At the beginning of the 1870s, the term "pétroleuse" was used in France to describe a member of the socialist Paris Commune, a female activist who burnt government buildings in Paris to protest against Versaillais’s oppression.
There are quite a few things that always fascinated me about this figure, from the fact that a pétroleuse was essentially an incendiary rebel to the different meanings that were given to this word as time passed.
While at the beginning this term was only used to define these somehow legendary, almost mythical, rebellious women from the 1870s, the word was later on applied to all the women who had taken part in the revolution.
The word "pétroleuse" was indeed often employed to indicate women who were out of men’s control or even in competition with men.
In some ways this term anticipated the new woman of the 1880s, educated, ambitious, ready to invert the gender roles and question male authority.
This explanation would already be eloquent enough to justify the title of this post and my desire to see strong women writing, creating and behaving in incendiary ways.
This Euro Western film directed by Christian-Jaque (Fanfan la Tulipe, Nana, Madame Sans-Gêne...) featured Brigitte Bardot as Frenchie/Louise, Claudia Cardinale as Maria Sarrazin and Michael J. Pollard, as the awkward sheriff in love with Maria, but irresistibly attracted to Frenchie.
In the film, taking place in the fictitious town of Bougival Junction located in the American West, but founded by the French, Louise leads her family of outlaw sisters (Caroline, Elisabeth, Little Rain and Virginia) in countless robberies while Maria rules her house and her gang of dumb yet handsome brothers (Matthieu, Marc, Luc and John).
When the former get their paws on the deed to Little P. ranch and the latter found a map indicating there is oil under the property, a feud ensues, complete with bar-room brawls, cat fights and fake Spaghetti Western atmospheres.
At times the film looks like a hybrid crossover between Sergio Leone and Russ Meyer's with touches of Louis Malle’s Viva María! and Elliot Silverstein’s Cat Ballou with an irresistible electro pop Western soundtrack by Francis Lai.
From a fashion and style point of view, the film (with costumes by Rosine Delamare and hats by French milliner Jean Barthet - you will find some of the most famous creations by Barthet for the big screen at this link) is very interesting because it is mainly based on dichotomies.
Claudia Cardinale is mainly dressed in a classic cowboy attire, with dirty and dusty trousers, shirt and waistcoat in shades of brown and beige, though we see her wearing a corset once during the local celebrations in Bougival Junction and at times she opts for pale blue or brown dresses in a flowery prints.
From the very first shots, Bardot and her gang display instead more stylish tastes.
Frenchie and her sisters carry out their robberies in a sort of special uniform consisting of black trousers, a ruffled cotton or sheer shirt and a hat.
When Frenchie and her sisters move to Little P they try to disguise their identities by dressing up like innocent and well-behaved ladies in white, pink, plaid or gingham dresses accessorized with little hats, but the disguise doesn't last long and, towards the end of the film, the two gangs adopt a new, yet still dichotomic look with Frenchie and her sisters preserving their black attires while Maria and her brothers opting for white suits and coats.
I have a pile of original pictures from this film that my brother dug out of some kind of lost archive and I find them rather inspiring from a costume design point of view. Besides, from these pictures it is also possible to spot vague connections between the main costume trends in the film and some current fashion collections.
You could argue that oil is the most important point in the film and it's impossible to deny that oil is also a constant inspiration for different artists, directors and even fashion designers for obvious reasons, including the social and financial implications behind it.
For what regards the connection between fashion and oil, a while back I mentioned Rozalb de Mura’s Autumn/Winter 2008-09 designs that looked as if they had been immersed in a thick, oil-based liquid, while, a few months ago, Steven Meisel did a photoshoot for Vogue Italia inspired by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Yet I think that the strongest link between the costumes for Les Pétroleuses and some of the designs in the Spring/Summer 2011 collections it's not to be found in the oil reference, but it stands in that contrast, that dichotomy, between the Western look and chic designs.
Cowgirls appeared on Ralph Lauren's runway last September and, while all the stereotypical elements of traditional Western inspirations weren't missing (think about bull's head belt buckles, leather trousers, fringes or pale blue dresses with lace edgings...), there were also immaculate white suits and trenches that call to mind Claudia Cardinale's look towards the end of the film (minus cowboy hat, though - View this photo).
There are traces of the chic and over the top side of the costumes worn by Frenchie's gang in Les Pétroleuses in Francesco Scognamiglio's Spring/Summer 2011 collection and in particular in his black or white sheer shirts (that have actually turned into one of his trademarks) decorated with ruffles around the throat, on the front of the shirt or along the sleeves.
I must admit that I would prefer Scognamiglio going the full Pétroleuses way rather than wasting his time and designs on Lady Gaga, but I guess you can't have everything, can you?.
One of my favourite Pétroleuses-evoking pictures remains an image from a Kenzo photoshoot featuring designs from the Autumn/Winter 1987 collection.
The picture shows three models mimicking shooting somebody with a handgun.
I know there are three girls in this picture rather than two like in the film, but it's the look, style and atmosphere of this image (and in some ways also the hats worn by the models...) that makes me think about strong and incendiary women, like the bandit girls in Les Pétroleuses and like those early activists who burnt down government buildings in Paris in the 1800s.
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