“Many of these women were impeccable and liaised with the greatest couturiers of the time, often dressed in exquisite frocks and setting trends in make up and hair”
It is often difficult to visualise women from the late 1800’s up until the First World War obtaining a presence of rebellious beauty. History books painted them into mainstream portraits of submissive and fragile creatures positioned alongside powerful male imagery, and if they were to rebel they would end up in the line of fire like Netherlands born Mata Hari, the famous courtesan spy.
At this time in history, La Belle Époque (The Beautiful Era) was alive and flourishing in Paris, such as in the Montmartre quarter of Paris, where Bohemian society was indulging in the cabaret culture. Artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Latrec who frequented the Moulin Rouge, and had an appetite for prostitutes, created paintings depicting a time of sensuality without boundaries, and the pursuit of pleasure alongside aesthetic freedom. There was liberalism and optimism in the air.
La Belle Époque was the era of Impressionist, Post Impressionist and Art Nouveau artists, and of poets and philosophers. Artists were held in high esteem. Looking back it feels as though the women of this time romanticised the subjects of these paintings who appeared larger than life, often courtesans already born into great wealth, and aspired to their beauty the way modern women today covet models in the glossy fashion magazines.
On the other end of the spectrum were the Nouveau-Riches who were the Parisian Bourgeoisie, consisting mostly of rich industrialists likened to the excessive trend setters of this day and age, that frequented the Casino de Paris and Maxims de Paris restaurant with courtesans and mistresses in arm. Many of these women were impeccable and liaised with the greatest couturiers of the time often dressed in exquisite frocks and setting trends in make up and hair.
It was a simpler time, and many turned to herb infused milk bathes and avoided the sun as much as possible preferring a paler complexion which they often bleached with lemon tonics. In reality make up was only worn by actresses and ladies of the night, and did not surface into the mainstream until about 1915 with the assistance of cosmetic entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Arden and Guerlain, which meant women had to compensate with fashion, hairstyles, and accessories.
In this special piece I am trying to capture the essence of this time when actresses, burlesque dancers and courtesans were larger than life, and muses of their time, a personal interpretation sparked by a Guerlain perfume I discovered when I was in Chave and Jackson on Broad Street in the Hereford city centre. I have a passion for heritage scents which almost always come in beautiful bottles, so finding it in such a nostalgic atmosphere fuelled the experience.
Chave and Jackson was constructed in 1830 and is still an independent in-house pharmacy that retails premium cosmetics and fragrances, a moment back in time. It’s very special and the ladies behind the counters know their products well. I was assisted by Debra Pembroke at the Guerlain counter, a bit of an iconic looking woman herself. So I begin this list with that special perfume that captured my imagination and led to this article.
L’Heuere Bleu by Guerlain
This perfume, created by Jacque Guerlain in 1912 depicts a memory he had walking along the Seine River in Paris at twilight when the sky was a cloak of blue velvet, the time of day just before the stars come out in the sky. It is a powdery scent which carries a bit of violet sweetness and vanilla warmth alongside florals like Iris, Jasmine and Rose. It also has a musk and orange blossom base, and lingers beautifully. It is most definitely subdued, with a mysterious elegance that falls into the category of gourmand scents. I only sampled the EDP, so I cannot base this review on the EDT.
The heart-shaped bottle stopper and label design feels very turn of the century with its fluid lines and Chinoiserie style label. It can be a unisex scent if you dare, just try it on yourself first gentlemen. By the way, l adore the little woven perfume sampler swatches from Guerlain which resemble clothing tags and hold the scent better than on a piece of paper. As one of France’s oldest cosmetic brands and perfumeries, Guerlain can afford to do that.
Fabrics, Silhouettes and Accessories of the Beautiful
One thing that represents the opulence of La Belle Époque in the fashions of its time was the use of velvet and silks. Silhouettes transitioned from bustles to slimmer waistlines and 2 piece Garibaldi coats with gored long skirts, and transitioned into a straighter silhouette. The later fashions had East Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian and Classical Greek influences. Velvet was used in the more tailored silhouettes and tunics which were popular later on, while silk was used for the straighter less restricting silhouettes. Both decadent fabrics representing the prosperity of the time.
Most of us wouldn’t mimic these looks to the last stitch, but rather add them to our wardrobes as staple pieces alongside minimalist clothing. It is quite noticeable that designers have incorporated this era into their seasonal collections, this also goes for the accessory industry.
Toward the end of the century, jewellery took on a fin de siècle (end of century) softness as opposed to the long shoulder length earrings of an earlier time. Ornate matching sets of jewellery, and hair ornaments such as tiaras with ostrich plumes were very popular at this time. Large bracelet designs, often with portrait miniatures on them and the arm cuffs inspired by Indian designs worn by women such as Mata Hari were in vogue. Revealing necklines on their couture gowns allowed for admiration, and was a canvas for elaborate diamond and gem necklaces often from Tiffany’s or Boucheron, the more popular jewellers of the time.
There seems to be a huge influence in today’s current headpieces and jewellery from this era, and it is always fun to have a few antique pieces of jewellery which you can find in local shops like the Hereford Antiques Centre and Lizzie May Vintage. They also wore little ornate wrist bags since they took very few items out with them, perhaps a little mirror and rouge pot. Most things were done on credit at that time so there was no need for the back breaker handbags of today. An easier time in that respect.
How to Recreate the Look Today
The Degas Ballerina turns Can Can Dancer Bad Girl
This particular look feeds off of the earlier period of La Belle Epoque and the social differences between the Can Can or Burlesque Dancers Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec loved so dearly and the Elite Ballerinas depicted by Degas.
Jacket by Lipservice, Make up and Hair for Plumage look by Carlos Palma, Black Ballerina Skirt by Bernie Trade On Ebay and Shoespie on Ebay Lace up Flat Knee High Boots
At the time, life was rather theatrical and the public were enamoured with the theatre queens who took them to exotic locations. Fashion had huge East Asian and North African influences.
Black Roman Three Leather Strap Booty by Vivienne Westwood Classic Gold Label, Topshop Orange Line Duster, Headscarf by Freepeople.com, Tribal Kaftan by Warehouse, Plaited Maxi Dress by Topshop, Red T-Bar Shoes by Vivienne Westwood Classic Gold Label, Vintage Kimonos which would be worn over Maxi Dresses can be found on Ebay or in Vintage Shops and the Emerald Gem Earrings, a fashionable gem of the era, can also be sourced at antique or vintage Shops.
The Free Spirited, Powerful Courtesan
Among the elite classes one expressed their wealth with sumptuous fabrics and jewels. Indian shawls and luxurious piano shawls were all the rage, while silk chiffons found their way into Classical Greek and Indian influenced designs. These Courtesans were affluent, genteel vamps and knew how to maximise these traits by looking refined at all times, while cunningly luring their suitors with admiral expertise.
Vintage Piano Shawl by Gypsy Moon, Embellished Maxi Dress by Warehouse, Off the shoulder Embellished Maxi Dress by New Look, Hair Band by Free People Uk, Choker with long chains by Free People UK and Venus Stiletto Heels by Public Desire.
The Face of La Belle Époque
At the beginning of this era of economic prosperity women wouldn’t dare wear make up. It was expected of them to entice men with natural beauty, cosmetics were left to women of ill repute and in the theatre. Some rebels of course, exist in every town and if they chose to wear make up it had to look natural and not traceable to their husbands naked eye. The ladies with more colourful lives wore rose stained cheeks and red tint on their lips, and never applied a full coating of lipstick. They darkened their eyebrows but did not tweeze them and their skin was powdered white (although as natural as possible). Later on the Turkish influences are seen in women applying dark eye liner around their eyes.
One famous beauty Cleo de Merode, who was a popular actress and mistress to King Leopold II, was a natural beauty with long flowing wavy hair and a well dressed and fashionable pubic figure. Her look is replicated with using more complementary tones by make up artist Carlos Palma into a modern day version of the simpler face of the era. It is beautiful, innocent and fresh with a stained lip, polished skin, flushed cheeks, darkened brows and a simple coat of mascara. An illuminating concealer around the eyes would go down a treat. The just bitten look was the aim rather than bright scarlet lips. The colours available at that time were limited and would have clashed with many complexions.
Make up/Hair by International Make up Artist Carlos Palma
French Composers of La Belle Epoque