Dress Down Sunday: Paris Album 1900-1914 by Jean Cocteau

Published in French as Portraits-Souvenir in 1935

This translation by Margaret Crosland published 1956


Mountains breathe, move, slide against one another, climb up and penetrate into each other, and the century-long slowness of this rhythm escapes us…

A film should be made of the slow-moving periods and fashions that succeed one another. Then it would be really exciting to see at high speed dresses growing longer, shorter and longer again; sleeves growing fuller, tighter, then full again; hats going down and up, perching on top, lying down flat, becoming decorative then plain; bosoms growing fuller then slighter, provocative and ashamed; waists changing places between breasts and knees; the ocean-swell of hips and haunches; stomachs which advance and retreat; petticoats which cling and froth; underwear which disappears and reappears…

Silk conquers wool, wool conquers silk; tulle floats, velvet hangs heavy, sequins sparkle, satins crease, furs slip over dresses and around necks, going up and down and round the edges, and curling up in a frenzied panic like the animals from whom they are taken

observations: It’s hard to imagine who might be the British (or American) equivalent of Jean Cocteau. He wrote poetry, novels and plays and was also a film director and artist; and he also knew anyone of any significance in the world of the arts in Paris over 60 years. The extract above tends to tell you all that – the use of words, the images, the wish to make a film of it, the knowledge of society. His 1946 film of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast is ravishingly beautiful, and often listed as one of the best films of all time.

This book is not a proper memoir, just a few images from his life, ‘souvenir portraits on a grand scale’, and he does warn the reader not to be too trusting of details and dates. It is absolutely enchanting, full of lovely images, wonderful words, and meetings with all kinds of important people - Isadora Duncan, Edmond Rostand, the Empress Eugenie, Colette and blog favourite Francois Mauriac.

At one point he seems to claim that as a schoolboy he simultaneously lived at home and in a rented apartment his mother knew nothing about – typically she only found out when a newspaper contacted her. He remembers as a child ‘the luck of not being old enough to understand the Dreyfus affair’ , and reminisces at length about the magic of the theatre and his great love for a play of Around the World in Eighty Days. He says that the wonderful singing during the tragic ending  of Tristan and Isolde is all very well, but what really gets him going is the words of Phileas Fogg: '20,000 banknotes for you, Captain, if we reach Liverpool tonight!’ He does sound immensely likeable.

This cartoon from 1900 shows the fashion in bosoms advancing and retreating:

The other pictures are from adverts of the time.


  1. "It seems bosoms are still worn in the provinces."

    "Bosoms are not worn this year."
    "But how?"
    "Madame, on ├┤te la ouate."

    (old joke)

    I'd love to see that animation!

    1. I had to get the joke translated by Google, but worth it! Yes, exactly, I long to see that particular Cocteau film.

  2. Moira - Oh, he sounds like such an interesting person. I'm honestly not sure I'd go for the structure of this one. Sometimes those little 'scenes from a life' don't flow neatly. But he does sound like an observant man who probably had a lot of insight into his day...

    1. He just sounded delightful, a very unusual person. I thought I would enjoy it for the glimpses of his famous friends, but it was he who came over best....

  3. This is probably not the book for me but I do like the two paragraphs about a film following the changes in fashion. He does sound fascinating.

    1. I know - it's such a perfect, clever idea isn't it? And typical of him.


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