Jun 12, 2018

Of Corset: La Miche Gavotte


The tortured history of French dresses is, let's face it, mostly tortured because of the corset. However, it's also partly due to the paniers -- those enormous hips created under the ball gowns -- as well as the bustles behind. And yet, no matter how god-awful they must have been to wear, my girls and I continue to fantasize about them, and "ooh" and "aah" each time we see one.

I refer to the really big dresses as "wearable sofas"for obvious reasons, but the truth is, carrying around a sofa might be more comfortable than these dresses; at least you'd be able to sit down once in a while.


These photos above from the annual festival at Château Vaux le Vicomte show dresses in the 17th century, Louis XIV style. With no underpants as we know them and no indoor plumbing, women just peed whenever they needed to (as did the men). That might mean into a chamber pot, or in an outhouse, into a closestool (essentially a fancy chair with a chamber pot included), outdoors, indoors, you get the picture. You can imagine that with all these layers of petticoats, bloomers, and gowns, it would have often been impossible to keep one's garments totally clean. Hence it was also an era for a lot of perfume. In her book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, Rose George describes "grand aristocrats regularly soiling the corridors at Versailles and the Palais Royal." In her book, one visitor referred to the palace at Versailles as "the receptacle of all humanity’s horrors — the passageways, corridors, and courtyards are filled with urine and fecal matter."

In the mid-19th century, the indoor toilet almost as we know it became available -- occasionally -- especially in finer homes and castles. These would have been just the sorts of folks wearing the biggest of dresses. This video (which is very PG) does a fine job of demonstrating bathroom techniques in huge dresses. The split bloomers are key, though there must have been the occasional draft.


If you're wondering why the undergarments that make the hips wider are called paniers (panniers, or baskets), go towards the end of this video, around 3:40.

In earlier centuries, Medieval dresses were less structured and a lot less poofy. That means they were much more comfortable. Here, they're comfortable enough for three modern girls to throw on over their shorts and T-shirts. With sneakers. That may be an unrealistic level of comfortable, but I throw it in to show just how much French fashion has changed over the centuries. And also because they're so cute. We may be against constricting dress codes for women for feminist reasons, but some of us still love to play dress up.

It's not just for the young, but romantics and history buffs of all ages. Here, at the Second Empire Ball at the Musée d'Orsay, This is 19th century dress: You can see that they are no longer wearing sofas around their hips, and the dresses as a whole seem less complicated and more walkable. Still, the bodices and bustiers probably look much more comfortable only because these are modern samples, made for modern women. In the actual mid-1800s, they would have been wearing awful, uncomfortable, faint-inducing, rib-crushing whale-bone corsets.

While they no longer have sofas around their hips, one could hardly call their hoop skirts small. They can be danced in however, and swish gracefully across the floor.

Even the French have a special soft spot for their own traditional dresses, pictured below in an educational display on the lawn of the Château de Fontaine-Henry in Calvados, Normandie.

It's funny to remember that there was a time when the men's clothing was just as ornate and colorful as the women's (though never with the corset and bustle, of course). Think about that the next time you walk by the relentlessly navy blue, forest green, gray, and black sweater racks in the men's section of a department store.

If you're interested in sewing your own, check out this French woman who likes to sew her own period (Victorian era) dresses and sometimes parade them about at the Opera in Paris, the Palais Garnier. I know I have just told you the dress-wearers are tortured, yet I feel I would be in heaven if I could wear one of these gowns to the Opera.

I find this explanation of an 18th century lady of means getting dressed to be extremely educational and informative. Before seeing this video, I thought of these as "dresses" while it may be that's a real misnomer. In fact, they are more like skirts, shirts, jackets, and various pieces all pinned together for the evening.

Now I understand why they needed maids, valets, and ladies in waiting. I'm still waiting for my lady in waiting, but I suppose I don't really need that much help to throw on jeans and a sweater and scarf. Unlike this lady with the laces down her back.

This video is long but also very educational when it comes to undergarments and corsets in the Belle Epoque-era -- the turn of the 20th century during what is usually referred to outside of France as the Victorian/Edwardian era. It's not pornographic, honestly, and it's quite fascinating.

For a little historical insight into the corset, and the freeing of French (and all) women from the corset, take a look through my friend's book, Paris Undressed, by Kathryn Kemp-Griffin, a specialist in French lingerie.

And just so you know: "lingerie" originally means linen room or laundry room, so before it referred to unmentionables, it was quite mentionable indeed.

Modern French designer Sylvie Facon has taken up the historical call for elaborate ball gowns and run with it in surprising directions. Her creativity absolutely takes my breath away. Much like a really tight corset.

above photos and creations from Sylvie Facon, https://www.sylviefacon-creatrice.fr/

THE CHEESE: La Miche Gavotte

La Miche Gavotte is a fromage à pâte pressée which means that instead of cooking the milk, it is squeezed (yes, like a ribcage inside a corset) in order to extract the maximum amount of liquid and turn the milk into solid cheese. It is aged for 16 weeks, which gives it a pleasently fruity, nutty taste.

The name partly derives from "la miche" meaning "loaf" and comes from the brown crust and big round shape (over 2kg!), which indeed makes it look like a loaf of country bread. Made from pasteurized cows' milk by the cooperatives Les Fromages de L'Ubbaye in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region. Yes, that's a mouthful of combinations. There's a veritable madness for mouthy combination names: the cooperative is housed in two villages in Southeast France, one called Barcelonnette and the other, formerly called La Breole, now merged into Ubaye-Serre-Ponçon.


The connection here is not the bulbous shape of the cheese (like enormous skirts with bustles and panniers and hoops) and not even that it's a "pressed" cheese, like bosoms inside a corset. Rather, the connection is in the name of the cheese, which contains the word "Gavotte". A Gavotte is a historical French dance from the 18th century in which fine ladies would have worn their corsets, and twenty million other ungainly layers in order to look this beautiful as they glided across the floor. I found a video that shows you just this, proving yet again that one really can find anything on the internet.


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