Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

Of course our mothers always told us that beauty is as beauty does meaning, as I understand it, that truly beautiful people are kind, humane and generous.  But we are not the only culture that has taken its beauty and fashion cues from people who may have been labeled by some in society - moralists, perhaps - as less than beautiful.  Consider, as an example, the high flying career of 19th century Parisian courtesan Cora Pearl.

Born Emma Elizabeth Crouch to a Plymouth, England music teacher of Irish ancestry and his seamstress wife, the future Cora Pearl was precocious from the start.  So much so in fact that, when her father left the family to find his fortune in the U.S., Mrs Crouch sent 12 year old Emma off to a convent school in Boulogne, France.  Though she never learned to speak the language with any elan, Emma got a taste for life in France and had no desire to leave it.  After returning to England and, according to her autobiography, being unceremoniously deflowered by a Covent Garden cad, she hooked up with a rich supporter who took her on holiday to Paris.  When her wealthy lover left, she stayed.

Changing her name to Cora Pearl ("more chic," she would later remark), she embarked on a path that would lead her to be a fashion icon for not only other demimondaines, but wealthy, respectable women as well.

Understanding that she needed to spend money to make money, Cora acquired a small wardrobe of the most beautiful and expensive kind.  Her gowns - all two of them at first - came from the famous couturier Frederick Worth.  She bought jewels as well; a sparkling topaz necklace with matching earrings and a set of coral bracelets.  Soon enough she would graduate to much more splendid decoration.

As the Comte de Maugny would later write, Cora had "plenty of system."  She knew how to draw attention to herself, and then encouraged men to vie for her affection by informing one lover of another's extravagant gifts.  This would bring yet more excess her way and so, as Joanna Richardson remarks in her fascinating book on the 19th century demimonde in Paris The Courtesans, the gifts would tumble into Cora's lap ad infinitum.

Soon enough, Cora Pearl was not only queen of the grande cocottes, she was the queen of Paris fashion.  Her caleche, which she drove herself on mandatory afternoon rides around the Bois de Bologne, was enameled in sky-blue with silver accents.  The interior upholstery was buttery, lemon-yellow satin and the horses - animals she probably loved more than any human - were four perfectly matched fillies, the color of cafe-au-lait.  According to Philibert Audebrand:

By unanimous consent she became, for twenty-five years, the prototype of the modern courtesan.  By 1852, Cora Pearl set the tone for that world of gallantry who eccentricities always ended by leaving their mark on the real world.

Cora owned a stable full of the best horses, three mansions and an endless supply of gowns, shoes and jewels.  She was remarked upon for her unique style, both about her person and her homes.  Her bathroom at 101 Rue de Chaillot, the mansion purchased for her by Prince Napoleon (Napoleon III's brother) was made entirely of pink marble with her initials in gold inlaid on floor and tub.  She gave lavish supper parties, strewing expensive flowers such as orchids on the even more expensive carpets.  Her language was sometimes coarse; her self-censoring switch seemed non-existent.

She wore the tightest corsets to accentuate what even her rivals noted as "the most perfect bust."  Over these she donned remarkable gowns, in colors that were not usually seen during the third Empire. La Vie Parisienne described one such in the 1860s:

A pink satin dress, with a kind of mauve gauze flounce on the hem of the skirt, over which was some blond-lace sprinkled with white bugles.  A gathered, decollete bodice, with two little mauve flounces all around.  A loose belt, with four mauve gauze streamers, sewn with pearls.

Unwilling to be second guessed on her fashion choices, she notoriously took a riding crop to a ten year old girl who laughed at her gown and pelisse in the Bois.  Richardson notes that "she was heavily fined for the offense."

Cora also introduced the use of modern makeup to the Parisian milieu and, yet more strikingly, hair dye.  Her naturally auburn locks could turn up any color on any given occasion.  La Vie reported that her hair had been dyed "the perfect mauve" to match the gown they described.  On other occasions, her locks were the same lemon-yellow as the satin upholstery of her caleche.

Her most extravagant wardrobe choices tended toward jewels, however, and for Cora diamonds were a girl's best friend.  Appearing in deshabille as Cupid on the Paris stage for a one-night-only performance that saw most if not all of her wealthy supporters attending, she quite literally dripped with diamonds if very little else.  At one point, Cora "threw herself flat on her back and flung her legs up in the air to show the soles of her shoes that were one mass of diamonds," according to William Osgood Field.  When she left the stage, Cora dropped another set of diamonds.  She left these where they lay, for her maid to pick up.

Of course the days of wine and roses could not last.  After an unfortunate scandal in which a young lover shot himself in her Rue de Chaillot home, she was exiled from the country.  Although she later returned, she never regained the elite status she had once known.  Cora Pearl published her autobiography in 1886 and died of intestinal cancer four months later.

Her legacy, however, contained both kinds of beauty, at least to some degree.  During the siege of Paris in 1870, she opened up her home as a hospital.  She nursed the wounded and dying herself and, as Richardson points out: "Her fine linen sheets were used for shrouds, and she herself paid all expenses."  More than a gesture, by any means.

Header: Cora Pearl photographed by Granger in the late 1850s via Fine Art America


Timmy! said...

Interesting story, Pauline. Has there ever been a movie about her? If not, it seems like her story would make for a fun film, in a "Dangerous Liaisons" sort of way...

Pauline said...

She's one of my favorite "scandalous women", so to say. A movie about her - as long as it didn't go as far afield as say "The Raven" did with Poe - would be an amazing gift. The costumes alone would be dazzling!

Prince of Pinkness said...

Pink marble, course language and scandal in 19th century Paris. It can only mean one thing: past life!

What really confirms it is the part where, Cora "threw herself flat on her back and flung her legs up in the air to show the soles of her shoes that were one mass of diamonds."

I absolutely love this story about the life of Cora Pearl.

Pauline said...

I'd call that the real deal. What a delight for me to have Cora as a friend :)