Women of La Belle Époque – the Beautiful, the Unruly and the Tame

by Kate

Women of La Belle Époque – the Beautiful, the Unruly and the Tame


La Belle Époque, often referred to as "The Beautiful Era," unfolded from the late 19th to the early 20th century, representing a transformative and dynamic period characterised by cultural, technological, and societal advances that expanded the limits of human possibility.

It was a relatively stable period with affluence, prosperity, and democratisation at its forefront, added by advances in mobility and communications. This allowed for more freedom, connection, and leisure time, and the importance of social hierarchy against this backdrop started to fade.

While Paris stood as a beacon of affluence and prosperity, this era also harboured a dark side marked by gender disparities, systematic discrimination against women, and a persistent struggle for equality. In examining the Belle Époque, we unravel its multifaceted tapestry, highlighting evolving gender dynamics, and the remarkable women who started to break societal norms - one by one.

Women Carving Their Own Paths

Women Carving Their Own Paths

Throughout history, women’s experiences were often ignored or portrayed solely through a male lens, relegating them to passive and objectified roles. Although the modesty of Belle Époque feminists was mocked by new wave of naughty girls i.e., flappers of the 1920s, this era inadvertently paved the way for succeeding women – by gaining small but numerous victories. This period was recognized as the first wave of sustained feminism and saw a significant articulation of feminist issues needed to be addressed.

Notable publications like La Fronde, featuring an all-female staff, challenged male authority and ever-present misogyny. They nurtured and solidified female identities by supporting radical feminists, reporting on issues as suffrage, standing for equality in education and employment, rights over choosing motherhood, and prostitution laws.

Publications such as La Vie Heureuse and Femina portrayed a "femme moderne" or a softer version of modern woman. Instead of violently shaking existing structures, they advocated for a change in a feminine way - encouraging cultivation, personal expression and promoting health and agility over diets. They tried to mitigate accusations that women writers were career-oriented, self-absorbed unmotherly figures, posing a threat to established society by marrying individuality with family life. It should have been a win-win tactic.

Despite the limitations imposed on women, significant advances were made in education, the workforce, and the public life. The provision of free education by the Republic strengthened their intellectual and social positions, making them active participants in the economy, both as workers and consumers. Marketers capitalised on their aspirations, creating products and services to accommodate their quest for new identities.

Breaking the Mold – Lives Beyond Motherhood and Households

Breaking the Mold – Lives Beyond Motherhood and Households

During the Belle Époque, a cohort of extraordinary women, a trailblazer with diverse styles defied societal expectations, paving unique, authentic paths in careers, education, and artistic pursuits.

One of these women was Marguerite Durand, a founder of newspaper La Fronde, a prominent socialite and a soft feminist who employed her charm and theatricality to subtly shape societal perceptions of women. Durand was one of those who played by the rules, employing smooth tactics that kept her out of the trouble and made her more amicable to men.

In stark contrast, radical feminists like a psychiatrist Madeleine Pelletier, completely rejected feminine expectation of coquettishness. Led by a righteous and direct approach, she excelled in male-dominated fields, hoping to earn the respect of her male counterparts. Her unconventional masculine attire and demeanor drew backlash, leading to her being labelled as "not a real woman."

Camille du Gast was another remarkable woman and a true inspiration due to her can-do attitude, even to this day. She transcended prejudices on women by excelling in numerous athletic and extreme pursuits, from race car driving and hot air ballooning to parachuting and more. A first woman to receive a speeding ticket, she captured public’s attention with her glamourous sense of presentation - wearing nautical chic looks, full-length leather coats secured with bustier, elegant hats, veils, and gloves.

Her story is full of ups and downs, but she managed to overcome personal defeats with grace, authority, and generosity. She advocated for social justice, predominantly welfare of animals, orphans, and women.

Fashion and Fashion Icons

Fashion and Fashion Icons

The Belle Époque was an era of fashion opulence, theatricality, music, and spectacle, accompanied by less restrictive clothing that fostered newfound mobility and liberty for women. Since this era was characterised by its love for stories, spectacle and stage, women were often represented in fiction, cinema, theatre, and advertisements, as objects of gaze. However, some strategically manipulated their images to their advantage.

At the backdrop of opulent cultural life, numerous fashion icons emerged - actresses, writers, aristocrats, and courtesans becoming the it-girls of the time. Women such as Maude Fealy, Cléo de Mérode, Loie Fuller, Liane de Pougy, Evelyn Nesbit, Valtesse de la Bigne, Lilly Elsie, and Lina Cavalieri, were all the talk of the city as trendsetters, artists’ muses, and fantasies of men.

Some like actress Lilly Elsie were incredibly influential. Her face was featured on many products and advertisements, selling everything from chocolate to makeup and fashionable items.

Women of La Belle Époque embraced softer silhouettes, moving away from heavy corsetry, usually high necks, and mutton sleeves. They favored beautifully embellished fabrics, exotic feathers, captivating jewelry, which led to the flourishing of haute couture in Paris. Fashion started to change at a rapid pace due to machine aided production.

A pivotal moment in the sense of liberation occurred in spring 1908, when three women, paid models, walked the scandalous fashions at Parisian racetracks, shocking the public with their “semi-naked” bodies. Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix, a bold and visionary designer, introduced these dresses made from elasticized silk jersey material, showcasing the female body in its full beauty without added boning and layered underwear. This event drastically provoked the code of acceptable behavior, contributing to the expression of newfound freedom for women.

The Art of Self Expression

The Art of Self Expression

Women sought avenues for self-expression through various artistic media, with writing being a popular choice for exploring their identities in journalism and mass-market fiction.

Figures like Liane de Pougy, a dancer and courtesan, wrote novels depicting the challenges faced by women in the demi-monde. Using writing as a therapeutic outlet, she highlighted issues like harassment, humiliation, and abuse - harsh realities for many women of the time.

Camille Claudel, a French sculptor, used her art to explore themes of love, sensuality, and the complexities of human relationships, leaving a lasting impact on the art world.

Gertrude Käsebier, a pioneering photographer captured the essence of motherhood, family, and the changing roles of women during the Belle Époque, contributing to the emerging field of artistic photography.

These women explored their own individuality and doing so showcased to other women that the once-impossible could become possible.


La Belle Époque stands as a transformative era for women, who pushed away leading male-defined lives to actively influence fashion, literature, and the arts. Women of this era played a vital role in shaping the cultural landscape. The resilience and determination of these women exemplify the transformative nature of the Belle Époque. As we reflect on this period, we recognize its complexities and contradictions, celebrating the triumphs and acknowledging the ongoing struggles faced by women seeking equality and self-expression, and ultimately love.

From our current perspective, these behaviors seem very tame, but thanks to these pioneering heroines with often tragic lives - we can and should enjoy our every right under the sky – and more.

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