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The unbelievable exaggeration: Incroyables and Merveilleuses

Emerged in Paris in 1794 during the period of the French Directory, which followed the execution of Robespierre, the Incroyables formed a new social group among the aristocracy, setting themselves aside through to their flamboyant fashionability.

The term ‘Incroyables’ means ‘incredibles’, while their female counterparts were the Merveilleuses, roughly the equivalent of “fabulous divas”. Affected by the Reign of Terror and in a need to reconnect with other survivors, they launched an outbreak of luxury, decadence and even silliness, introducing exaggerated fashion trends in clothing and overall style mannerisms. The desire to break up with the regrettable events connected to the Revolution was so strong that some devotees of the trend preferred to be called ‘incoyable’ or ‘meveilleuse’, thus avoiding the letter R, as in ‘révolution’.

Colored engraving with the image of a man in the dress of a 'Incroyable'. 1850/1900. Courtesy of ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen. All rights reserved

The members of this group were young, the political product of an explosive time in history. They basically made their statement by dressing in outlandish fashions that mocked the luxurious styles worn in the court of King Louis XVI. The Incroyables wore eccentric outfits with large earrings, wide trousers, huge neckties, thick glasses, hats topped by so-called ‘dog ears’ and large monocles. The Merveilleuses instead exaggerated the Greek style and its neoclassical revival, wearing loose gowns made of almost transparent sheer fabric. The gowns displayed cleavage and were too tight to allow pockets. With this ‘naked’ look they used to match small bags, enormous hats, short curls like those on Roman busts, and Greek-style sandals.

Caricature from the General European Journal. 1979. Courtesy of Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. CC BY NC SA

Everything in their appearance was a comic exaggeration, which came out as an undertaken rebellion against the serious and repressed atmosphere. Their style and attitude made them look like lavish and ridiculous caricatures of the nobility before the revolution. They frequently faked a lisp, took up a stooped hunchbacked posture and used postiches as fake disfigurements. The Incroyables arrived also at pulling up their hair in the back with a comb to imitate the hairstyles of the condemned. The Marvalleuses used to have shaved heads under their blonde, black, blue or green wigs, which had been banned by the Paris Commune. The both of them wore large amounts of heavy musk perfume, which led some to call them “muscadins”.

This strange and ‘unbelievable’ trend ended at the beginning of the 1800s, when Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power: society took a more sober and modest turn, while discouraging any kind of opposition, above all the stylistic ones, conflicting with the view of the emperor.

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