Sunday, 18 July 2010

Victims of Fashion

On the Rue du Faubourg du Temple, an original shop sign stands witness to a period when men literally killed for a pair of shoes. These men were known as the Apaches, and they took their clothing very seriously!

Un Apache pouvait voler, truander, tuer si nécessaire, pour s'approprier la paire de chaussures qui le mettraient en valeur aux yeux de sa bande et de ses amoureuses. La moindre égratignure et la paire était jetée aux pauvres” (Pierre Drachline & Claude Petit-Castelli, ‘Casque d'or et les apaches’) – (An Apache could steal, cheat, or kill if necessary to get hold of a pair of shoes that would enhance his image in the eyes of his gang or his lovers. The littlest scratch and the pair were thrown to the poor).

The Apaches were the street gangs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, taking their name from American natives following a visit from Buffalo Bill to Paris in 1905. They haunted the eastern faubourgs of Paris, and were generally very young, partly because their life expectancy was so short. These were men who lived fast, drinking, partying and stealing, and they were immediately identifiable by the clothes they wore.

Each gang was dressed slightly differently, often wearing something such as a red scarf that would be both a sign of belonging and a means of identification in other territories. However, certain elements were the same in all gangs. All wore a certain type of trouser, tight at the knees and flared at the bottom, known as a Bénard. These were named after the tailor who made them, a certain Auguste Bénard, and the word is still used in Parisian slang today to designate a pair of trousers (bénard, ben’ or bénouze).

The Apache dance was often made to look like a physical attack.

On top, the men generally wore waistcoats or jackets. It was at this store on the Rue du Faubourg du Temple that the gang members in the Courtille (lower Belleville) came to shop.

On their heads there was always a hat of some description, generally something flat in the form of a sailor’s cap, but it was what was put on the feet that was the most important. Claude Dubois in his depiction of the Bastille area of Paris (La Bastoche, 1997) describes the ideal pair:

Le comble de la coquetterie apache étant les bottines jaunes à bouts pointus cirées de frais avec des boutons dorés”. (The height of Apache vanity was a pair of freshly polished pointed yellow boots with golden buttons).

The Apache gangs ceased to exist after the First World War, with many members killed off in the conflict. The shop survived for longer though, and until recently it was still selling men’s clothes and had retained much of its interior. Like much of the rest of the street though it was converted into a Chinese-run store, catering this time for teenage girls rather than teenage boys.

3 comments:

ashley said...

Loved this post! What a great way to learn about the history of fashion. Such a great story- I especially loved the part about gangs marking their territory with fashion statements. Would have loved to see these shoes they were fighting over!
Ashley, Travel Onion

Peggy said...

Merci !

Anonymous said...

There is an episode of 'I Love Lucy' with a French character and references to an Apache dance which always puzzled me. Now I see.

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