There has always been something special about how Frenchwomen dress, an undeniable, inborn sense of style. This is nothing new. Loretta's numerous fashion plates have proved that Paris was the fashion capitol long before Coco Chanel was born. In 45 B.C. while Julius Caesar was writing "All Gaul is divided into three parts," Mrs. Caesar was doubtless asking "Yes, but what are the Gallic ladies wearing?"
But while the exact origins of French fashion are hazy, the first appearance French fashion journalism has a definite date. The Mercure galant first appeared in 1672, and its goal was fresh and new: to report the latest news from Parisian society, including theater reviews, poems, social news of marriages, gossip, and, of course, fashion. In short, it was the first journal to focus entirely on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, especially the rich and famous at the royal court of Louis XIV. All this important news would be delivered with the swiftness of Mercury (the "Mercure" of the title), the messenger of the gods, and ladies and would-be ladies in every corner of France as well as the rest of Europe waited breathlessly for each issue.
This illustration from September, 1693, showed that the editors had already determined the formula that modern 'zines use today. The picture is by a notable engraver of the time, Jean Dieu de St Jean, and it offers that unbeatable combination of fashion and sex. It's easy to see what's in store from the title alone: Femme de qualite en deshabille neglige, which translates roughly as "a lady of quality in casual undress."
That's exactly what it is, too: a lady in her bedchamber or boudoir, dressed for relaxing and, perhaps, seduction. She's wearing a luxurious silk dressing gown left open over her richly embroidered smock, and her stays (corset) are loosely laced across the front for casual wear. But those stays still manage to provide a generous display of her bare breasts, and more shocking still are her crossed legs. Crossed ankles would have been daring enough for a 17th c. lady, but for her to cross her knees, revealing both the shape of her thighs – her thighs! – as well as her entire ankle, foot, and tiny, pointed mule with its high curving heel must have defined "titillation" to readers. It's clear enough that her smock rests on her bare skin, without any of the usual protective layers of petticoats.
Perhaps the editors were a bit uneasy by how much the lady revealed, because the illustration's caption included fictional foolishness to explain her disarray. Supposedly the artist "imagined that the lady had just read a distressing letter; this is evident from the expression on her face and from the rest of her pose."
Well, whatever. But given the lady's artful lace headdress, the seductively placed black velvet patches on her face, and those delicious little shoes, I'm betting she won't be suffering alone for long....
Above: Femme de qualite en deshabille neglige, engraving by Jean Dieu de St Jean for Mercure galant, 1693
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.