Nineteenth-century Paris was acknowledged by contemporaries as the “capital of pleasure” (Rearick, p. 40). Its reputation as a city of diversions and licentiousness was established following the Revolution and Reign of Terror during the period of the Directory (1795 – 1799), when a heterogeneous, parvenu society indulged itself in a hedonistic lifestyle. Returning émigrés, the newly distinguished, and the recently wealthy, as well as many visiting foreigners, enjoyed the city’s luxury shops, restaurants, cafés, dance halls, public gardens, and boulevards. The pleasure-seeking atmosphere that characterized Paris in the Directory set the tone for the next hundred years.
The political upheaval of 1789 created a less rigidly stratified society than that of the ancien régime, a society in which birth and wealth no longer dictated access to power. Under Napoleon I and increasingly throughout the nineteenth century, a growing and affluent bourgeoisie claimed its right to the lifestyle and privileges formerly the prerogative of the elite. In this opportunistic culture of burgeoning capitalism and materialism, men and women were on the make. The social mobility, economic expansion, and, to a degree, the political uncertainty of nineteenth-century France gave birth to le demimonde.
Coined by Alexandre Dumas fils in 1852 for a title of his play La dame aux camélias, the inspiration for La Traviata and adapted as the film Camille, the term “demimonde” (literally, half-world) originally designated a class of fallen society women. But the definition came to be much broader, including all women of loose morals who lived at the edge of respectable society and, by extension, the men—royal, aristocratic, bourgeois, and bohemian— who frequented that ambiguous world. Although the demimonde certainly existed prior to the mid-nineteenth century, it was during the Second Empire (1852 – 1870) and the early Third Republic (1870 – 1914), that it flourished and that its supreme type, the courtesan, achieved spectacular notoriety.
In an age of limited career possibilities for women, the courtesan took maximum advantage of one of the oldest professions open to her. Prostitution was widespread in nineteenth-century Paris, but the courtesan was set apart from the anonymous streetwalker by virtue of the wealth and status of her protectors and her own celebrity and visibility on the social scene. In addition to their physical beauty and sexual attractiveness, the most successful courtesans were also personages. In Colette’s novella, Gigi (1944), Madame Alvarez, a former demimondaine and Gigi’s grandmother, sums up a (real-life) leading courtesan: “She is extraordinary. Otherwise she would not be so famous. Successes and celebrity are not a matter of luck” (Colette, p. 24). Accomplished in the arts of gallantry, courtesans were strong-willed and independent women as well as cultivated, entertaining, and witty.
The cocottes (literally, hens) and “grand horizontals” of the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were the culmination in an evolution of women of dubious character. The grisette (a reference to her gray work dress) of the First Empire (1804 – 1814) and Bourbon Restoration (1814 – 1830) was a tenderhearted, good-natured young woman, toiling in the fashion trades, who formed a relationship—based on love and necessity—with a student, artist, or writer. The more venal lorette made her appearance during the July monarchy of the bourgeois king, Louis-Philippe (1830 – 1848), a time of rapid growth and industrialization in France. In 1841, the French writer Nestor Roqueplan applied the name lorette to the kept women who inhabited the newly developed area in the ninth arrondissement, around the parish church, Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. Unlike the grisette, the lorette did not work for a living; instead, she sold her favors and relied on liaisons (sometimes simultaneous) with men of substantial (though not lavish) means to support her.
The ostentatious lifestyle and moral corruption of the Second Empire produced la garde, as the group of about a dozen of the most flamboyant grandes cocottes was designated. In fact, the fête impérial, or imperial party, has been described both by those who lived through it as well as later historians as the heyday of the demimondaine. Napoleon III himself set the example; among his several mistresses were some of the era’s most celebrated courtesans: Marguerite Bellanger, the Countess Castiglione, and Giulia Benini, known as la Barucci.
The Belle Epoque, too, contributed its stars to the demimonde firmament. Liane de Pougy, Caroline Otero (“la Belle Otero”), and Emilienne d’Alençon, known as Les grandes trois, were the undisputed trio at the apex of the coterié of grand horizontals.
In his essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), the French poet Charles Baudelaire refers to the courtesan (and her alternate type, the actress) as “a creature of show, an object of public pleasure” (p. 36). And indeed the larger-than-life personae of these women not only inspired novels, plays, and paintings (themselves often controversial), but also provided regular fodder for gossip columns in the popular press. Their fabulous gowns, extravagant jewels, lavishly decorated mansions, superb horses and carriages, notable lovers, and outrageous exploits riveted the public’s attention. The avariciousness of the courtesans earned them the unflattering neologism of mangeuses (eaters—of men and fortunes). Throughout the period, social commentators and writers such as Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, and Walter Benjamin linked the courtesan (and prostitution in general) with the rise of capitalism, speculation, commodity exchange, and a culture of consumption, and deplored their degenerative influence on society.
The Courtesan and Fashion
As a signifier of modernity, fashion played an important part in nineteenth-century French society as a whole and for the courtesan in particular, for whom it was the primary vehicle by which she flaunted her power and challenged respectable women of the elite. The rules had changed since the eighteenth century when fashions were set by the court. Adopting a no-holds-barred attitude, the demimondaine used her enormous wealth and status as an outsider to wear the newest, most daring styles. Courtesans became the acknowledged leaders of fashion whose flashy ensembles were reported on, avidly studied, and often copied by upper- and middle-class women.
For the demimondaine, fashion operated on a number of levels. Many courtesans came from a background of poverty and obscurity. As the mistress of a wealthy man, having the means to dress in the height of fashion was surely a gratifying indulgence and a welcome source of attention. But fashion was also a weapon in the battle between the mondaine (society lady) and the demi-mondaine. In the somewhat fluid society of nineteenth-century France, clothing was an all-important tool in the creation of persona. Fashion was unquestionably women’s territory, and they were expected to take an active interest in its pursuit. Yet the society woman was confined by strictures of etiquette to maintain respectability in dress. The courtesan, on the other hand, was not bound by these same limitations. In fact, her conspicuous toilettes not only attested to her own originality in taste and sophisticated chic, they also reflected the wealth and generosity of her protector—in all likelihood, a married man. For the demimondaine, fashion was both socially and sexually empowering.
One of the most famous scenes in Emile Zola’s novel Nana (published in 1880 but set in the Second Empire) illustrates this usurpation of sartorial prestige and supremacy by the courtesan. At the height of her success, Nana attends the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp dressed in a strikingly avant-garde and brazenly seductive ensemble. As a courtesan, Nana is prohibited from entering the weighing-in enclosure. However, on the arm of one of her aristocratic lovers, she gains admission to this exclusive preserve, where she walks slowly past the stands in full view of the empress and the wife of another noble lover whom she will eventually ruin. Zola’s description of the dresses of the women in the enclosure is intentionally generalized; it is Nana’s splendid costume that merits close observation in details of cut and color.
The blurred boundaries between the monde (high society) and the demimonde were nowhere more evident than in the patronage of leading couturiers by courtesans and society women alike. Charles Frederick Worth, considered the father of haute couture, created opulent toilettes for Empress Eugénie and women of the imperial circle. But his other, equally famous clients included Cora Pearl, who counted among her lovers the duc de Morny and Prince Napoleon (respectively half-brother and cousin to Emperor Napoleon III) la Païva, and other demimondaines of the era. At least on one occasion, a socialite and a demimondaine found themselves waiting for a fitting with Worth. Apparently, the couturier gave precedence to the courtesan. At the turn of the twentieth century, Maison Worth as well as more recently established designers such as Jacques Doucet and Jeanne Paquin continued to dress both women of the upper ranks and courtesans and actresses.
The Urban Landscape
Paris of the Second Empire and Third Republic provided the appropriate setting for the demimonde and the courtesan. Under the direction of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Napoleon III’s prefect of the Seine, Paris was transformed from a still largely medieval city with insular neighborhoods of dark, winding streets to a modern metropolis with a more uniform architectural style, straight, broad boulevards, and public parks. In this new urban landscape, arenas of fashionable life multiplied. Already fixtures of the Parisian scene, theaters, restaurants, cafés, and dance halls proliferated, while newer venues such as the café-concerts (music halls) became popular toward the end of the century. In Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère drew large audiences from both the moneyed and the plebeian public.
Within Paris itself, the haunts—and breeding ground—of the demimonde were located on the Right Bank. Certain areas such as the Faubourg Saint-Honoré had been known for their luxury shops and hôtels particuliers since the eighteenth century. In the first half of the nineteenth century, other fashionable neighborhoods developed north of this older quarter, and by the second half of the century, the epicenter of “le high life” encompassed the Rue de la Paix, the Place Vendôme, the Rue Royale, the Boulevard des Italiens, and the Opera. The most renowned couturiers, jewelers, and silk and lingerie merchants all had their premises here. The well-known Théátre des Variétés, which figures in the opening scene of Nana, and legendary restaurants such as the Café Anglais, the Maison Dorée, and Maxim, the scenes of dazzling parties and amorous intrigue, were also located in this area.
Fashion was an integral part of the demimondaine’s public lifestyle and one that required a different toilette for each occasion. Morning, afternoon, and evening dress varied depending on the season and the venue. Carriage dress, appropriate for the obligatory afternoon ride along the Champs-Elysées to the Bois de Boulogne, was deliberately showy. The scene in Nana referred to above depicts the fashion contest that took place at Longchamp amid the wide cross-section of society that attended the annual Grand Prix. At theaters catering to an upper-class audience, high fashion was on display both on the stage, as worn by leading actresses, and in the private boxes, where courtesans in décolleté gowns presided in the company of their admirers. Demi-mondaines of the Second Empire also made their mark at public dance halls such as the Jardin de Mabille, an open-air garden in the Avenue Montaigne patronized as well by Princess Metternich (a Worth client) and members of the exclusive Jockey Club. Since they were constantly on view, it was imperative for leading courtesans to make the most of fashion opportunities in their daily social schedule.
The Demimonde Legacy
World War I brought to an end the rarified lifestyle of the Belle Époque and with it the phenomenon of the demimonde and courtesan. The social, economic, and cultural conditions that permitted the excesses of debauchery and squandering of fortunes were irreversibly changed. The demimondaines who lived beyond the war years were no longer the idolized, public figures they had been. In their old age, many returned to a life of economic deprivation and obscurity.
Nonetheless, the demimonde has left its legacy in the wider world of twentieth-century fashion and celebrity culture. Actresses and performers such as Josephine Baker, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, and Madonna have capitalized on their erotic appeal as a form of power and a significant aspect of their personae. Madonna in particular, in her collaboration with the French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, has explicitly challenged dress norms, exploiting the implications of both hyperfeminine and androgynous fashions. More than mere sex symbols, these women have an insolence and a flamboyance that derive from the example of the courtesan.
Popular culture of the past century has embraced different elements of the demimonde lifestyle, modes of behavior, and attitude toward fashion. Rock-and-roll musicians and their fans, for example, have carried on the tradition of social and sartorial rebellion and self-creation through clothing that defined the demimondaine. The discotheque and nightclub scene re-creates in a sense the ambiguous and socially mixed terrain of the demimonde with an undercurrent of dangerous glamour. The notoriously public lifestyle of celebrities in the early 2000s (film and sports stars, rock musicians, artists, socialites, and even royals), followed closely in the press, also mirrors that of the late nineteenth century. In these forms, the spirit of the demimonde continues to exert its influence.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1964.
Clayson, Hollis. Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art in the Impressionist Era. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.
Colette. Gigi; Julie de Carneilhan; Chance Acquaintances. Translated by Roger Senhouse and Patrick Leigh Fermor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.
Griffin, Susan. The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
Maneglier, Hervé. Paris impérial: La vie quotidienne sous le Second Empire. Paris: Armand Colin, 1990.
Rearick, Charles. The Pleasures of the Belle Époque: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.
Richardson, Joanna. The Courtesans: The Demi-Monde in Nineteenth-Century France. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing, 1967.
Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Zola, Emile. Nana. Translated by George Holden. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.