The Outrageous French Aristocrats Who Mocked the Reign of Terror
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
When revolutionary France put away the guillotine, new-found freedom was expressed with seriously bizarre fashion statements.
As with most Parisian high-society gatherings, the Bal des Victimes had a tough door policy. But unlike today, when exclusive party lists are made up of fashion glitterati and movie stars, the guests at this event all had just one thing in common: One of their relatives had been guillotined during the Reign of Terror.
But this party was far from a somber funeral procession. It was an orgiastic evening of aristocratic irreverence. Attendees wore bizarre black costumes, intentionally gauzy and threadbare to mock the severity of the French Revolution. Men sheared the backs of their heads, and women tied their hair up, baring their necks in the way that executioners prepared the condemned for the guillotine. Most ballgoers tied red ribbons or shawls around their necks, cheekily signifying the spout of blood produced by the guillotine’s slicing blade. These young aristocrats were rowdy and outlandish, a gang of pro-establishment punks — they were les Incroyables et Merveilleuses.
Also known as les Muscadins for the expensive, musky perfume they wore in rebellion against the revolutionary rebuke of decadence, the “incredible and marvelous ones” first appeared around 1794. These aristocrats had been itching to come out of hiding and party since the beginning of the Reign of Terror in 1792, during which the First Republic government under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre lopped off the heads of 40,000 people, most of them from the highest echelons of French society.
When Robespierre himself was guillotined on July 28, 1794, thus ending the terror, surviving aristocrats wasted no time getting decadent. Ornate carriages rolled through the streets of Paris the day after the revolutionary leader’s execution.
And these initial parades of wealth were only the beginning. All forms of entertainment once again thrived in the French capital, with theaters and music halls putting on performances that mocked revolutionary austerity. One popular song of the day rejoiced: “[our] tormentors finally grow pale at the tardy dawn of vengeance.”
What les Incroyables et Merveilleuses were really known for was an outlandish style of dress.
Thrilled to be out of hiding, les Incroyables et Merveilleuses hit the streets of Paris in full aristocratic regalia. They could be found strolling through the Tuileries garden and the Bois du Boulogne and along all of the city’s famous boulevards.
But what les Incroyables et Merveilleuses were really known for was an outlandish style of dress. When they weren’t wearing carnivalesque morning attire at the numerous Bal des Victimes held throughout France post-revolution, they scandalized older generations with outfits that rivaled some of today’s most bizarre haute couture runway looks. During the revolution, opulent dress was punishable by death — wearing royalist green and blue, the fleur-de-lis or mourning attire was strictly forbidden. By the time Robespierre’s head rolled, les Incroyables et Merveilleuses were ready to thumb their nose at his policies through fashion.
“Merveilleuses women abandoned the corset in favor of dresses that imitated Grecian statues,” says Richard Le Menn, author of Les Petits-Maîtres de la Mode. “They dressed in shawls and transparent dresses with necklines that would often expose the entirety of their breasts.” To make their frocks cling even more to their bodies, Merveilleuses would sometimes dampen the fabric.
Because blond wigs were banned during the revolution, platinum wigs became popular among les Merveilleuses. They also took to wearing wigs in royalist green and blue and, to symbolize the banned mourning attire, even black.
As for jewelry, these ladies were dripping with it, down to the golden circlets around their ankles. Footwear was only slightly more modest, with sandals all the rage. Still, these weren’t run-of-the-mill flip-flops. Les Merveilleuses preferred ribbon lace-ups adorned with strings of precious gems. Particularly rebellious ladies went barefoot, a deliberate reference to the shoeless march of the condemned to the guillotine.
While menswear today is often more subdued than women’s fashion, the “incredible” men were arguably even more flamboyant than their female counterparts. While Merveilleuses fashion flaunted body shape, Incroyable styles used clothing to distort it. The men tied cravats up to their chins, swaddled their throats in layers of cloth that resembled goiters and wore collars ascending past their ears. All of these elements created the illusion that Incroyables were neckless, chinless monsters. Jackets were tight and tailored in front, with bizarre pleats in back designed to make the men look hunchbacked. Shoes were pointed and heelless, fabrics striped and polka-dotted and tailcoats intentionally wrinkled and mud-spattered.
But les Incroyables et Merveilleuses’ rebellion didn’t stop with fashion — they were also known for their slang and manner of speaking. To further protest the revolution, they often omitted the letter “r” from their diction, making them sound as though they had a speech impediment. While the rest of France knew them as Incroyables they referred to themselves as “Incoy’ables.”
By the time Napoleon rose to power in 1799, les Incroyables et Merveilleuses had all but disappeared. The giddiness of revolutionary survivors had fizzled out, and Napoleon was far stricter with rebellious youth and outré dress. It wasn’t until nearly two centuries later that their peculiar and short-lived fashion re-emerged, thanks to none other than John Galliano. In 1984, the young designer released a collection named after them, which went on to inspire the New Romantic look popularized by artists like Adam and the Ants and Boy George. It seems what links all youth subcultures throughout time is the use of fashion as a form of societal rebellion.