History Department

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Fashion and Politics: Élégantes and Merveilleuses under the Directory and Beyond

Event Type
Department of English
1000 Lincoln Hall
Oct 11, 2022   4:00 pm  
Professor Christine Adams, History, St. Mary's College of Maryland

In late 1796, French economist and politician Pierre Roederer warned that women “exercise an empire among us which subdues all others: it is fashion. ”The intoxicating beauty and style of women left men particularly vulnerable to female domination. While Roederer believed that the representative government of the newly installed Directory (1795-1799) would contain the power that women exercised through fashion, men continued to worry about their cultural and aesthetic influence and its political implications—even though the Directory did not extend new political or civil rights to women,.

And indeed, a number of women did continue to exercise power under the Directory in much the same way that elite women had under the Ancien Régime: through the soft power of beauty and charm, through their relationships with men, and through the celebrity status that their domination of the fashion world ensured. Despite the democratic trappings of the French government in the second half of the 1790s, “élégantes” such as Thérésia Tallien, Joséphine Bonaparte, Fortunée Hamelin, Juliette Récamier, Madame de Saint-Jean-d’Angély (Laure de Bonneuil), Aimée de Coigny, and Mademoiselle Lange were political intermediaries in the style of the Old Regime’s female courtiers as well as fashion icons. Their ties to influential male politicians made them formidable power brokers. At the same time, their style and celebrity status helped France to reclaim its position as international fashion leader, which the French Revolution had undermined, a position with prestige and economic benefits. But those who resented their influence—including subsequent historians—elided these elegant and politically connected women with the “Merveilleuses,” who together with their male counterparts, the “Incroyables,” appeared in the caricatures of Carle Vernet and the pages of Louis-Sébastien Mercier by early 1797, ridiculed for their extravagant and revealing clothing and perceived sexual misbehavior.

Under Napoleon and beyond, critics lambasted the frivolity of fashionable women, symbolized by their bare arms and transparent muslin dresses, as representative of the Directorial regime and responsible for its ultimate demise. They deployed this imagery to denigrate the corruption and other failures of the Directory and to justify the exclusion of women from the benefits of citizenship into the twentieth century.

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