The Caribbean Beauty Who Scandalized Paris

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The Caribbean Beauty Who Scandalized Paris
Tucked away on a minor path in the heart of Père-Lachaise Cemetery, a simple tomb bears witness to the life of a remarkable woman who once was the toast of Napoleonic and Restoration society. A woman who scandalized the bourgeoisie with her numerous lovers and habit of wearing virtually see-through dresses, and was probably a spy. Her name was Fortunée Hamelin, the mixed-race daughter of Jean Lormier Lagrave, a wealthy sugar plantation owner on the island of Santo Domingo in the Caribbean. A certain mystery surrounds her birth. Officially she was the legitimate daughter of Lormier Lagrave; nevertheless a girl with the same name was baptized on the same day in the same church — only this child was born two years earlier in 1776. It seems likely that Lormier Lagrave’s legitimate daughter died in babyhood and was “replaced” by this older child, the illegitimate daughter of Lormier Lagrave and a freed slave. Fortunée’s physical appearance certainly indicated such a possibility. Boulevards of Paris including Rue d’Hauteville, Public Domain Her father sent her to Paris to find a good husband and Fortunée was married off to a very rich and ambitious cousin who was rising swiftly up post-Revolutionary society. Aged 14, it was not a love match but it did allow her to escape her mother’s influence. Two years later she inherited a small townhouse in the Rue d’Hauteville after her father’s premature death. Coinciding as it did with the fall of Robespierre and the end of the bloodiest chapter of the Revolution, this legacy and her husband’s fortune enabled Fortunée to begin her conquest of Paris society. It is hard to over-estimate the difference which Robespierre’s death made to daily life. Almost overnight, the Terror evaporated. Once again, people could live without fear of being sent to the guillotine. In some ways it was as if the Revolution had never happened: the laws prohibiting extravagant dress were repealed, private carriages reappeared on the streets, and domestic servants were allowed once more. The Merveilleuses in their winter outfits for 1799. English caricature by Isaac Cruikshank. Public domain Fortunée took full advantage of these new freedoms. In particular she spearheaded the Directoire fashion for the flimsiest, most low-cut barely-there gowns inspired by the Ancient Greeks, often accessorized with huge bouffant hairstyles. Fortunée’s thick curls were heaven-sent for these. This new generation of Bright Young Things were known as the Merveilleuses and Incroyables. They were either aristocrats returning from exile, or aping their former extreme fashions, and they were regularly satirized for their appearance. It was a reputation Fortunée delighted in. On one occasion she was mobbed while descending from a carriage on the Champs Elysées: she was wearing a transparent chiffon gauze gown over flesh-colored underclothes and slit to the thigh. It was held in place by a simple sash and exposed her breasts. Not leaving much to the imagination! Her husband was so mortified he whisked her off to Italy. A fateful decision as Fortunée met Joséphine de Beauharnais (later Bonaparte) there and thus began a long friendship between the two outsider women from the Antilles (Joséphine came from Martinique).

Lead photo credit : Portrait of Madame Hamelin, née Fortunée Lormier-Lagrave by Andrea Appiani, Musée Carnavalet, Public Domain

More in Directoire Fashion, Fortunée Hamelin, history, women in history, Women who shaped Paris

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.


  • James Buckley
    2022-06-30 06:13:35
    James Buckley
    Enjoyed this very much. I'd like to read more about the era immediately following Robespierre's beheading; it sounds intriguing.