The Demimonde Legacy

World War I brought to an end the rarified lifestyle of the Belle Époque and with it the phenomenon of the demimonde and courtesan. The social, economic, and cultural conditions that permitted the excesses of debauchery and squandering of fortunes were irreversibly changed. The demimondaines who lived beyond the war years were no longer the idolized, public figures they had been. In their old age, many returned to a life of economic deprivation and obscurity.

Nonetheless, the demimonde has left its legacy in the wider world of twentieth-century fashion and celebrity culture. Actresses and performers such as Josephine Baker, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, and Madonna have capitalized on their erotic appeal as a form of power and a significant aspect of their personae. Madonna in particular, in her collaboration with the French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, has explicitly challenged dress norms, exploiting the implications of both hyperfeminine and androgynous fashions. More than mere sex symbols, these women have an insolence and a flamboyance that derive from the example of the courtesan.

Popular culture of the past century has embraced different elements of the demimonde lifestyle, modes of behavior, and attitude toward fashion. Rock-and-roll musicians and their fans, for example, have carried on the tradition of social and sartorial rebellion and self-creation through clothing that defined the demimondaine. The discotheque and nightclub scene re-creates in a sense the ambiguous and socially mixed terrain of the demimonde with an undercurrent of dangerous glamour. The notoriously public lifestyle of celebrities in the early 2000s (film and sports stars, rock musicians, artists, socialites, and even royals), followed closely in the press, also mirrors that of the late nineteenth century. In these forms, the spirit of the demimonde continues to exert its influence.

See also Balzac, Honoré de; Benjamin, Walter; Fashion and Identity.

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