Posts Tagged ‘Incroyables and Merveilleuses’



I’d like to take you back to Paris, the 1790s. The Terror has just ended, Robespierre’s own head has flown off with his pigeon flock – and the guillotines are being taken down.

You are part of the demi-monde, the target group for the Terror. You have seen your colleagues, family, contemporaries arrested, carted off, seen them tremblingly ascend the red and soaking scaffold. The smell in the air, of fear, blood, bodily fluids.

Then to wake and see the unbelievable once again: the guillotines gone; to see life settling once more around you.

But it can never settle. How do you react?

And so we have the Incroyables, the sons of the nobles and wealthy spared the Terror. How did they survive? They adapted to the situation, sold guns and arms, became money-lenders. Many made fortunes like this, many became the nouveau riche.

They dress absurdly, swathe around their delicate necks yards of material. There was a splurge of public balls, called bals des victims: it is said the dancers dressed in mourning black, or wore black armbands; they greeted each other with sudden jerked bow of the head, neck, mimicking decapitation.

The Incroyables styles were all over-the-top: large earrings, green jackets, wide trousers, huge neckties, thick glasses, and hats topped by “dog ears”, their hair falling on their ears. One

Exaggeration and parody were their responses, whether behaving as effete young men, or care-free and spendthrift. There was always the darker side, and the acknowledged counterpart of the care-free. One source states:A ball held at the Hôtel Thellusson on the rue de Provence in the 9th arrondissement of Paris restricted its guest-list to the grown children of the guillotined.

The Incroyables had their counterparts in the Merveilleuses, the daughters and young wives of the nobles.

The response was all in attitude, and dress was the focus of that. The Incroyables were all for exaggerated effects. They also carried cudgels when on the streets. They had no love for Revolutionaries.

So much so the termed themselves Incoyables, and Meveilleuses – anything without the R for Revolution. Almost Oulipo in its time.



The dress of the Merveilleuses was based on Greek and Roman models, the chiton, the flowing robe. Underneath, however, frequently nothing or the least was worn. The light material caught the contours of the body, the neckline was low. Along with this was a semi-Greek styling of hair, loose coils for the women, the Roman statuary style for the men. Wigs took off in a big way, and the more outlandishly coloured the better: blond was popular because the Paris Commune had outlawed blond wigs; but also blue and green were to be seen. Collars became large, the two-horned hat, with tassels, popular. Styles frequently emphasised the guillotine: wigs were short at the back, exposing the neck: ‘a la victime’.




From this use of translucent and semi-transparent materials came the ‘naked from a distance’ look. It also became popular amongst the men. It consisted of flesh-coloured and close-fitting under-garments. These styles took off in England and can be seen in late-Georgian fashions.

Talleyrand commented: “Il n’est pas possible de s’exposer plus somptueusement!” (“It is not possible to exhibit oneself more sumptuously!”).

Famous merveilleuses were Madame Récamier, Madame Hamelin, Joséphine de Beauharnais, and Madame Tallien.

Those few years could not last; everything carries the seeds of its own demise. One source states: The leading IncroyablePaul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras, was one of the five Directors who ran the Republic of France and gave the period its name. He hosted luxurious feasts attended by royalists, repentant Jacobins, ladies, and courtesans. Since divorce was now legal, sexuality was looser than in the past. However, de Barras’ reputation for immorality may have been a factor in his later overthrow, a coup that brought the French Consulate to power and paved the way for Napoleon Bonaparte.


It should come as no surprise the styles of this short period became the source for modern fashions and styles. In 1984 John Galliano brought out a collection based on the styles of Les Incroyables.