London got quite a shock in 1802 when the famous Madame Récamier crossed the English Channel for a visit. With one garden stroll, she turned heads and transformed women's fashion.
In a moment I’ll describe how Madame Récamier rattled the beau monde. But first, here’s a little of her backstory:
By the early 19th century Juliette Récamier was already a much-admired society hostess in Paris. Born in Lyon in 1777, in 1793 at the tender age of 15 she married Jacques-Rose Récamier, a banker almost 30 years her senior. (Récamier was related to renowned gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who is credited with being one of the world’s first food writers.)
By most accounts, Juliette and Jacques had a happy marriage despite their age difference and the fact that it was apparently a completely platonic union. That may have been because, according to many sources, Jacques was actually Juliette’s father. It’s believed he married his illegitimate daughter to make her his heir.
|Movie poster for 1928 French silent film|
I suspect the French Revolution may also have had something to do with Récamier’s decision to ensure the safety of his daughter, if indeed that's what she was, through marriage. After all, 1793 was the year the King and Queen of France were guillotined and the Reign of Terror was at its height. No one was safe from the violence of the mob.
The young Madame Récamier quickly attracted attention in Parisian society. In his book, The World in 1800, Olivier Bernier describes her as a beauty, a good listener, and a woman of great charm.
She dressed in simple muslin gowns, often went barefoot, and wore no jewelry. Even without adornments, Bernier claims, she still outshone her peers. She was known as a woman of virtue, remaining faithful to her husband, which was unusual for fashionable women at that time. Also unusual, says Bernier, was that she had female friends as well as male admirers.
|Juliette in the outfit that shocked London |
by Richard Cosway
Madame Récamier used her talents to establish a popular salon at her home in Paris. She drew the literary and political celebrities of the day to her drawing room, people such as Napoleon and his brothers and François René Chateaubriand.
(Chateaubriand was a member of the endangered noble class in France, a Vicomte. He traveled to North America to escape the French Revolution and also spent years in exile in England. He was a noted author and later in life a diplomat. All of which is to say that he’s famous for more than just a cut of beef, which is what often gets associated with his name.)
Juliette’s fame as a hostess lasted from the days of the French Consulate in the late 1790s almost until the end of July Monarchy, the period in which the Bourbon kings were temporarily restored to power in France. Her contemporaries said that she kept her salon, along with her charm and attractiveness, into her old age. She died in 1849.
But back to her scandalous London visit: during the brief peace between England and France in 1802, Madame Récamier came to England where she proceeded to dazzle and shock the ton by wearing clothing that was on the cutting edge, even in Paris. She showed up at Kensington Gardens wearing a simple, body-hugging gown made of very thin white muslin, which displayed a generous amount of her cleavage.
|Bust of Juliette by Joseph Chinard|
Her hair was arranged in tight ringlets which were rather greasy, at least according to the account of an eye-witness, the Countess of Brownlow. (Although her report may have been colored by envy.) These curls were clustered around Juliette's face and accompanied by a long braid down her back.
In addition, to her shocking attire, Juliette’s head was covered with a long veil, another unconventional clothing choice.
In short, Madame Récamier was an eye-catching sight that day, with many observers staring at her or even following her through the gardens. It would be as if Lady Gaga showed up in one of her notorious outfits (like her meat dress) at Disneyland.
Fashionable London society decried Madame Récamier’s immodest mode of dress, and then, of course, set about copying her.
Besides helping to popularize the fashion for simple white muslin gowns, which became an iconic Regency style, Madame Récamier also popularized a type of furniture. She was fond of reclining on a chaise longue that was similar to a day bed but intended for the drawing room. This style of sofa now bears her name and is known as a récamier.
|Jacques-Louis David's unfinished portrait of Juliette, 1800|
For someone who was so influential during the Regency era and beyond, Madame Récamier is little known today, although you might see her character in the cast of a film about Napoleon. There were also a couple of silent films made about her in the 1920s, one in Germany and one in France.
And, of course, there is the récamier sofa, a version of which many people may have in their homes without knowing its origins.
That’s something—even Napoleon doesn’t have a sofa named after him!
If you’re interested in her hairstyle and want to try and recreate it for yourself, here’s a step-by-step tutorial:
Sources for this post include:
The Regency Companion, by Sharon H. Laudermilk and Teresa L. Hamlin, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York and London, 1989.
The World in 1800, by Olivier Bernier, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, 2000
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons