About the Author:
Caroline Weber is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Barnard College, Columbia University; she has also taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. She is the author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie-Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (2006). She has written for The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Financial Times, London Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, and New York magazine. She lives in New York City.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
June 2, 1885
After the fact, society pages reporting on the Princesse de Sagan’s annual costume ball would liken it to Noah’s Ark, the Arabian Nights, and an opium dream, although for sheer extravagant strangeness, it may well have surpassed all three. Taking the animal kingdom as her theme this year, the hostess had directed her seventeen-hundred-odd guests to model their outfits on the illustrated works of the Comte de Buffon, an Enlightenment naturalist who had studied the “denaturing” effects of environmental change on the fauna.
In the great ceremonial courtyard that separated Mme de Sagan’s hôtel particulier in the Faubourg Saint-Germain from the street, fifty footmen in powdered wigs and red-and-gold livery danced attendance on arriving guests, handing them down from carriages emblazoned with coats of arms and ushering them inside to an immense reception hall bathed in violet-tinged electric light. (The lady of the house judged “Swan Edison lamps”—lightbulbs, still a relative rarity in Paris—more festive than candles or gaslight.) After a Swiss guard announced them by name and by title, invitees swept up a white marble staircase lined with fifty more liveried footmen and an equal number of porphyry vases. Antique Aubusson carpets cushioned the ascent.
From the top of the stairs, guests entered an enfilade of magnificent formal reception rooms successively decorated à la Louis XVI, Louis XV, and Louis XIV, a sequence that gave visitors the impression of traveling back in time. In one salon hung antique Gobelins tapestries so precious that Mme de Sagan displayed them only once a decade. In a second reception room, the hand-carved boiseries had been gilded with fifty pounds of pure gold, while in a third, floor-to-ceiling mirrors lined the walls, in emulation of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Although the hôtel had previously belonged to Henry Thomas Hope, profligate owner of the Hope Diamond, its décor had grown even more opulent since its new proprietress had moved in. Tall and blond with patrician cheekbones and creamy white skin, the Princesse de Sagan, forty-six, liked to think she bore a striking resemblance to Marie Antoinette.
Dazzling though they were, the splendors of the Sagan residence paled beside the menagerie assembled there this evening: a hodgepodge of zoological curiosities defying the dictates of nature—and culture. As denizens of the monde, the revelers were Paris’s ordained exemplars of breeding and good taste. Tonight, however, they played against type, making a game of their fabled civility by masquerading as savage beasts.
At this so-called bal des bêtes (ball of the beasts) as at all mondain functions, the guests were attired with consummate chic, only on this occasion their elegance assumed weird, unsettling forms. Beneath their customary silk top hats, impeccably tailored clubmen—members of such exclusive all-male Parisian social clubs as the Jockey and the Cercle de l’Union—sported oversized papier-mâché heads denoting insects and vermin, crustaceans and big game. To their own uniform of evening dresses and jewels, the women had added furs, masks, and exotic plumage. Statuesque Mme de Sagan, whose “queen of the birds” regalia included a gigantic feather-and-gem-covered mechanical tail that she could unfurl and retract at will, had gone so far as to perch a taxidermied peacock’s head atop her own. Its diamond-studded eyes glittered eerily in the electric light.
With similarly macabre wit, slim, haughty-looking Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné, twenty-six, had tucked a dead snowy owl’s head into her coif. The comtesse, a mythology buff, had dubbed herself “the Friend of Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom [Sagesse],” although her take on Minerva’s avian mascot contradicted the other meaning of sagesse: “decorousness” or “good behavior.” On its own, Mme de Chevigné’s dress of snow-white tulle and feathers might have exuded decorum, but the giant blood-red rubies sparkling in the eye-sockets of her owl’s head told a different story. They were the eyes of a fiend, a devil, a good owl gone bad.
By design, this study in contrasts stressed the contradictory traits for which the comtesse, née Laure de Sade, was famed. She looked like a princess, with the same heavy-lidded blue eyes, silky blond tresses, and chiseled bone structure that the Italian poet Petrarch had cherished in her fourteenth-century ancestress and namesake, Laure de Noves, Comtesse Hugues de Sade. Yet she spoke like a peasant, in an antiquated backwoods drawl, and cursed like a stevedore, in the filthy patois of her other noted literary forebear, the Marquis de Sade. Added to her fondness for shooting, riding, and man-tailored clothing, her tough talk moved one of her friends to brand her “Corporal Petrarch.” This sobriquet underlined the antitheses Mme de Chevigné somehow managed to embrace: womanly and virile, sacred and profane.
Her bawdy posturing and provocative “mannish air,” as another of her friends termed it, intrigued any number of mondain gallants, several of whom were suspected of enjoying Mme de Chevigné’s favors in bed. The Sagan ball found her coquetting with one such admirer, Comte Joseph de Gontaut, despite the presence of both their spouses (and despite Gontaut’s goofy attire: he was costumed as the hindquarters of a giraffe; two of his kinsmen represented the torso and head). As a rule, such brazen impropriety did not go over well in the gratin, where extramarital affairs were tolerated on the condition that they be conducted in secret. Strangely enough, however, Mme de Chevigné’s insubordinate antics endeared her to many of society’s grandest figures: crowned heads weary of the joyless formality that necessarily attended their station. To these exalted persons, the young noblewoman’s affronts to bon ton came as thrilling novelties, like séances or telephones.
The patronage of her high-placed friends allowed Mme de Chevigné to laugh off what she herself saw as her most shameful feature—her relatively modest means—by avowing that she was “poor in income, but rich in highnesses.” When society wags speculated that the rubies in her owl’s head were presents from a Romanov grand duchess, she neither confirmed nor denied the provenance. But in another virtuoso display of cheek, she disparaged her presumed benefactor’s good taste. After relating an anecdote about a different Romanov gift—a sturgeon stuffed with turquoises—she shrugged her shoulders at the tackiness and concluded, “Anyhow, I have been to Tsarskoe Selo, and it is not as chic as all that!” Lines like these were Mme de Chevigné’s masterstrokes. To receive special tokens of a highness’s esteem was impressive enough; to scoff at them was downright awe inspiring.
The comtesse flirted with the giraffe’s behind until a hummingbird with diamond-speckled wings broke up the colloquy, pulling her aside for a whispered exchange. This interruption restored Gontaut to his fellow giraffe components, who were enjoying their collective stature as the biggest brute at the party. Having heard rumors of another guest’s intention to show up in an elephant suit, they were relieved to discover that their hostess had vetoed the plan at the last minute, citing the risk of damage to the Old Master frescoes on the ceilings of her hôtel.
The princesse had also declared a ban on fish costumes, reasoning that guests thus attired would inevitably want to swim, and she couldn’t guarantee them a suitably warm water temperature in her (presumably capacious) aquarium. This caveat hadn’t deterred one vixen from decking herself out as a salmon, in a curve-hugging hot-pink mermaid ensemble patently designed to draw stares. Unfortunately, this woman’s dress attracted further notice because another femme fatale, known to her peers as “the Blond Cleopatra,” happened to be wearing a skin-tight ibis outfit of a nearly identical hue. The two fuchsia sirens eyed each other charily in the park-sized gardens behind the mansion, where Swan Edison lamps sparkled by the thousands in the old-growth chestnut trees.
Indoors, tension simmered between a portly duchess and a slender vicomtesse, both of whom had elected to appear en panthère. Despite her rival’s superior rank, the Vicomtesse Greffulhe, twenty-five, held the undisputed advantage. With her regal carriage, willowy frame, swanlike neck, and huge dark eyes the color of crushed pansies, Élisabeth Greffulhe, née Riquet de Caraman-Chimay, was one of Parisian society’s most celebrated beauties. Her contemporaries routinely compared her to Venus, the goddess of love, and to Diana, the chaste, ethereal goddess of the moon and the hunt. The matronly Duchesse de Bisaccia recalled no such deities. Onlookers joked that the only thing funnier than the contrast between the thin and fat panthers was the discrepancy between Mme de Bisaccia’s disgruntled mien and her family’s heraldic motto: “The pleasure is mine” (C’est mon plaisir).
The pleasure should have been Mme Greffulhe’s. Yet she gave no sign of savoring her victory, beyond the chilly Mona Lisa smile that so often played upon her lips. As one of her relatives noted, “She was beautiful always and everywhere. But her life was by no means a picnic—it was no laughing matter to be the most beautiful woman in Paris.” By her own admission, the vicomtesse’s prime objective in every circumstance was to project “an image of prestige like none other.” To achieve this effect, she was partial to fashions that provoked shock and awe, and tonight was no exception. More often than not, she went in for variations on an ice-queen aesthetic, consistent with her reputation for spotless virtue. (Her family motto was “Piety stands with me”—Juvat pietas—to the despair of many an enamored clubman.) But for the bal des bêtes, she had morphed into something elemental and wild. Eschewing the evening dress that subtended the other beasts’ costumes, she had swathed herself in only a whispery white chemise, overlain with a genuine panther skin. Her lustrous chestnut-brown curls, sprinkled with pieces of jet, spilled loose over her shoulders.
Mme Greffulhe’s outfit was all the more arresting in that she had based it not, as the other guests had done, on imagery from Buffon but on one of the treasures of the Louvre’s permanent collection: Leonardo da Vinci’s John the Baptist. Along with her beauty, the trait on which she most prided herself was her passion for the arts, and she was infamous for lording it over her peers. Her John the Baptist garb typified her high-cultural pretensions, which she believed set her apart from the rest of the gratin. The details of her costume indicated a careful study of Leonardo’s painting, from the artful drape of the panther’s hide to the curtain of tumbling dark hair, to say nothing of the chilly Mona Lisa smile.
At the same time, her costume raised questions about her rationale for choosing that particular work as her prototype; for Leonardo’s John is a comely androgyne, endowed with the features of a young man thought to have been the artist’s lover. On a tomboy like Laure de Chevigné, such gender-bending attire would have been equally audacious—cross-dressing had another few decades to go before it would become a mainstay of society costume balls—but at least it would have been consistent with her “mannish air.” On Élisabeth Greffulhe, the guise made less sense. Whatever speculation it drew from her peers, the logic behind it remained her own tantalizing little secret.
Meanwhile, the visual clash between the two panthers had caught the eye of a little frog looking on from the sidelines, a dark-eyed, olive-skinned newcomer to the monde. Always quick with a joke, the frog took the dueling panther getups as a pretext to crack jokes to her companions: a trio of Rothschild heiresses arrayed as a leopard, a bat, and a bright orange tropical bird. It was then that the frog, mocking the duchesse-panther’s heft, first made what would become one of her best-known witticisms, though years of subsequent requoting and revision would transform the fearsome jungle predator into a bland farmyard herbivore. “She isn’t a cow,” ran the final version of the sally, still circulating in the Faubourg a full generation later. “She’s an entire herd!”
If such put-downs passed in Parisian society for the height of cleverness, they also disclosed the undercurrent of malice that subtended the nobility’s polish, making that class itself a peculiar hybrid species: part gleaming tooth, part gory claw. At the bal des bêtes, this duality surfaced with arresting clarity when the blast of a hunting horn abruptly turned a pack of human staghounds loose in the mansion. Outfitted in dog masks and hunting pinks, the baying creatures raced on all fours across gleaming marble and parquet floors, in hot pursuit of a fleet-footed human stag.
While the outcome of the chase has been lost to history, the scene revealed something essential about its participants. Like the sport it mimicked, this faux stag hunt was a form of ritualized violence, a stylized rechanneling of the latent hostility the French courtier class had once felt toward the king. It was no accident that before he turned a modest royal hunting lodge into the seat of the most magnificent court in Europe, Louis XIV (1638–1715) had come of age at a time when noblemen resentful of the monarchy’s absolutist pretensions waged civil war against the throne, nearly toppling it. To forestall any further such sedition, the young sovereign ingeniously transposed his vassals’ bloodlust into an arena that he alone could define and control: court ceremony.
Some of the activities that fell under this rubric, such as the royal hunt and the ballet de cour, were strenuous enough to provide a physical outlet for the courtiers’ aggression. But the Sun King (a persona Louis cultivated by playing the role of the sun in some early court pageants) also addressed this threat more abstractly, by subjecting his retinue at Versailles to an intricate system of etiquette in which nearly every gesture and word bespoke their place in the court hierarchy. When the members of the court gathered each day to watch the king dine, which of them had the right to sit in his presence, and within that tiny élite, who was accorded a stool and who a proper chair? Did a French duke walk into a room ahead of a legitimized royal bastard (Louis XIV had plenty of those) or behind him? To whom did the prerogative of initiating or ending a conversation belong? Who had the privilege of carrying the monarch’s candlestick when escorting him to bed, or of removing the royal riding boot from the royal foot after a long, sweaty day in the royal stirrup? The Sun King’s genius lay in convincing the members of his court to treat these seeming trivial questions as matters of (symbolic) life and death. By this means, he trained his nobles to envy one another, rather than him, so deflecting from the crown whatever hostile energies might not be exorcised by shooting and dancing alone.
As at the fin de siècle, a century’s worth of roiling political upheaval having finally dethroned Louis’s royal heirs, the Bourbons (along with their archrival cousins, the d’Orléans, and the self-made imperial Bonapartes), the French nobility retained an atavistic taste for pomp and circumstance. But the target of its rancor had changed. Instead of an all-powerful king, its most formidable rival now was the bourgeoisie—well educated, high achieving, and, in this industrializing age, increasingly rich. Over the past half century, this demographic had asserted its might in virtually every area that counted: ...
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