Old Master Paintings

Unbelievable Gentlemen and Marvelous Ladies

NEW YORK, NY -- With the French Revolution of 1789 and the abolition of the aristocracy, the dress and manners of the Old Regime came under attack. Simplicity in all matters of style was promoted in the name of the new Age of Reason. Thus, titles and honorifics, along with certain other courtesies of speech, were dropped. The silk knee-breeches (culottes) of the well-to-do were discouraged in favor of working-class trousers (pantalons), as a result of which the Revolutionaries came to be called sans-culottes -- that is, "without knee-breeches." Powdered wigs and high-polished shoes with silver buckles gave way to short hair and rough boots, which were worn with long leather coats to emulate English country dress -- parliamentary Great Britain being seen as more democratic than monarchical France.

Many men began to wear a conical soft hat of red fabric known as the bonnet rouge, or Phrygian cap, which was thought (erroneously) to have been worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. After the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, the Revolutionary cockade -- an ornamental knot of ribbons, at first red and blue and later in full tricolor -- worn on a hat or coat, became an almost essential item of dress. During the Reign of Terror (September 1793-July 1794), the last, bloody paroxysm of the Revolution, people were jailed or even executed for failing to wear the cockade.

After the horrific excesses of the Terror, there was a general relaxation of these strictures. With the establishment in 1795 of the Directoire, a five-man governing committee, rebellious Parisian youths began to appear on the streets in clothing deliberately intended to mock the Revolution's conventions of dress. These young men sported comically exaggerated versions of the English country style, with skin-tight, lavishly beribboned pants, extremely short vests, absurdly wide lapels, and bulky cravats wound so high on the neck that they covered the mouth. Many wore an improbable hairstyle with long side locks called "dog's ears," cut short in the back to expose the neck as if to the blade of the guillotine. The appearance of these renegade dandies was so outlandish that they were called Incroyables -- "Unbelievables" -- by their astonished countrymen.

The female companions of the Incroyables were equally eye-catching. Called Merveilleuses (Marvelous ladies), they scandalized Paris by wearing diaphanous dresses and tunics modeled after Greek and Roman costumes, in mockery of the Revolutionary devotion to Antique virtue. To these they added short curls copied from Roman busts, Greek-style open-toed sandals, and huge hats adorned with enormous bows. Some Merveilleuses defiantly wore blonde wigs, since these had been banned in Paris after the fall of the Bastille; other ladies wore wigs died blue or green.

In December 1796 the Parisian artist Carle Vernet published a series of engravings of Incroyables and Merveilleuses that were an instant hit. The two types were soon taken up and repeated as caricatures in newspaper articles, comic pamphlets and vaudeville plays. In the words of the fashion historian Elizabeth Amann, "To this day, the Incroyable and his female counterpart, the Merveilleuse, are familiar figures in France."(Dandyism in the Age of Revolution, Chicago, 2015, p. 11).

Old Master Paintings & Drawings

The drawing offered as Lot 53 in Doyle's sale of January 31, 2018 is another Frenchman's amusing view of the Incroyables'  flight of defiant fancy.


Portrait of specialist Elaine Banks Stainton
Senior Specialist, Paintings & Drawings
Old Master Paintings
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