During La Belle Époque philosophers and artists were in abundance as a new order of civilization was born. In cities like Paris all manner of excess was in evidence and whilst polite society accepted revelers drinking Champaign from a lady’s slipper the mere sight of bare footed woman caused riots whenever they featured in plays. The Paris of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) had embraced sex with a vengeance and prostitution was raised to a commercial art form. Themed bordellos prevailed with every sort of variation openly catered for.
There was even ‘A guide to’ booklet for the more discerning gentleman. In these days this cost many Francs, which would indicate the demographic was favored by the affluent. Purely for academic interests, your intrepid reporter can report the Foot Lover was catered for. (Oh, the things I do in the name of research). Promiscuity was found at all levels of society and the term Le Demi Monde (morality and manners) was coined by Alexander Dumas (1855) to describe a woman whose marital infidelity or careless behavior had cast her outside the boundaries of respectable society. Many of the girls were actresses by day and some pretty prominent, too.
The Madams such as La Paiva, Caroline Otero, and the cockney Cora Pearl became well known figures in Paris Society. Not all philosophers approved and Nietzsche and Proust were outspoken against this side of woman. By the middle of the nineteenth century the polka piqué became extremely popular in Paris dance halls. Girls kicked their legs as high as possible and although condemned by the moralists this was loved by those interested in catching site of frothy knickers on show. The quadrille naturaliste was a fairly simple dance which required a series of high kicks: the woman kicked over the heads of their partners then grasped an ankle high above their heads, dancing on one foot. The pleasure of the dance was the display of shapely legs in black stockings, lace petticoats, and perhaps a glimpse of bare thigh below the black silk knickers. A risqué version was to polka piqué with no underwear on, which was more often than not the case. A version of the popular polka was converted a stage chorography by a soloist or more often, a group or chorus. The polka piqué combined with the quadrille naturaliste to become the Robert Macaire then the Chabut before emerging as the Can Can.
Decidedly ‘naughty’ this was a good excuse for high kicks and flashing the underwear. Can Can sans culottes was the ultimate fantasy for the lads of the time. It was a dance perhaps more notorious than evident though there is no doubt it was performed. However rest easy, the Can Can could not have taken place historically before the invention of vulcanized rubber and the introduction of elastic, which to this day keeps the famous dance, respectable.
Anonymous 1996 The pretty women of Paris Hertfordshire :Wordsworth Editions p34
Batterberry M &A 1977 Mirror mirror: a social history of fashion New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston
Parker D & J 1975 The natural history of the chorus girl Melbourne: Landsdowne Press.