Beauty in its Age

February 25, 2012

There’s no accident Belle Epoque contains in its title a reference to the beauty which demarcated the few decades before World War One when the cult of elegance, exemplified not only by vain women whose occupations were strictly limited at their toilette but by the increasing number of dandies, amongst whom we can number Montesquiou and Wilde, was at its peak. If wealth had become unlimited and huge sums of money were spun in stock exchange transactions which bourgeois dominated superlatively (don’t forget it was admittedly their century with the Revolutions and Republic to proclaim their newly gained status), proportional fortunes were also wasted on anything that worshiped the publicly embraced sin of the time: vanity, which, obviously, the French mastered best.

More than at the extincted Court of Versailles, where one’s aesthetic value had been constantly eclipsed by the exaggerated richness of rococo style, lush beauty prevailed and Paris became the Mecca of fashion, epicenter of trends, eccentricity and mania with the parisienne as central exponent.


The cheval glass, ebony combs and pocket mirrors gained sacrosanct qualities, being cult object to serve beauty, while cosmetics were gazed as chrism, as incense for the religiously performed ceremony of adorning.

woman looking in a mirror

Dressing tables, recommended two, one destined to washing and the other for styling the hair, occupied the position of altar, where the final product was polished. Perfumes vials filled the toilette’s marquetry surface, spreading delightfully their scents of ambergris or labdanum, combined with vanilla, flowers and woods across the lady’s chamber (“the holy of holies, her dressing-room, where no profane foot may enter, which is forbidden ground to her nearest and dearest-where some people imagine that she loses herself in admiration of her own perfections, like a Buddha of the Hindoo heaven”). A visitor’s olfactory senses could always perceive the musky haze and patchouli, bergamot or oakmoss fragrance immersing from her cabinets and Fortuny designed negligees with most refreshing effect, covering him, dazzling him. Coordinated by a skilled connoisseur, these lingering odors even turned in rhapsodies  like the ones Huysmans juggled with in his masterpiece of a novel, “À rebours“, evoking colors, landscapes and insidious desires at the user’s will. They were the opium of a posh woman’s lover, quite ineffective if we consider the many chaps flocked in shabby dens to smoke the hallucinogen drug but still appealing.


Against aging, various remedies were proposed by domain authorities (usually aristocrats or alleged nobles) like Baroness Staffe, a living encyclopedia on beauty and grace who dispersed her wisdom throughout Europe, preaching the gospel of narcissism in such a manner it almost sounded christian. She advices socially active women to reserve a day per week for total rest, Chinese recipes of cremes to combat wrinkles, moisturizing oils and rigorous hygiene assisted by touches of powder. Massages were said to keep the skin’s elasticity, rubbing alcohol on swollen calves helped them recover and for limp thighs or double chin, wraps in silk  strips previously soaked in sandalwood were rumored to give astonishing results.


But it was not on pedicure, manicure, perfumes and massages most money were spent by respectable dames. Furriers (they had no PETA then, you know…), bootmakers, tailors, glovemakers, hairdressers and milliners cost the upper-class banker wife around 40, 000 francs a year (the equivalent of $100,000 today) which their boorish, elderly hubbies had to supply not counting the presents and expensive jewels offered galore during the same period.

Gowns, especially, had to fit each and every possible occasion with its etiquette, from luncheons where light dresses with gloves were required, morning walks which asked for darker outings and perhaps veils, to Opera evenings habitually followed by soirees that obliged a décolleté; a chic woman hence changed 4 to 8 times a day, not to count the  ball costumes, tea gowns and thematic toilettes for Grand Prix! Imagine the taffeta and tulle spectacle behind the folding screens as the dress slipped on her corseted body in elegant waves of glittering fabric and the ravishing outcome…

Exponents of their man’s affluence and good-taste, being a gorgeous socialite was a full-time job partly meant to aid her spouse’s political aspirations (if any) and, when faultlessly done, impel him to the higher echelons few bachelors penetrated.


A notorious sample of woman social accessory who played her part giving great evidence of knack in her marriage blanc (a.k.a. a torturing alliance for her husband because it speculated lack of sex) was my favorite Belle Epoque female personage, Amélie Gautreau (January 29, 1859–July 25, 1915), granddaughter of a French Marquess brought up in a Louisiana plantation manor but educated at Paris, where, otherwise,  she continued living as the talk of a whole decade. You might remind her as John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X”.

A professional beauty, she was well experienced in the rite of embellishing and even more in that of hypnotizing the public eye so  she fabricated the most surprising apparel accepted by the canons of fashion, daring a originality which ultimately delineating her from the mere crowd. In a place where pale skin was wildly appreciated, Amélie naturally had the whitest complexion which, after adding some artifices, became like diaphanous milk, contrasted by her eyebrows painted with  mahogany pencil, copper hair, crimson lips and the rouged tips of her ears .

In his memoir, Pringue describes her strange entrance into the effervescent cliques where women seemed false wearing their balloon sleeves, fake curls and ample trains which made men stumble or caught in the doorways: “an antique statue, auburn hair with gold reflections, thrown back and tied in a Grecian knot, freeing a proud forehead, and admirable face of absolute regularity of feature, without the slightest defect, with the transparency of alabaster, set on a long neck, magnificently placed on perfectly rounded shoulders”.

Slender but voluptuous, majestic though quite young, Amélie , with her crescent tiara royally set on her head instead of elaborated jewels, instantly captured people’s interest.

Madame X

Men stopped “as if awe struck with her beauty, to let her pass”, rows of admirers preceded her carriage as a cortege fitted to a queen, illustrious characters searched her company and newspapers exploded with information about “La Belle Américaine“, her schedule, her words, her looks.

Amélie had a “distinctive wardrobe that received extensive coverage” (Deborah Davis said it) from great critiques like those at Le Figaro, La Gazette Rose and L’Evènement, who raved about her flamboyant style: a “salmon colored velvet dress” once, ” a magnificent Directoire gown of white satin with crystal drops, a shower of diamonds on her shoulders (to assort her diamond studded lorgnete) and an orange Crepe de Chine scarf around her waist” the second time, “a red velvet dress with bodice of white satin” and another with pearl netting afterwords. Simplicity prevailed.

The crazy Bavarian King Ludwig II (yes, the one with the imposing castle which inspired Walt Disney) came in person to meet her one evening at Palais Garnier, inciting his cousin, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, to go admire Amélie’s pulchritude at Nice a little after. The gossip about her charms reach the Kiser’s ears too and soon she was recognized as the Countess di Castiglione or the Madame Recamier of Belle Epoque, a “Vénus républicaine” prized in art and poetry.

Amelie Gautreau

Few beauties achieved her fame, climbing at Amélie ‘s level and even fewer outshining her, of whom Liane de Pougy ( 1869 – 1950) was a renowned courtesan- dancer (like Victoria’s Secret models today) and Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe ( 1860– 1952) a Salon hostess and Balletes Russes patron (witty woman, unlike our Angelina Jolie).

Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe

Beauty was the Sun around which these flamboyant women gravitated, the fountain of life whose draining meant their  condemnation to misery, an essential trait of Belle Epoque figures nobody could forget too soon as it represented the last glimpse of noble luxury before the war came and human’s priorities and views radically altered.

I deplore the loss of vanity, good old, genuine, narcissistic tinted, authentic vanity!



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