A few facts about la Conciergerie…

Or, Spin-doctoring the French Way

When you visit la Conciergerie in Paris, which is the prison in which the French queen, Marie Antoinette, was held before her execution, you will read on the helpfully provided info-plaques that there were never more than 4000 prisoners held there.  And that the aristocrats imprisoned there didn’t have it bad at all…they were allowed to promenade together and receive letters and it was really quite a jolly place, is what you’ll be helped to conclude.

This will lead the naive you to assume that, hey, the Terror (1794-1796) must not have been quite so nasty, eh? 

Er…well…not quite. 

Because this is what they’re not telling you:  that at the beginning of 1789 there was only one prison in Paris which held perhaps nine prisoners.  By the end of the Terror in 1796, there were over sixty prisons in Paris (all full to capacity) and there was only one sentence meted out–death. 

Nor are they telling you that there wasn’t just one guillotine in Paris, serving all of France, in what in now Place de la Concorde.  There were guillotines set up in all larger cities and towns throughout the country. 

It is now estimated that at least 45,000 people met their death in Paris under the blade of Mme la Guillotine.  And that doesn’t take into account the numbers executed in the provinces. 

And despite the mythology promulgated by the likes of Baroness d’Orzy, it wasn’t just aristocrats either. 

They account for less than 17% of those executed.  The remainder was made of of the clergy–who suffered disproportionately.  (Belief in God was deemed counter-revolutionary and therefore was a criminal act.)  But mostly, it was ordinary people–men, women and children–denounced by their neighbours as being against la Revolution–perhaps for reasons so petty as they found it difficult to adjust to the ten-day week or they didn’t use the new Revolutionary names of the months and seasons. 

So the next time you read one of these cheerfully worded plaques–the interesting question isn’t what are they telling you?  It’s what they’re not telling you.

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What’s a fall front, you ask…

It seems only fair that since I’ve given such a full and frank appraisal of a gentleman’s clothes, circa 1812, I ought to offer the same care and attention to the ladies…

Just to be fair, you understand. 

So, the first thing I should tell you is leave all those pre-conceptions behind.  For many of them weren’t constructed as we think women’s gowns were…with fastenings at the back. 

So, how did they work? 

Imagine if you will that the top of the gown is like a short-waisted jacket–almost like, what are they called, ah yes, a shrug or bolero– into which you would slip your arms.  (This is for the ladies in the audience…)

Then the attached skirt was gathered on a tape or ribbon which was tied at the front.  Then the front of the gown, attached as it was to the front bodice, was buttoned, tied, or pinned in place over the bosom, probably at four points–two on each side, one just below the shoulder at the top of the neckline, and at the waist on either side.  When these were unfastened, obviously the bodice front would fall–hence fall front. 

Underneath, yes, the corset.  Not the boardlike flattening corsets of 30 years previous.  No, these were designed to make the most of a woman’s charms by pushing up the breasts so that they (here’s that classical reference stuff again) resembled the improbably high bosoms of ancient Greek godesses as seen on all the statues.  In their results, if not their construction, Regency corsets were not dissimilar from today’s push-up bras.

Underneath that, a shift.  I fancy this would protect this tender skin from any biting or pinching that a tight corset might get up to… Be that as it may, it was a looseish, often white, sometimes pale pink or beige, slightly gathered about the neck slip which came down often as far as the knees, or longer.  It might be made of cotton lawn, linen or silk.

The pale pink or the pale beige silk was designed to create the impression that the woman was wearing nothing at all under her gown. 

And, for those who wish to know, yes, dampening one’s petticoat, as Lady Caroline Lamb and others were said to have done, would cause the silk to cling to her waist and thighs so that everything was on show. 

Stockings were worn, held up with garters tied about the thigh.  Fancy garters were de rigeur if one was expecting to waltz. 

And finally, colour.  Much is made of the fact that they wore a great deal of white or pale-coloured muslin. 

The fashion for white muslin goes back at least as far as Marie Antoinette in France.  She and her ladies in waiting were known to wear simple white muslin gowns as they played at being milkmaids at le Petit Trianon at Versailles.  And the fashion continued well into the early years of the 19th century.  There was as mentioned above the desire to resemble classical Greek statuary and for their gowns to recreate the image of the classical draperies found on such statuary. 

But white muslin also has the benefit of sending a clear financial message to the on-lookers.   For the very nature of the fabric meant that it could not be laundered frequently and survive–hence the wearer could afford to replace her clothes as often as she chose.  And, those pale colours soiled easily, and required frequent washing–so the wearer could afford the luxury of a laundrymaid. 

And now you know…

And for those of you who may wonder, why do I know such stuff?  Well, it’s what my characters (male or female) would have known, so I must know it too, don’t you see?