Napoleon’s wife to be, Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, was one of a small elite of remarkably gifted, charming and alluring young women around whom Parisian Society gathered at the close of the eighteenth century.
Out of the chaos of the Revolution and the Terror, French society slowly started to collect itself. A subculture of aristocratic and fashionable young people established themselves around the “salons” held by these women of means, charm and education. They provided the setting for a society of shared political allegiances, cultivated conversation, parties, balls and amorous dalliances. They attended the theatre and drew attention to themselves in public by adopting a supposed simplicity of dress – or as one wit described it “undress”.
A group of these women became known as “Les Merveilleuses” – literally, the Marvellous or Wonderful. They cultivated garments based on the almost transparent, body-revealing garments of Greek and Roman sculpture and even the Roman hairstyles of tumbling curly hair. The boldest of these women, Madame Hamelin, whose portrait by Andrea Appiani is in the Napoleon exhibition, notoriously appeared in public virtually naked beneath the flimsiest of muslin dresses, sometimes bare-breasted. The young widow Rose de la Pagerie, the Vicomtesse de Beauharnais, was less extreme in her dress than her friend Madame Hamelin – although no less alluring.
Many of Les Merveilleuses were friends or in various ways connected with and either married to or attached to well-to-do and powerful men. Their male counterparts were known as Les Incroyables (the Incredibles), and were the dandies of their age, adopting extravagantly expensive and decadent forms of fashion, and notably dispensing with wigs.
Initially the wearing of simple Greek and Roman-like garments served to reinforce Revolutionary rejection of the excesses of the Ancien Régime, and nakedness in art signalled purity, however the sheer garments of Les Merveilleuses – their simplicity notwithstanding – were decidedly erotic.