Editor : AllisonChan
Horror: La Terreur
I finished Histoire Passionee de la France midnight in Paris. Upon closing the book, I glided into my bed as if history had just tossed hundreds of pounds on my shoulder.
France is the country that pioneered citizen rights and legal rights, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu eternally anchored. Nevertheless, its democracy had not come easily. The Reign of Terror, shortly embarked after the French Revolution, was only an onset of wars between the “people” and the ruler. The Revolution was done in the name of the people, yet by essence it was a game of aristocrats. The Assemblee Nationale began the coup d’état; in a way, King Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine to bear the sins of the people. Shortly after, the widowed Queen Marie-Antoinette was charged of three crimes: high treason, tax money squandering, and mistreatment of her son – the young Louis XVII. The last accusation led the Queen in tears. Louis XVII had been abruptly taken away from the Queen. She had spent countless nights lingering next to the room of Louis XVII to feel his presence despite not being able to see his face. When the judges demanded her to respond on the last crime, she vehemently answered, “if I do not respond on this crime, it is because of the nature of a mother.” To the chagrin of humanity, all the ladies in the courtroom kept their mouths shut. Queen Marie-Antoinette was sentenced to the guillotine as the “enemy of the people”. She dressed up in a plain dress, walked up to the decapitate machine, and stationed her head on the guillotine. The guillotine blade raised high, then the people saw her head fallen, rolling on the ground.
Terrors built Paris, at least for rather a long time. Madame Lambert, the close friend of Marie-Antoinette, was hastily and cruelly killed. Her head was tied to an extended stick and flaunted around the city of Paris. Madame Bovary, the favourite concubine of King Louis XV, bore tears in her eyes and begged the executor to forgive her aged life, yet to no avail. Soon, her head fell onto the ground – eyes still staring to the cheering audience, as if she was still pondering on her past good life. Aristocrats, citizens, the accused, the accusing, have now become plain numbers on history books. 200,000? 100,000? The agony and horror of each individual disappeared in between lines.
200 years later, the guillotine centre Place de Concorde is a busy traffic circle where cars are always jammed and drivers always complaining about the jam. Concorde, meaning peace in French, has its name soaked by bloods and made by the weights of history.
I often passed Place de Concorde to go to the gym. Each time I looked at the soaring Obelisk of Luxor, I could not stop wondering how wars and revolutions had changed lives. Sometimes I recalled readings of Napoleon’s glorious Grand Army conquest. What I saw, however, was nothing grandiose, but the solace and solemnness as many once vividly lived men and women had lost their lives.
By the end of day, I returned to my bed thinking. Midnight in Grenelle, Rue de Suffren was lighted with modern lights; I could easily hear the honking down my window. A few hundred years ago, during the Reign of Terror, who had passed by under the same window?
Fashion: De Haute-Couture a Pret A Porter
Gabrielle Chanel was an orphan from suburbs. She was stubborn, weird, although talented. She adventurously stepped into the favourable world of the history and gave herself a colosseum empire of fashion. Tapped the right pulse of time torrent, she became Mademoiselle Coco Chanel.
When one talks about Paris, one can never neglect fashion. Haute-Couture was invented in the courts of Kings and Queens. The name has since become synonym of France.
On the building of luxury empires, Chanel is the woman to be mentioned, as she happened to be in the right place at the right time. History fuelled the success of Chanel. At a time when half of the population were in need of freedom, Chanel cut the corset and liberated the ladies.
People know about Chanel, but lesser known to the readers outside of fashion is Battle of Versailles, a vital fashion event that marked the success of American pret-a-porter, happening in the centre of century-old capital of French high fashion.
In 1973, the French and American curators and socialites held a grand fashion event to collect funds to refurbish the old Chateau Versailles. Built by the Sun King Louis XIV, lived by the beheaded Louis XVI, and turned into the office of Napoleon, Versailles has seen enough pivotal points of history. Just a few decades earlier, there was a stunning rise of five American rivals.
Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emmanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy, and Christian Dior, names still shake the industry today. They were the representatives of French creativity. From the fittings of the queens to the selection of vendeuses, the five designers were admired as the haute of haute couture. Relatively unknown, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Anne Klein, Bill Blass, and Oscar de la Renta, looked like a hastily assembled gang of cheap producers. At the event, French creme de la creme presented an ornate show to guests of Princess Grace of Monaco alike; the American designers brought on 11 Black models, at the time were ground-breaking, to represent their avant-garde art work. French designs were stunning, but the American ones were cheerful. After French ladies walked down the runway, the audience sat in sombre, for the heavenly pieces that were just presented. When the American Black ladies jotted on the runway, everybody was shocked first, for their unprecedented insouciance. Gradually, new music lit the bodies of the crowd; everybody began feeling that electrified vibrancy. After the models finished the show, crowd stood and clapped loudly for the creativity.
Fashion has changed since. In the 60s and 70s, democratisation happened in the form of civil movements and student protests. People needed further democratisation of clothes. The French liberal spirit was tested during the student protests in 1960s. In the United States, black movements continued to occupy attentions. Kennedy was assassinated a decade ago. As the Pulitzer-winning fashion writer Robin Givhan anchored, “If fashion is the costume of social tribes, society was at war.”
“And it was clear who was winning.”
While French Revolution was a blatant coup d’état by the elites, the revolutionary ideas took centuries to unfold. Ironically, French revolutionary ideas have inspired Americans to fight a war for independence. Hundreds of years later, Americans brought liberation to Parisian fashion.
The torment of history has washed Paris more than once; its vitality came from the changing face of its cultures. When Chanel opened that first boutique in Paris with her bizarrely boyish dresses, did she know that she was tapping the pulse of history?
Romance: Les Grands Amours de Parisiennes
Photo credit: https://yoyokulala.com/fashion/gabrielle-chanel-glossary
Before Gabriel became Coco Chanel, she had a grand lover called Boy Capel. Boy Capel was the real English gentleman that charmed the aristocratic world. Different from the cliché bourgeoisie men, he was a hipster. He was born to a wealthy family. However, he had cultures and hobbies. He played music, talked gently, mastered equestrian arts. He enthralled Gabriel. She made the famous jersey tweets inspired by the jackets he wore. Endowed with his money, Gabriel opened her first Chanel store at 21 Rue Cambon in Paris.
Articles, books, and movies were meticulously crafted to describe their relationship. Among these works, the film Coco Avant Chanel, played by the one-and-only Audrey Tautou as Chanel and Alessandro Nivola as Capel, captured combined details of history and contemporary imagination.
All the emotions are easily seen in the brown and stubborn eyes of Tautou, which are similar to the ones of Coco Chanel herself. A suburban orphan abandoned by her father, Gabriel had been a part-time singer, a mistress, the young lover of Capel, before becoming the Queen of Paris, Mademoiselle Coco Chanel.
When Capel and Chanel first met, their eyes locked despite the mere seconds they were allowed to interact with each other. In the sun-drenched horse stable, she was the lover of his friend, and he was too perfect to be true. A few more interactions pulled them closer. When a boy met a girl, it was ice and fire burned with desire. But when a soul met the other soul, there were millions of stars in their eyes. Capel and Chanel were lovers.
There are many love stories in this world. However, the grand love story became memorable only because of sorrows.
Boy Capel died of car accidents. Chanel chose to continue living after a long period of moaning. Her later beaux in the rest of her life included grand duke Dimitri of Russia and the duke of Westminster. However, there was only one young Boy Capel in this world. He left, with the most innocent part of her 20s, in her early phase of life – not replaceable, only memorable.
“Proud people breed sorrows for themselves.” Boy Capel said. The story since became the legend.
Parisian love is sad, filled with unfinished romance and insatiable emotions. L’Amant by Maguerite Duras is another one.
In L’Amant, the young French girl met the Chinese man 10 years of her elder. The story began with his gaze on her silhouette at the bank of Mekong River. He had a crush. He walked up to her, hands shaken, offering her a cigarette, which she took. She comprehended his desire; she seduced him. His desire, however, was accompanied by fears. Duras wrote, that was a man with hears. He was afraid of losing his inherited wealth, his arranged marriage to a Chinese woman, and the fate. To combat this fear, he made a lot of love. In sex, he delivered his desire and temporarily forgot his haunting pains. The desire grew the relationship, but the fear led to its demise.
Ultimately, Duras decided to leave during the Vietnam War. The Chinese man eventually married a Chinese woman, who was handpicked by his wealthy dad. When Duras departed by the cruise at the Mekong River, he came in his limousine. He dared not to come down and say goodbye. She stared at the currents that beat against her beloved land; she could not help but crying, tears sinking into the ocean, into nothing. He never left the limousine. His fear wasn’t the seemingly unassailable difference of cultural backgrounds, but the 10-year age difference. Backgrounds can be conquered by time, but time won’t.
Duras continued living her life. She published the autographic L’Amant, which made many young Parisiennes dream about and wail over an unreachable and exotic love. After decades, Duras picked up a call from the East. On the other side, he loved her all these years.
Paris is filled with wonders, and the sorrows when the wonders have bygone. It is a beautiful city, the city of lights, of romance, and of the wee heartbroken sentiments from the grand lovers, who have appeared and disappeared alongside of the Parisiennes.
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Zhu is a fashion and travel influencer based in New York. She talks about elegant styles and under-discovered cultures and sub-cultures in an elegant manner. Born in the East and educated in the West, she is most famous for her work on Middle East.