forty umbrellas, and ninety snuffboxes.

Truly a well-provided wardrobe ! and greatly exceeding that of a wealthy person at the present day.

The " Journal des Dames et des Modes " reigned without a rival for more than twenty years, viz. from 1797 to 1829. It forms an amusing collection of three-and-thirty volumes, and may , be consulted with profit both by philosophers and fine ladies.

Some of his contemporaries used to compare Lamésangère to

Alexander. His empire over the world of fashion was as wide as that of Alexander. At his death his kingdom was divided, even as the possessions of the King of Macedonia were. " Le Petit Courrier des Dames," " Le Follet," " La Psyché," and a hundred other fashion-books appeared : among them we must name " La Mode," a journal published under the patronage of the Duchess de Berri, sumptuously printed, and which became a sort of arbiter of fashion in " high life."

At the present day there are innumerable guide-books to "Fashion. Women are at no loss for description, history, practical details, or information concerning the business of their toilet. Intelligent minds are daily at work to invent or to perfect the numberless trifles that are either aids or snares to beauty.

In addition to books, albums, and newspapers, Fashion also makes use of dolls for its propaganda. Dolls serve as models to the women of foreign nations, and for a length of time they have played their part in this important matter. In 1391, Isabeau de Bavière, the Queen of Charles VI., made a present of dolls dressed in the latest fashion to the Queen of England ; and the books of the Royal Household mention a similar gift from Anne of Brittany to the celebrated Isabella of Castile, Queen of Spain, in 1496.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these gifts of dolls became very frequent. They were so highly valued, that during the terrible war of the Succession in Spain between the English and French, the Cabinets of Versailles and of St. James's granted a free pass for an alabaster doll, which, with dress and hair arranged in the newest fashion of the Court of France, conveyed our latest novelties across the Channel.

Like Dandin, the judge in " Les Plaideurs," who begs Intimé the lawyer to "pass on to the deluge" so as to escape his lecture on the creation of the world, our fair readers must hope that we are not about to begin our history with the origin of our country.

But while we restrict ourselves within proper limits, it is not possible to avoid speaking of the dress of the most remote ancestresses who are known to us, of the women of Gaul and Roman-Gaul.

We must, for a short space, return to those far-off ages, because certain attributes of dress which existed of old have reappeared at different times, and at the very date at which we write, more than one Gallic or Gallo-Roman fashion may be recognized in the garments or the head-dresses of our countrywomen.

We therefore ask permission to dwell for a short time on the earlier centuries of our history. Then the Merovingian period will supply us with curious documents. The Carlovingians and the early branches of the family of Capet will claim a larger share of our attention. Finally we shall dwell on the Middle Ages, and the period of the Renaissance, which were remarkable for luxury, love of wealth, and splendour of Art, and so we shall pass on to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, over which Fashion reigned an absolute monarch.

The Revolution of 1789, the Empire, the Restoration, the Monarchy of July, the Second Empire—in a word, Contemporary History as it is called, will bring us to 1881, and the fashions of which our fair readers can judge for themselves : we have 110 intention of taking a place among archaeologists, or arraying a multitude of historical notes before them. Moreover documents are few, and even if we wished to relate our story in full, it would not be possible, since we are bound to observe the limits of historical truth. We may, indeed, endeavour to present it in a pleasant light, but we must not change its natural expression.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment