Fashion Victime

May 17th, 2011

There were a number of books and articles published in the mid to late 19th century describing a phenomenon known as Bals des Victimes, that may or may not have taken place in the days following Robespierre’s death and the reinstatement of the French nobility. Here’s a relatively early one from Histoire de la Révolution et de l’Empire, published in 1847.
French Text

Unfortunately, my French, limited to begin with, is quite rusty. I believe the gist of this page is as follows:

At the far end of the Champs-Elysees, the crowd of dancers formed on the lawn of some garden that had been confiscated during the revolution, and there were some others around the old gallows of the guillotine. It didn’t stop at the beginning of the red light district either — there were lots of parties open to the public: for five days. They transformed the ancient cemetery of Saint-Sulpice into a dance floor, etc., etc. … In the outlying areas of the city, a great number of pastoral-themed parties were organized, frequented by the latest [lower??] classes. The upper classes, who had been reinstated to the bourgeoisie and the nobility, came up with the Victim’s ball. These were exclusive — in order to get in you had to have lost a parent to the guillotine. Upon entering, it was fashionable to perform a salutation with your head and shoulders imitating decapitation; this was called the Victim’s Greeting.

It goes on, but I cannot.

Here, from an 1867 book about the Empress Josephine, is a description in English:

This was especially the case at the so-called victim balls (bals a la victime) which were given by the heirs, the sons and fathers of those who had perished by the guillotine. People gathered together in brilliant entertainments and balls to the honor and memory of the executed ones. Every one who could pay the large fee of admission to these bals a la victime were permitted to enter. Those who came there, not for pleasure, but to honor their dead, showed this intention by their clothing, and especially by the arrangement of their hair. To remind them that those who had been led to the guillotine had had their hair cut close, gentlemen now had theirs cut short, and the dressing of the hair a la victime was for gentlemen as much a fashion as the dressing of the hair a la Titus (the Roman emperor) was for the ladies. Besides this, the heirs of the victims wore some token of the departed ones, and ladies and gentlemen were seen in the blood-stained garments which their relatives had worn on their way to the scaffold, and which they had purchased with large sums of money from the executioner, that lord of Paris.

As you may guess, I am particularly interested in the fashions associated with this legendary (historians seems to disagree as to whether these events actually took place or were merely figments of later romantic imaginations) custom. A friend who grew up in Paris told me about men and women who wore red ribbons tied round their necks where the blade would have fallen, and there was a fashion for women to wear close cropped hair in imitation of someone about to be executed. Classically inspired robes, like the dress I am in the midst of making right now, were also popular. Some sources claim that attendees wore mourning clothes, including crape bands about the arm. However I don’t know if that type of mourning dress was even invented as early as the turn of the 19th century, which would mark those accounts at least as pure fabrication.

Here are a few fashion plates from late 18th, early 19th century France. Notice how each refers to various styles a la victime?

French Fashion Plate

Very Grecian!

French Fashion Plate

Notice the ribbons bound about her feet — some Victimes wore no shoes, just ribbons tied around their feet and ankles.

French Fashion Plate

Underbust Update

May 16th, 2011

I’m pleased to report some modest progress on my picnic ensemble, despite a busy weekend at work and a persistent headache. So far, I’ve been focused on building a viable under-structure for the bodice of my Empire frock. You’ll notice that I am now calling it Empire, as opposed to Regency, since the dress is taking on more and more of a French influence.

I have to admit I wasn’t too sure that this would work, even after making a quick version in muslin. But the linen under-bodice is really quite remarkable in the amount of support it offers — more than enough to dispense entirely with any thought of additional undergarments. It’s copied from the lining of Janet Arnold’s stomacher-front 1798-1805 morning dress, illustrated and diagrammed on pages 48 & 49 in Patterns of Fashion I.

I cheated and used the copier at work to enlarge the pattern. And, remarkably, had to make very few adjustments to make it fit like a glove: I added an inch to each side of the shoulder strap (I need to add length between the shoulder and bust points on most modern patterns as well) and it looks like I’ll be taking three inches out of the front of the bust (the original dress seems to have belonged to a very well-endowed lady).

Empire Lining

Here is my version in progress, including pins marking the center front on my own modest bosom. The original lining in Arnold’s book was pinned closed(!) but I plan to make lacing eyelets as I don’t trust straight pins to hold firmly, or to refrain from stabbing me at an awkward moment. I’m also going to add a long cotton petticoat, possibly with a few tucks at the bottom, to make this a true bodiced-petticoat. The dress will be made separately since it needs to open at the back, while the bust support relies on front closure to achieve its desired effect.

In case you are curious, I’m sewing by hand, so far at least, and finishing by overcasting the seams and hemming the edges. A cursory search turned up no directions for assembling a frock from this period and I’ve never seen an extant example up close, so I am going with the directions from the Workwoman’s Guide, published about 30 years later. Because I was too lazy to go to the laundromat and wash something from my stash of linen, I cut out the bodice from an old linen tea cloth that I purchased at our museum’s stoop sale last Saturday. Lastly, I apologize in advance for the lack of a live-model in this and following “in-progress” pictures. I am not photographing this stage of fitting for obvious reasons.

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