Rough Diplomacy

Cutting Edge : French Revolution Bals des victimes

The Revolution and the Terror devastated French society, and then receded. In their place they left a weird, chaotic society with a very strange form of chic and an even stranger form of fashionable lady.

The French Revolution was kickstarted by food shortages, but political change failed to supply people with bread. Wars against foreign powers shrank the food supply and the supply of food producers as both were sent off to the army. People began standing in bread lines at midnight and rioting at dawn.

At one point, Parisians were regularly being torn apart by dogs.Paris had been one of the political hot-beds, where a single denunciation could lead to entire families being hauled off to be imprisoned, given a mass trial, and executed.

Many people kept dogs, and the most-likely targets of the Terror were rich and kept hunting dogs. When people died or fled, their dogs were released into the streets, where they starved, formed packs, and started looking for food. It got so dangerous that the government sent out soldiers to hunt down and kill the dog packs, and wagons to haul away the piles of bodies.

Gangs roamed the streets. At first they were pro-Revolutionary gangs who attacked the aristocratic, but as the balance of power shifted, they became gangs of anti-Revolutionaries who attacked the sans-culottes. The currency collapsed, and so people bartered, often with items they’d stolen from the houses of those who had been executed. Post-Terror, everything was still up in the air. No one knew what political system they would face tomorrow, but they still wanted to have a good time and look cool.

After the Bastille was torn apart by hand only seven people were alive inside, that is the key to the Bastille that Lafayette brought to George Washington

The coolest people in town were those who had just gotten out of prison. Most prisons were basically holding cells for the guillotine, and the best way to stay out of prison, if you were a target, was to inform on others. While not precisely a guarantee of good character, time spent in prison indicated that the prisoner hadn’t pointed the finger at anyone else.

Prisoners — although impoverished in the wake of the Revolution — also tended to be from the upper classes. Even penniless, and even after a supposed ideological shift, a duke was a duke. Jailbirds got invited to “victims salons” and “victims luncheons.” There, they were the only ones who were provided with food. (Parisians still had dinner parties, but the guests were expected to bring their own bread.)

Being a victim was more than a position, it was a fashion. In prison, women dressed in chemise, loose white gowns. In the streets, some fashionable women wore a victim-style dress around town. (It helped that the dress was often slightly diaphanous, and showed off a good figure.)

They wore red scarves, shawls, or ribbons around their necks, to symbolize the stroke of the guillotine. The post-Terror fashion also might be the first instance in Western society when short hair for women became intensely fashionable. Before an execution, the executioner hacked off a female victims’ long hair. He was rarely gentle about it, so female prisoners often cut their hair short, both so their scalp wouldn’t be cut on the day of their execution, and so they could try to make the haircut as flattering as possible. The style became fashionable, and women cut their hair short and wore a coiffure à la victime, coiffure à la guillotine, or coiffure à la Titus. (It was called the “Titus cut” because before the Terror, it was a fashionable cut for men, who wanted to imitate the bust of the Roman emperor.)

Most notoriously — and perhaps fictitiously — the “victim chic” resulted in “les bals des victimes.” These super-exclusive social events were said to include only ex-prisoners or the family members of the executed. Everyone wore the red ribbon, and bowed their heads as if they were being guillotined when they came in the ballroom.

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