Anti-fashion youth subcultures have always seemed to emerge at uncertain, unstable points in history. The French Revolution (1789-1799) was one of the greatest social and political uphevals the world has ever seen, and fashion was of course caught up in the conflict. Throughout the various phases of the Revolution clothing was political, and colors, styles of dress and hairdos were all exploited to promote different agendas.
The years of the Reign of Terror under the leadership of Jacobin Maximillien Robspierre (1794-1795) were the most extreme and violent. Aristocrats, Royalists, and counter revolutionaries were guillotined in large numbers, and the Parisian population lived in a constant state of fear. Once Robspierre himself was guillotined, the calmer Directoire period began (1795-1799) and people tried to regain some semblance of normalcy in their lives. It was in this period that disgruntled youths and artists began to wear the extreme and outlandish Incroyable and Merveilleuse style of dress.
The origins of the style come from two main inspirations; the English country gentleman look (so loved by French Aristocrats of the 1770s), and the Classical Roman chiton robe (which had been promoted through the paintings of Jacques-Louis David). Many of the young men, the Incroyables, wore skin tight breeches, with outlandish frock coats cut with wide lapels. They wore their hair wild, in a style cut short at the back called a la victime (in honor of the shorn hair of victims of the guillotine). Tall, English style riding boots, a jaunty hat and a walking stick were de rigeur. The look was completed with a wide cravat, wrapped many times around the neck and often covering the mouth and nose. This desire to hide the neck makes sense when one considers how many French citizens had just lost their heads.
The women, the Merveilleuses, wore diaphanous muslin chemise gowns that were sometimes so thin the woman's body could clearly be seen underneath (scandalous for the late eighteenth century). These young women often decorated their simple gowns with red ribbon, tying a piece around the neck in a sinister reminder of the guillotine. Hair was simple and unpowdered; short styles known as a la Titus were in vogue. A Merveilleuse was complete with her cashmere shawl and sandals. The silhouette of the gowns was inspired by ancient Roman fashions, with a raised waistseam just below the breasts. Josephine Baeauharnais, the future Empress of France, was one of the most renowned Merveilleuses of Paris during the Directoire.
These young people used fashion as a way to protest the atrocities of the Revolution they had witnessed as children. Many were descendants of aristocratic families, and had lost loved ones to the guillotine. With the oppression of the Terror over, these youth took to the streets to party, drink, and settle scores. The Directoire was a heady, hedonistic time; Parisians needed release after years of living in violence and fear.
Why did these gilded youth choose to dress themselves as they did? The Incroyables were royalists, and used the ancien regime sihouette of the English gentleman as a way of showing their alliegance to the past. The use of Classical silhouettes can be traced to Neoclassical painting, particularly the studio of Jacques-Louis David. His powerful, allegorical canvases always featured figures in chitons and togas. The Mervieilleuses, many of them artists models, took the dress from the canvas to the street in an attempt to show their support of freedom in society.
Their wild, extreme styles were eventually co-opted by mainstream society. The men's and women's fashions of the first two decades of the nineteenth century owes its look to the political and scandalous dress of Paris' jeunesse doree.