A look at the costume worn by Julia Bartet for the role of Yvonne de Chambreuil in Henri Méilhac and Louis Ganderax's "Pépa" at the Comédie-Française theater in 1888.
This costume comes from the Comédie-Française stores handed over to the Centre National du Costume de Scene (National Centre for Stage Costume, CNCS). It was worn in the play "Pépa," performed in 1888, and featured in the exhibition "L'art du costume à la Comédie-Française" ("The Art of the Costume at the Comédie-Française") at the CNCS in Moulins, from June 11 through December 31, 2011.
"Pépa" is a play by Henri Méilhac and Louis Ganderax. It appeared alongside a number of plays by Émile Augier, Edmond Gondinet, Victorien Sardou, and Émile de Narjac, which all dealt with the new French law on divorce and its social consequences. The costume was reused in "Bajazet," a Jean Racine tragedy at the Comédie-Française in 1905.
When Emile Perrin, the Comédie-Française director, gave actresses the right to wear haute couture for modern costumes on stage in 1881, he was following the lead of many Parisian theaters. Indeed, contemporary plays around the turn of the 20th century were performed in contemporary costumes. From then on, actors would look to external couturiers to make their dresses, leading to staggering expenses. This eastern-style costume was bought from the couturier Jacques Doucet (1853–1929) at a cost of 1,500 francs for the play, "Pépa." That is the equivalent of around €20,000 today.
Julia Bartet (1854–1941), known as "divine Bartet," was born in 1854 and, along with Sarah Bernhardt in particular, was one of the main actresses of the Belle Époque. She joined the Comédie-Française in September 1879 and became its 307th member in December 1880 by unanimous committee vote. The theater's general manager at that time, Émile Perrin, who had modern tastes, expanded its repertoire to include several contemporary plays. Julia Bartet's versatility allowed her to take on roles as the young leading lady in classical plays, recent adaptations, and new creations. She played the part of Yvonne de Chambreuil in "Pépa" at the age of 34.
Miss Bartet's dresses were described in "La Cocarde" (November 2, 1888), a French newspaper established by Maurice Barrès: "Rose-leaf satin, Japanese-style negligee embroidered with braiding and blue-green plumetis. Skirt in the form of a train, opening over a satin petticoat with a touch of pink, itself covered with silk muslin decorated with Malines frills; the underneath, which is miraculously hazy, can also be seen under the train and on the sides, and forms a delicious, well-proportioned, light and silky bodice." The description surely comes directly from the Comédie-Française and was written for readers wanting to copy the dresses worn by Julia Bartet.
Indeed, as fashion became more popular from the 1870s, the press became the intermediary between stage and city fashions. The Comédie-Française programs at that time also provided an excellent showcase for fashion designers and couturiers. This was a reciprocal relationship. When an actress was dressed by a couturier, the latter was given publicity in the program.
"Pépa" is a play that deals with the recently introduced law on divorce and its social consequences, which was a means to women's emancipation. A woman formed a single social entity with her husband.Under the Third Republic, the Naquet law of 27 July 1884 re-established divorce on the basis of specific failings. This meant that women's social status would undergo a great upheaval.