Les Merveilleuses: The Rebellious Women of 1795 France

Let's take a trip back in time, to the year 1795, in Paris, France. Times were drastically changing; the French Revolution, which started in 1789, had uprooted France's monarchy which created space for a new social and political structure. At the intersection of political and social change were a group of wealthy Parisian youths, known as Les Merveilleuses

Les Merveilleuses (The Marvelous Ones) made their appearance during the Directoire period, France’s governing body between 1795 and 1799. The Directoire period was a time for experimentation and change for young women and men from middle and upper class families. Among those, Les Merveilleuses symbolically took their power back by dressing in extravagant clothes.  

One of the most well-known Merveilleuse was Madame Theresa Tallien. She was born as Thérésia Cabarrus (1773-1835) in Madrid, but was raised in Paris. She was known for her many marriages, and many children with different fathers, but more significantly it was Theresa Tallien who inspired Les Merveilleuses style. It was a style inspired by the elements of a more democratic society, in contrast to the outlandish aristocracy of the previous French governments. This look borrowed the long flowing tunic of the Ancient Greeks who were the catalysts of social equity and equality that these young revolutionaries wanted to imitate. Additionally the flowyness of the Greek style, became a rebellion against the restrictive atmosphere of French society. With these values, Theresa Taillien was able to use her influence as a salonniere to encourage and establish the Greek Revival Style. Tallien’s fashion choices included beautiful jewelry and sheer muslin gowns with very little undergarments underneath, she inspired the closets of French socialites. 

Even more iconic however, many Merveilleuses would accentuate the sheerness of their dresses by dampening the material, giving onlookers a peek at their nakedness underneath. Some incorporporated symbolism of the French revolution in their style, by wearing a red cord around their neck to symbolize the horror of the guillotine. Hairstyles were eclectic as well, sometimes they would cover their hair with bonnets, toques and other headpieces. To accessorize, a Merveilleuse wore sandals, adorning her feet with toe rings and ankle bracelets.

Les Merveilleuses were not alone in making a statement through extravagant fashion and loose morals during this period. They were accompanied by a group of wealthy men, called Les Incroyables (The Incredibles). While the ladies were inspired by Greek fashion, the men were inspired by English (dandy) fashion. They wore exaggerated high collars, hiding the neck and chin, tight-fitting breeches with long ribbons dangling below the knees, and open, pointed flat shoes. In addition to this style, these “new dandies” wore a double-breasted, square jacket, similar to a red coat with cut tails and deformed vest with heavily stuffed pockets. They sometimes wore hoop earrings and braids in their hair.  Oftentimes you would see the Merveilleuses and Incroyables wandering together through the streets of Paris. 

In 1799, the Directoire was overthrown and replaced with the fourth stage of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Era. Even with Empress Josephine being a prominent Merveilleuse before her marriage to Napoleon, Napoleon's rise to power ensured that there were more simpler styles and less tolerance for the ostentatious and rebellious styles of the French youth. As such, the end of the Directoire also meant the end of the Merveilleuses and Incroyables reigning the streets of French fashion. 

The Merveilleuses (and their Incroyables friends) were often attacked and condemned for their love of fashion; they were associated with the problems of the pre-Revolutionary monarchy, often considered superficial. However, Theresa Tallien and her fellow Marvelous demonstrated that fashion can be political as much as it is social. Wearing outlandish clothes inspired by a democratic country, symbolized their emergence into an era that allowed for freedom of self expression. Their style played an important role in French history and Fashion History where it is studied and researched. It remains a great inspiration for designers today.

Words by Allyna Wilson




Pictures credits in order of appearances: 

- Cover: Incroyables et Merveilleuse by Horace Vernet, 1814 - Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
- Incroyable et Merveilleuse by Horace Vernet, 1814 - Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 
- Albert Lynch, Nymphs and Merveilleuse, 1887
- Portrait of Theresa Tallien, by Jean-Bernard Duvivier, 1806, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum
- Challamel & Tenint, Les Incroyable et Merveilleuse, 1843
- Le Goût du Jour, No. 21: Les Modernes Incroyables, from Caricatures Parisiennes ca. 1815 Georges Jacques Gatine
- Portrait of Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte (1763-1814). Museum: State Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Author: Massot, Firmin.
- Photo from John Galliano Central Saint Martin Graduation collection show, 1984. The collection was unisex, presented by both male and female models, who included Galliano’s fellow students, clubbing friends and friends of friends. The shows launched his career.

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