I have a book called The History of Fashion in France, or The dress of women from the Gallo-Roman period to the present time, from the French of M. Augustin Challamel by Mrs. Cashel Hoey and Mr. John Lillie.

The Present Time, by the way, for the purposes of this book is 1882. I bought it because the plates are intact and really pretty.

Now, the first thing I find interesting is that this doesn’t say translated by so really, you can read this as stolen from M. Challamel because, come on, he wrote the book (in French) and Mrs. Hoey and Mr. Lillie translated it, right?

Well, whatever. Let’s gloss over the fact that I own an apparently pirated PRINT book and get right into some interesting stuff.

From Chapter 1, the very first paragraph:

We learn with horror from ancient writers that certain women of Gaul were accustomed to dye their skin with a whitish matter, procured from the leaves of the woad or pastel, a cruciform plant from which is derived a starchy substance, that may be substituted for indigo for certain purposes. Others were tattooed in almost the same manner as the savages of America.

So, Gaulish women dyed themselves blue. Or had tats. To my vast regret there are no pictures of the tats. I wonder which savages of America they mean? Anyway, obviously these women kicked ass and took names while they were doing it: (not that!, sheesh you have dirty minds, you know that?)

But then time passed. . . and France began to practice industry . . .

The cleanliness of the Gallic women, which has been praised by historians, added another charm to their unrivaled natural beauty. No Gallic woman, whatever her rank, would have consented or even ventured to wear dirty, untidy, or torn garments; nor did any one of them fail to frequent the baths which were established everywhere, even in the very poorest localities. The Gallo-Roman woman was admired for her fair complexion, her tall and elegant figure, her beautiful features; and she neglected nothing that might tend to procure her that homage. Cold bathing, unguents for the face and often the entire body were to her a delight, a duty, and a necessity.

Are you seeing the same image I am? Happy peasant women skipping through the fields (watch out for the cow pies!) humming and perhaps even trilling out loud, their clothes pristine and put together with that certain Je ne sais quois.

Honey, mon amour, I cannot feed the children or milk the cows until have I spent three hours with the cold bath and applying unguents. Tra-la-la-la!

And really a COLD BATH? Are you freaking insane? I think that’s the work of Mr. Lillie. He made that up. No woman would actually take a cold bath without ending up kicking some ass.

Anyway, on to Chapter XXL – Reign of Napoleon I, because that is our period here at the Riskies.

Under the Empire, which was proclaimed in 1804, the fashion of short waists continued in favour, and even developed into extra-ordinary results. The fair sex adopted “sack” dresses, with the waist close under the arms, and the bosom pushed up to the chin. This was far from graceful, and a woman needed to be perfectly beautiful to look well in such a costume.

Gold, precious stones, and diamonds were lavishly used. Numerous balls were given, and official receptions held, and the dress of the women was handsome, nay, even magnificent. Unfortunately, it was chiefly remarkable for its bad taste. A French-woman seemed to have attained the height of glory when it could be said of her: “Voila une personne cossue!”
[There’s a warm, substantial person.]

However, I question the accuracy of the translation. I believe it should be Here is a well-to-do person. But whatever.

Handsome, magnificent gowns in bad taste. Is that awesome or what?

I particularly admire the glib description of Napoleonic extravagance that sounds like someone grabbed their fifth grader’s report and cribbed at will (Mrs. Hoey? Was that you?) but then someone brilliant added the thing about bad taste.

So, pretend you’re a French lady (or better yet, an English Miss, pretending to be a French lady) and you’re at a ball or official reception.

What are you wearing?

Extra credit if it barely hides your tattoo.