Dance costumes at the Comédie-Française and the birth of consumerism in 18th-century France

At the beginning of the 1750s the Comédie-Française faced major economic problems. Theatrical seasons were unsuccessful. Spectators were no longer interested in the plays from the répertoire. As Henri Louis Lekain stated in a memoir, the main objective of the company had been and would always be to “make a profit”. Thus the Comédiens ordinaires du Roy tried to find new ways of attracting Parisian audiences. They implemented customer-centred strategies to strengthen their business. In 1753, they decided to include ballets in their shows - which usually consisted of only two plays. Grimm wrote in La Correspondance that dance was a “humiliating expedient” to sustain revivals (juillet 1753, p. 33). While actors had to pay for their theatrical costumes, dancers had the great privilege of being entirely dressed by the tailor Pontus. The company invested a lot of money in dance costumes. Dance, which was supposed to be a minor spectacle, became an essential part of daily shows, not only because the audience fancied ballets but also because it came to represent a major source of income for the company. Ballets stimulated new demands from spectators which impacted upon the new ballets which were to be created. A constant flow of orders to suppliers, especially to “marchands de mode”, energised Parisian economics. Ten years later, Nicolas Bricaire de La Dixménie explained that ballets had become a must for the Comédie-Française. How did ballets interact with fashion trends and how were costumes designed to create a magical product and amaze spectators? This paper will examine the development of dance costumes at the Comédie-Française, especially its interdependence with the rise of consumerism and national fashion trends. Based on primary sources such as bills and inventories, it will scrutinize the use of fabrics, colours, and will give a general overview of the different props and set design relating to choreographies.

Sabine Chaouche
Symposium Title: 
Dancing in the theatre of Europe in the long 18th century 2012
Author affiliation: 
Oxford Brookes University