But here we study not, scarcely do we look in the face of the silhouettes which pass by, to note in a lively manner some small details seized in the prism of costumes and fashions. The female contemporary, under her diverse aspects, realistic romance writers are on the spot to give her in detail, with all unhealthy complaisances and all improper perversities; they quit her not...; these amiable vultures ransack her palpitating flesh, and expose her nerves, her heart, and her brain. They have shared among them the inheritance of Restif. Some have laid their claws on the lower parts of our "female contemporaries of the common;" others, more eclectic, dissect at leisure the courtesan or the woman of the world; others, again, who set up pretensions to the Comédie humaine, run through the "graduated female contemporaries" in all their tints.
If we are to believe these demoralising moralists, the Parisienne of this end of the century would be a little monster no less of a rogue than of a coquette, cruel to an unheard-of degree, and so essentially governed by her senses and her libertinism that we must never think of trusting her with our faith, our heart, or our repose. We have sometimes, we must confess it, a better opinion of our fellow-citizenesses, and, beside them, of certain women who are but the giddy products of nature. We think, with Goldsmith, that the modest virgin, the reasonable spouse, the prudent mother, are far superior to all the women who fix the attention of the world, to all the heroines of romances whose sole occupation is to assassinate humanity with the arrows of their wit or the looks of their beautiful eyes. We have been able, in a preceding work, to speak straightforwardly of la Parisienne moderne.* [* Son Altesse La Femme. Paris, Quantin, 1885.] We have regarded physiologically that feminine aristocracy which is not to be found in its true mean except in a great city. We cannot to-day recur to this subject, and we will only regard our female contemporaries from the special point of view of psychology and taste, allowing ourselves at the same time a very sober résumé the different circumstances which have principally favoured the blossoming of the manners of the day.
This cult of women, a cult idealised in a paganism full of politeness and of urbanity, professed at beauty's altar by a thousand discreet homages, or an exquisite gallantry, this cult which was comprehended so well by the "honest gentleman" of the ancient courts, is unhappily no longer of our time. The woman of this end of the century reigns despotically still over our hearts, but she has no longer the same happy influence over our spirits, our manners, and our society. The easy life of drawing-rooms, of clubs, of reunions of pleasure, where men may smoke at their ease, talk without restraint in terms with short frocks and sometimes complaisantly gross, has stolen from us little by little the beneficent intimacy of women. Politeness in the sense of sociability is dead, so to speak, in France; there exist still good manners, considerations, which answer certain tendencies of character, certain exigencies of interests; but politeness, refined, delicate, precious, all made up of affability, of forethought, of delicate attention, disappears every day more and more out of our little world, Egoistic and Americanised, in which every one with dominant preoccupation thinks of himself.
That politeness of other times with regard to women was, as Roqueplan defined it, a science, or rather an art, composed of natural tact and acquired sentiments, an exterior affability, which borrowed nothing from falsehood or disguise, but slipped like a soft intermedium between all contacts and rencounters; it was a grace which divested contradiction of all which it possessed to wound, and diversity of character of all it possessed too personal; that politeness of conciliation and of high distinction finds no longer to-day its employment in our feverish existences and our personal affronts.
Perhaps, it will be said, we have no longer the time to be polite, to envelop our phrases in set forms of decorum, to search about for periphrase, metaphor, to employ the exordium and other oratorical precautions; but this want of politeness in our modern relations is assuredly the evident and primordial cause of that kind of derangement of our society and of that state of independence, of vulgarity of language, of eccentric bearing, of unconscious neurosis which characterise the woman our contemporary.
She feels herself abandoned, poor thing! divested of all that made her once sovereign; she has something of that mystery, of that sadness, of that cold commonplace of a church deserted, from which the holy sacraments and the sacrifices of worship are banished. Goddess without an Olympus, she seeks everywhere the spark of her divinity; and seeing that men have unlearnt the way to her temple, she has cast herself into the extravagances of the outer world, whipping up her life after the example of the males, making herself even masculine, forcing herself to think no more, to dream no more, to reign no more, scared, dizzy, running her head against every place on her way, like some light swallow suddenly deprived of her nest.
During the eighteen years of the monarchy of July, a new social world had formed itself and developed by degrees; the romances of Madame Sand, of Balzac, of Soulié, the poems of Alfred de Musset, of Lamartine, and of Victor Hugo had impressed a special fold upon the characters of the young women of the last generation; all were greedy after homages and celebrity. "Extravagant boldness, elegance somewhat cavalier-like, little politeness, even with the best air; nerves without vapours, a sensibility susceptible of profound emotions, but only for positive causes, and above all for questions of interest; such are," wrote Dr. Veron, as a keen observer," the distinctive traits of women more or less politic, more or less in the fashion under the reign of Louis-Philippe."
"From this moment," says the author of the Mémoires d'un Bourgeois de Paris," there was the reign of the Faubourg Saint- Honoré, of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and very soon the accession of the Place Saint-Georges. Every quarter of Paris set up, in fact, different manners, of which the contrast could not in any fashion be calculated or appreciated at a distance. There were seen to appear, aspiring to the frivolous and transitory celebrity of fashion, young women having charm without doubt, elegance always, but an elegance more constantly rich and exquisite, a certain esprit, but returned to practical matters which the vapourish intoxicated no longer; a precision of end and will, which was followed without effort in the midst of the most diverse and the most brilliant dissipations. In this world fortune held a great place, as always, but a place certainly more estimated and more marked, people took pleasure in making their riches seen, either by costly dresses or by exquisite equipages carefully harnessed, or by a luxury of furniture, excluding neither the arts nor rare curios. It is impossible to challenge or disregard these distinctive traits of women of fashion under the monarchy of July; it would be sufficient to cite a few names, if one dared to allow oneself to personify and to illustrate these light studies."
Under the second Empire, the French women did nothing but accentuate the tendencies which have just been exposed, losing the while a great deal of her politeness and some little of her discreet grace. At this epoch we saw with great sadness the confusion of the social world; courtesans, celebrities of eight springs who had kept themselves hitherto in the social penumbra, began to advertise themselves in the full light. They hid themselves no longer now in close boxes or still more close broughams; they gained little by little the best of the pavement, every day more hardy, more desirous to hold their place in the sun. The demi-monde was created; the press encouraged the unclassed, spoke of their beauty, of their charm, of their natural wit, vaunted the good taste and the eccentricity of their toilets; all the gazettes talked about these queens of the left hand, whose loves were no longer clandestine; reporters penetrated the boudoirs of actresses, of lorettes, and of gay girls; they spoke in turns of Alice Ozy, of Madame de Paiva, of Esther Guimond, of Andrea la Colombe, of Mogador, of Cora Pearl, of Finette, of all the umheardofs of high and low gallantry; the public became interested in these creatures for whom it elevated all of a sudden a sort of pedestal. Well-born women busied themselves insensibly with the manners and fashions of these dames of little virtue; women of the world and the demi-monde, who were secretly acquainted by the reciprocal confidences of a husband or a common lover, who served as a link of connection between, came to observe one another as rivals, to measure themselves on the same footing of equality, to elbow one another on the hippodromes of the races, at the Opera balls, in the kermesses and charity fêtes; they had the same dressmakers, the same modistes, and in a trial of beauty and elegance they wrestled boldly in the matter of freedom and of chic. It was a total revolution in our manners, an '89 of a new kind in which the rights of a woman of the town were demanded, for, as a certain man of wit charmingly observed, "the femimine rabble had opened on their own account a states-general."
It was complete anarchy; the world, in its acceptation of supreme politeness, existed no longer; social reunions were rare, drawing-rooms were unpeopled; the Faubourg Saint-Germain ceased to attract all the aristocracies of other times; only interests, ambitions, pleasure met under the same roofs, and gave a false semblance of life to ancient French society. Our governors, renewing the question of Louis XIV., who often in the matter of a complex solution asked, What's Ninon's opinion? might in their turn demand in a thousand and one cases. What may be the sentiment of these good ladies?
Our female contemporaries are, we must allow, the victims of that social state against which they cannot rise in rebellion; delivered over to themselves, habituated to all the confusions of classes, of ranks, of manners, forced to indulgence, to compromises of dignity and of conscience, they put up with the current morality which drags them sometimes further than they would go; their life is thus deprived of its orbit, of its equilibrium, without centre or balance; they fall, in consequence, into extremes of the better or of the worse. The women of the present feel that it is no longer in good taste, as under the Restoration, to hide their sins, to veil their soul, and to shelter their sentiments in the tender and secret nest of chilly and delicate things; the majority, while advertising after the fashion vices which they do not possess, superficial and affected extravagances, remain, in secret, misunderstood, rebels against the encroaching pedantry, and saddened by that existence for them so commonplace, so empty, so hollow, and so full of despair.
After the cruel war of 1870-71 laughter was extinguished in France, however literature and art tried to revive the old Gallic spirit, the broad jokes of another age, the juicy tales and the sprightly stories. In despite of all these titillations of the spleen and of the brain, laughter burst out frankly no more in our country, with its clarion sonorousness, with its strident Gallic crow. French laughter, alas! is now nothing more than the pale smile of a convalescent, a nervous, benevolent, superficial, saddened, almost bloodless smile; gaiety is no longer in the heart of the nation, the country pouts and is in despair, like a player who has been beaten, wounded in his pride and in a rare confidence in his star.
To our women of the world there only remains the art of coquetry, the pursuit of dress, which are like times of repose in their latent ennui. Crouching in their interior, they strive to people their solitude with gay and dazzling nicknacks, with colours which set clear and fresh marks in the grey monotony of their days.
They borrow from the Orient its warm lights of art, its shimmering draperies, its eccentric motley, its chromatic marvels. They dote upon Japan, its crépons, its paintings or stuffs, for they find everywhere in these exquisite conceptions fresh auroras, astonishing flowery landscapes, poetic reveries full of birds, flowerets, irises, and fruits incarnadine. Their imagination suddenly revives at the sight of these fantastic skies, broken by pure pale tones; their dream loses itself in prismatic horizons which create, thanks to the mirage of their eyes, a charming pseudochrome, an evocation of appearances without end, drowned in the illusions of distance.
We see them by day, clothed on with an exquisite grace, promenading in grand bazaars of novelties, searching, ferreting, cataloguing silks, woollens, linens, all the little futilities of the toilet; greedy of good bargains and wholesale sacrifices, women of bric-à-drac and of stores, spending without care, without need, through whim or ill-defined caprice, for want of occupation, the ennui of home, the sohtary freezing shudder of their soul, drives them abroad and conducts them in search of distraction and forgetfulness into these vast magazines, where they prowl incessantly, chatter without reason, finding in the midst of that feminine crowd, in those crushings, and crumplings, and continual wanderings to and fro, a sensation as it were doubly-distilled, trebly-complex of moral intoxication, profound and unhealthy, and undergoing a sort of impulse of activity which drives them out of themselves and that languor which troubles and terrifies them more and more every day.
Modern fashions are related essentially to this unquiet searching and artistic spirit of our female contemporaries. The toilet of the present day demands from art its best creations, and some few of our fashions are nothing but simple copies of the pictures of masters. The art of woman furnishes occupation on every side; all which can contribute to her grace, to the beauty of her form, to the charms of her face, is studied with minute care. For the last ten years old patterns, old stuffs, ancient lace and guipures, the old point, which made the celebrity of certain countries, have been generally recalled into honour. Contributions are taken from every side according to good taste and the character of the physiognomy; in the same reunion will be seen a camail of the Regency beside a laced jacket in the style of the Marguerite of Faust, a corsage inspired by the Restoration, and not far from a skirt falling straight down after the manner of the toilets of the second Empire. Cosmopolitism and the past, women live in them both at once; they look at the engravings of fashions, obtain inspiration, confound, unite, and often out of a dozen dissimilar toilets conceived at intervals of twenty years create a type of costume original, charming, of ravishing taste. The male and female dress-makers of Paris — the Worths, the Laferrières, the Felixes, the Pingas, the Rodrigueses, and also the sisters Duluc, those admirable artistes in dresses and in mantles, revive in their inimitable toilets the whole history of France. Does fashion exist still among such fantastic creators? One would suppose the contrary. The Fashion of fashions tends more and more to make its appearance. This new usage will inaugurate a general uniform for busy people, hasty and without taste; for the profane who do business in ready-made apparel, as others refresh themselves with Duval soup, whilst it will bring into being a variety of eccentric costumes without expression or character absolutely defined; without cohesion, but original individually, and always to be sought by the veritable elegants who care still for their personality and a distinctive mark.
It is easy to see that for the last fifteen years women of the great world have withdrawn themselves more and more from the tyrannical influence of a reigning fashion; all go in the van; the crowd follows, but the élite feels only her own inspiration and depends only on herself or on her creative dressmakers. Simplicity alone dominates everywhere to-day, and remains the delicate work of bon ton, of distinction, and of the true aristocracy of taste.
The conclusion of this book is before our eyes. We should run the risk assuredly of passing for a miscreant or for a bungrler in the mind of our lady readers in wishing to expose here and complaisantly detail the varied types of the costumes of the day, or to tumble over all the catalogued robes of the Bonheur des Dames. Easy as it may appear to show ourselves here an analyst with all the hair on, under an original form, we willingly renounce making a display of this small vanity. We have written this work, after our inspiration, as a simple idle tour across society, its manners, and its researches in the art of clothing. It is not, properly speaking, either a history of our usages or a tableau of Parisian elegances; it is rather a series of views of the frivolous life of this century, an instantaneous panorama in which we have tried to unite, as it were, the furtive sensation of worldly pleasures at certain dates of the nineteenth century, so prodigiously swollen with events. We have sketched with the pen the moving physiognomy of the coquetries of the toilet, bringing to them as much as possible a sort of local colour, as an extract of the ambient air, special to each epoch, in all these light descriptions. Arrived at the end of our journey, these pages, as a whole, do not absolutely displease us, even though they shock us occasionally by reason of the strangulation desired and forced by the details, and also by the want of air and of mise en scène in the exhibition of the costumes. Be it as it may, this labour of a monograph, trifling, capricious and independent, jerky and incoherent as it may appear, will have the merit of being placed in the vanguard of all the publications which before long will appear in the grand and wonderful social manifestations of the nineteenth century. We have reduced our pretensions to a small form, to be the better received by the generality of readers; if some day we undertake a History of the Fashions of 1789 to the present time, we shall be assuredly more grave, more majestic, more solemn; we shall then be consulted as an old conscript father of minute, logical, and systematic erudition, but, alas! we shall no longer be read as a young and simple tumbler of the fancy, as it is yet optional for every one to read us to-day, always supposing that anybody should care for these soap bubbles edulcorated with historic notions and very largely added to from a pansophy mixed with rose water.