Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tutti-Fruitti Georgian Beauty


The great French illustrator George Barbier is best known for his wonderful haute couture fashion illustrations of the 1920s through his collaboration with such ‘20s luminaries as Ertè, with whom he designed sets and costumes for the Folies Bergère. Barbier was born in the French seaport city of Nantes in 1882, and it is supposed that the city’s baroque and rococo architecture and its art museums housing works by that archetypal Eighteenth Century painter Antoine Watteau influenced young George’s aesthetic sensibilities. He rose to prominence at age 29 with his first exhibition and was thereafter given commissions to design ballet and theater costumes, illustrate books, and provide fashion illustrations for various magazines and journals. Barbier even designed sumptuous movie costumes, possibly his most famous being for the silent film with an Eighteenth Century French setting (but very much filtered through the lens of a 1920s sensibility) Monsieur Beaucair starring acting legend and heartthrob Rudolph Valentino in the lead role.

It is Barbier’s whimsical and tutti-fruitti (think tri-pastel colored ice cream) vignettes of pre- revolutionary Eighteenth Century French high society, in drawings and costume design, to which I am drawn and to which I turn for inspiration when creating particularly flamboyant characters such as the self-important Versailles courtier the Comte de Salvan in NOBLE SATYR or the vainly beautiful but thoroughly repellant Diana Lady St. John in SALT BRIDE. These characters have the outward appearance and rich trappings of their class in dress, style and mannerisms. To the outside world and to the members of their own order they display themselves to perfection while beneath the froth of lace, powdered beribboned hair and exquisite silks and velvets there is a thoroughly self-centered and unprincipled individual who will do whatever it takes to win, even murder.

Looking at Barbier’s tutti-fruitti illustrations you are immediately struck by their flamboyance and theatricality. Historical accuracy is not the point. Mood and atmosphere is everything. And Barbier does a wonderful job at evoking the sense of extravagance, pleasure-seeking and strike-a-pose mentality of the French aristocracy before the French Revolution. We are drawn to the billowing soft silk gowns, pretty feminine faces under outrageous hairdos, the wide skirts and intricate patterns of the male frockcoat, and of course the quintessential accoutrements of the fop and the hostess, clocked stockings, powdered hair and fluttering fan.

Think of Eighteenth Century French society as akin to a good beer (or cappuccino!) with a nice head of froth; the Aristocracy was that froth, the light-as-air top layer lacking substance and when gently prodded reveals a darker and much murkier depth and the reality of life for the majority of society at that time: hard, short and despotic, with poverty so ingrained that a life of choice and opportunity was the stuff of wildest fantasy. Okay, forget the beer analogy—not a very satisfying drink after all. But...

We do love the froth! Eighteenth Century French society just isn’t the same without the frolicking foibles and frothy fashions of its elite.

And they don’t come much frothier than Barbier’s stylized illustrations of the French aristocracy. Yet, if you linger over these whimsical drawings, look beyond the exuberant playfulness, and dare to peel away an embroidered frockcoat or two, you discover the unprincipled individual! Often, Barbier does not even hide what he wants you to discover, such as in the illustration entitled Chut! (Adultery). A young married couple embraces on a stone bench in a park and there in the foliage awaits the wife’s lover to whom she is passing a note, unbeknownst to her husband, under the watchful eye of a grinning goat-horned Bacchanalian male statue—surely a reference to the fact the young husband is being cuckolded.

What about the illustration Hé...! Eh...? (The Lace Maker). A pretty young thing is admired by a pompous gentleman, fat fingers under her chin, his cane, corpulence and rouge proclaiming the old roué. That she has her petticoats up to her knees showing off her stockinged legs is scandalous—not so much as a calf was glimpsed of a virtuous female’s leg—which perhaps suggests the mercenary and practical nature of the young lace maker. Taking the old roué as a lover would surely free her from the drudgery and mundanity of her existence and propel her to a life of luxury and idleness those not belonging to the aristocracy could only dream about.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that George Barbier was commissioned to illustrate an early (and now extremely valuable) 1930s two-volume edition of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses: The story of two aristocratic rivals, ex-lovers locked in a game of sexual one-upmanship who use sex as a means to humiliate and ruin others. Viewed individually and without the epistolary novel’s commentary Barbier’s illustrations are titillating pieces of eighteenth century theatrical fluff but put in context, the drawings become intriguing, the tutti-fruitti evocation slightly sinister knowing the fates of the Marquise de Merteuil, Madame de Tourvel and the Vicomte de Valmont.

So next time you stop to admire one of George Barbier’s Eighteenth Century flights of fancy, take a minute longer to look beyond the obvious. You may be surprised by what you discover!

  1. George Barbier in Wikipedia
  2. George Barbier Rediscovered by Roderick Conway Morris, International Herald Tribune
  3. Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia
  4. The Fashion Historian


  1. How refreshing, all that! What a nice change of pace from towers and hunting. This blog is blessed with great variety. Thank you all.

  2. Very Funny Debra...but while the men were out On the Hunt, the English Ladies were trying on all their latest Parisian sherbert colored frocks, and I am sure there was some plotting and scheming...what a great article, Non!

  3. I wish I could invisibly steal back in time and hang out among the idle rich. Thank you for sharing this piece of history. I think it amazing that you were able to actually provide so many illustrations. Thanks, Lucinda, I will look forward to reading your books.

  4. I'm with Wanda. If I could go back in time and see all, smell and touch, it would be wonderful, as long as I could return for a good bath and a change of clothes. Also, it's very clear France never underwent the Puritan influence. Now, that is refreshing!

  5. Thanks to Lucinda Brant, Georgian Historical Romance and Crimance author, for sharing these delightful revisionist images from the great French illustrator George Barbier.

  6. You would have to be rich and idle to achieve that appearance. It must have taken hours even for the men.

    Love your Georgian Historical Fiction btw, Lucinda.

  7. One of the first illustrations, showing the entire conical bodice, captures the message: the lady's torso is shaped like a cornucopia -- the point at the groin, the mouth disgorging a display of luscious bosom. And that form wasn't just Barbier's fantasy. What does current fashion say of our own culture?

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  9. Hello everyone!
    I'm with Wanda and Katherine P wanting to go back in time to have a five senses experience of the 18thCentury but I would need to teleport back here for a daily shower.
    Thanks, Sophia! So glad you enjoy my Georgian world!
    And yes, it would have taken them hours to dress and was all part of their daily ritual to receive guests while at their dressing table being prepared for the day.
    Thanks, Teresa!
    Katherine A, yes, you are so right about the 18thC bodice.
    Apologies for the late replies, I'm on Southern Hemisphere time and it is now Sunday morning. Enjoy your Saturday night!

  10. Thanks for stopping by Debra and aqualilylol! (Apologies for leaving you out of my previous post - it pays to scroll all the way to the top!)
    And for posting at what must have been a very late hour up north.
    How very 18thCentury aristocrat of you to be up in the midnight hours - showing off you have candlewax to burn!

  11. And indeed, mine is beeswax and not tallow. But without servants, how could I get it all done before the clock strikes twelve? I am grateful for bees.

  12. Debra - beeswax every time! It doesn't smoke or drip and great polish for furniture, too (so the servants would tell me if I had some!).
    And thanks for stopping by, Maggi. As a fellow Georgian I thought you would appreciate Barbier's 18thCent creations. Although Bebe Daniels' hairdo in Monsieur Beaucaire is just so wrong but not Barbier's fault. : - )

  13. I'm with Wanda Luce who commented earlier. It has always been a fantasy of mine to go back in time and be a fly on the wall watching how people interacted both above and below stairs. To be able to observe a fancy dinner, a ball and even how the maids and cooks do their jobs would be so much fun. This is precisely why I love reading historical romance novels. Thanks for helping me realize my fantasy at least in books! :-)

  14. The world of beauty never ceases to amaze. Thank you , Lucinda.

  15. A gorgeously refreshing and highly enjoyable.
    thank you,
    Grace x

  16. Connie, Regina and Grace, so pleased you enjoyed my post on the gorgeous 18th century world of George Barbier! I always find plenty of inspiration in his wonderful illustrations. :- )

  17. Give me Eighteenth Century froth, and lots of it, with plenty of lace, and the occasional glimpse of ankle any day! Thanks for the article, Lucinda, fascinating!.

  18. Thanks, Mike. I'm with you! Love the froth and lace, and while you're checking out a pretty ankle, it's those mucho muscular male calf muscles for me!

  19. I particularly like your phrase, "strike-a-pose mentality." Well said! Wonderful illustrations, and I wonder if we're not living in another "strike-a-pose" age.

  20. Thanks for stopping by, Grace. You may well be right re living in a "strike-a-pose" age today, beginning possibly in the flamboyant 1980s. I've also encountered in the 21st Century a "Strike-a-pose-like-a-celebrity" mentality, particularly amongst teenage girls (going on my personal observations as a high-school teacher) which is reminiscent of the hey-day of Marie-Antoinette when every "young thing" followed what the French Queen wore, from hairstyle to shoe color!


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