If you are like me, and intrigued by daily life during the late 1800’s or early 1900’s in France, read on. This is where I get to put in much of the research that never made it into the novel, yet forms the backdrop for Gabbi’s journey. For more in-depth discussion of these or other topics, please visit my blog posts.
LA BELLE EPOQUE
“La Belle Epoque” means the beautiful era, and refers to a relatively peaceful time period in France, from 1870’s to the early 1900’s. At the time, Frenchmen called it the “fin de siecle”. It was characterized by great advancements in science, technology and innovations in the arts – visual, literary, theatre and music.
PRICES IN 1900:
It’s always fun to figure out what things cost in the past. Here’s some trivia from turn of the century France: one cat (8 – 15 francs); one live turkey (120 fr.), one goat (80 fr.), one horse (250 fr.), two photographs (.6 fr.), sketchbook (1.5 fr.), telegram (3 fr.), dinner with wine (4 fr. per person), bottle of average wine (2 fr.), leather shoes for men (25 fr.), leather boots for women (28 fr.), shoe mending (8 fr.), entry to Moulin Rouge (2 fr.), entry to Moulin de la Galette (25 centimes/cents for women, 50 centimes for men, plus 10 centimes for each dance).
After the French revolution (1804 onwards), Napoleon enacted the Civil Code which, amongst other laws, separated church and state. If a priest or minister celebrated a wedding before the civil ceremony, the priest could be prosecuted under the criminal law. This meant that events such as weddings had to be conducted by government officials first, although a church ceremony could follow. Thus, in the novel, SPOILER ALERT! Gabbi’s wedding ceremony is held at the town hall, with plans for a church ceremony in the basilica to follow.
It was great fun to research the clothing that French women like Gabbi and her sisters wore at the end of the nineteenth-century. Corsets were still necessary for any woman of “good breeding” and undergarments were far more elaborate than what we now wear. Properly dressed, a young woman would first don a chemise (undershirt), then her underdrawers (underpants that often went to the knees with an open crotch). Next was the corset which the ladies’ maid would tighten, and a corset cover. After that, garters to hold up silk or cotton stockings, and one or more petticoats. Finally, she was ready for her clothes! In all, an entire outfit could weigh up to ten pounds, which explains why many women had fainting spells and did not participate in vigorous activity! It all makes me glad I’m spared all of that. It was said that the more a woman’s clothing restricted her, the more fashionable she was! Add to this, the fact that a woman might be obliged to change outfits three to eight times a day, depending on the events she attended, also explains why women of this class had little time for anything else.
Here are some of the kinds of dresses a woman might wear: a house dress, toilette de reception (for receiving visitors in one’s home); toilette de visite (for visiting); promenade dress (for walking in public); toilette de voyage (travelling suit); equestrian dress; afternoon dress; dinner dress; cocktail dress; toilette de soiree (evening dress); ball gown.
Gloves were to be worn any time one was in public; forgetting your gloves and appearing with bare hands could lead to scandal. Other fashion accessories included parasols and fans.
Hair styling was a complicated, time-consuming affair also. Accessories included hair “rats”, which were mesh balls that were used to give height to an updo. Often, women saved their own hair from their hairbrushes and then formed it into a natural “rat” or hairpiece. Also used were hair combs of tortoise-shell, bone or wood; wigs or partial wigs; tiaras or headbands for evening. The Marcel curling rod, invented by a Frenchman, was indispensable by the late 1800’s and was heated in a small stove. Tightly curled bangs were especially fashionable at this time. By the end of the nineteenth-century, the more natural look of either the Pompadour or Gibson girl styles were popular. These are described in the novel, and essentially a woman’s long hair is swept up and back from her face, knotted at the crown, with a few curls hanging on either side of her face.
Of course, hats were de rigeur! And by the end of the 1800’s, hats were huge and elaborate. Summer hats were often straw boaters but were decorated with ribbons, artificial flowers and even bird’s wings or feathers.
Yes, that’s what they were really called, and referred to any miniaturized cameras that could be hand-held (as opposed to the older box or cabinet cameras that required a tripod). These were lots of fun to research, as innovators created an astonishing variety of ways to conceal a camera – hiding them in top hats, canes, whiskey glasses, tie pins, even a fake pistol. For more on these cameras, see The Illustrated History of the Camera, M. Auer (New York Graphic Society, 1975) or 150 Classic Cameras, P. van Hasbroeck (Sotheby’s, 1989).
Women protested their unequal treatment under the law long before Gabbi’s grandmother Lucille got involved in women’s rights movement. The right to vote was a key issue, but so too were other rights, such as the right of married women to own property, to manage their own money, for women to enter professions such as medicine or law, etc. However, it would not be until decades after Gabbi left France that women saw true reform by obtaining the right to vote, after World War II, in 1945! Far ahead of France, Canadian women (with notable exceptions) won the right to vote federally in 1918. Most provinces had already granted women voting rights prior to that date. Prior to being granted the right to vote, women who protested or marched for the vote were routinely treated roughly by the police and often jailed, sometimes for extended sentences.
Paris was truly the centre of the art world at the end of the nineteenth century. Artists from all over the world congregated in Paris, studied at the Academie des Beaux Arts or at one of the many private studios, and exhibited in the annual Salon. Most importantly, these artists – young and old- influenced and encouraged one another, creating an ideal creative atmosphere.
Most people are familiar with the “Impressionist” artists such as Renoir, Monet, Manet, Morisot, Cassatt and Degas, who painted from the 1860’s to the end of the century (roughly). They formed a loose association in Paris and encouraged one another, as well as exhibiting together as a group when refused by the traditionalists of the Paris Salon. In the years following the Impressionists came various schools of art, including the “post-Impressionists” (Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Rousseau), the “Symbolists”(Munch), the “Pointillists”(Seurat, Signac), and the “Fauvists”(Matisse). By the time Gabbi arrives in Paris, in 1900, many of the Impressionists have died (including her heroine Berthe Morisot), while others, like Claude Monet, had moved out of Paris although he still painted and exhibited in the city. Gabbi arrived in time to meet artists of the new century, including Pablo Picasso, at the Lapin Agile in Montmartre (I moved up the month he arrived in Paris from October 1900 to June for purposes of my story).
Still one of the most important art museums in the world, the Louvre Museum is a treasure-house of art – paintings, drawings, sculpture, ceramic arts, antiquities and decorative arts. It is no surprise that Gabbi was overwhelmed on her first visit to the museum, and most modern visitors experience a similar overload to the senses, for the collections are vast and varied. I was able to obtain pdf’s of the museum’s 1900 catalogues and guides in order to accurately depict which paintings or etchings Gabbi viewed at that time.