“La Parisienne”, a myth since beautiful lorette

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The Parisian stands out for its “Organic link to fashion and clothing” and by his way of being in the world. Identified by Rousseau in the New Heloise, it owes its existence to the displacement of the court of Versailles to the capital, effect of the Revolution. Notwithstanding, it is not limited to this figure; proof of this is the international reputation of the suggestive exclamation “Ah, the little women of Paris!” inseparable from Parisian life since Offenbach and reactivated in 1965 by the sensual voice of another myth, Brigitte Bardot, and Jeanne Moreau. The Parisian woman is constantly colored with a distinguished or vulgar seduction, with a plural eroticization, “Between chic and doggy”, thus occupying a broad social spectrum.

Armed with this observation, the historian Emmanuelle Retaillaud questions a vast corpus of sources to grasp the historicity of the Parisienne, in a “Back and forth between the real and the imaginary”, an essentially male production. Rooted in the moving history of the capital, the Parisian is the mirror and also irrigates provincial mentalities. So it becomes an unavoidable myth, “Modern”, “that is to say desecrated, accessible, coveted by all”.


After the revolutionary torments which caricature her, because she is rebellious, furious with the guillotine or in the Amazon, the Restoration wants her heir to an aristocratic ideal; but it is the writers who shape it best. In 1841, the Physiology of the Parisian de Delord names her “Myth, fiction, symbol”. Being of paper, it immediately presents a double face: grisette for some, paragon of distinction for others; however, the romantic ideal does not release it from its reputation for immorality which makes the success of “Lionesses” and lorettes. All are “Fruits of the big city” : the exponential growth of the capital imposes the Parisian, at a time when its natives are scarce; it soon merges with the City of Light when “The Parisian is not weighted with the same symbolic weight”.

This enhancement of the feminine is part of the bourgeois strategy of appearances, a game of dupes denounced in the 1840s by Delphine de Girardin: if this Parisian increases the value of her sex, she made her lose power. Emmanuelle Retaillaud even believes that “The cultural enhancement of the Parisian woman is linked to the political and civic inferiority of women” ; she participates in the “degradation” of its integration into the public sphere and that of its influence. However, the Parisian fascinates; so she shines in the heart of “Imperial holiday”, diamond essential to the brilliance of the capital, now inseparable from cosmopolitanism. But his identity is more “Scabrous” : the “Cocodette”, “sassy and somewhat fierce woman of the world“, is the hidden version of the “Casserole” who takes advantage of the dissolved customs of a society, however “Corseted by moral and religious principles”. Read as a symptom of the decadence of the regime and its supporters, this nonsense was politicized in the 1860s by the Republicans, while a “Féminolâtrie” which carries a version of the “Woman-object”. This model does not stand up to the communist episode: praised by the commons, the “True and valiant Parisian” comes from the people and manifests, but its enemies transform it into petroleum, hideous, violent, “Radical inversion of the elegant and civilized Parisian of the elites”.


The decade 1880 gives back to the Parisian, in a republicanized version, all its superb. She then knew her Belle Epoque, immortalized by writers, painters, the press, the typical events of the capital and their prolongation in spas and seaside resorts. Haute couture refines Parisian chic, discreet refinement, and actresses – Sarah Bernhardt “The epitome of the Parisian” – compete with “dog”, made of elegance and sensuality. But mass culture upsets the representations: the Parisian spectators of the Opera are just as much Parisian as those of the people of the Moulin Rouge, the icon of the time 1900 (the dancer Cléo de Mérode with angelic features) than the popular La Goulue , the middle-class consumers of the department stores that the midinette of the workshops of manufacture and all the Parigotes with the so recognizable accent.

Without doubt, the Parisian has never been so diffracted, at the very moment when a “New woman”, educated, sporty, often feminist, which complements it and competes with it. the XXe century proves the plasticity of this myth: from the boyish of the 20s to the actresses of the New Wave, through the Parisian new look of the 50s, to lead to the version of Inès de La Fressange, the Parisian adapts, retaining its fundamentals, part of its ambiguity, probably an expression of “Inequality of female or male destinies”, but maybe also from“A form of emancipation and agency”.

Yannick Ripa

Emmanuelle Retaillaud The Parisian. Story of a myth From the Age of Enlightenment to the present day Threshold, 432 pp., € 23.



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