Design by Evelyne Lee

When French novelist Joséphin Péladan returned to Paris in 1882 to establish his career as an art critic, it was quite a different Paris from the one where his family had lived in the late 1840s.

Many of the old, winding streets had been replaced by French official Baron Haussmann’s wide, grand boulevards. The rapid technological advancements and the printing press boom of the ’80s and ’90s, which allowed for the mass dissemination of images, had fueled a cascade of modernization, marking the beginnings of consumer capitalism. Circuses, cafés, dance halls and brothels sprang up, providing Parisians with new spaces to see and be seen. Giant department stores (grand magasins) like Le Bon Marché had opened too. They sold mass-produced, ready-made fashion at a range of prices, offering Parisians new opportunities to define and even turn themselves into a spectacle.

Péladan’s relationship with this new Paris was a complicated one. On the one hand, he was repulsed by what he saw as the rise of cheap, “low-end” entertainment and the materialism and vulgarity of mass consumer culture. On the other hand, these changes in cultural circumstances created tremendous new possibilities for outer life and expressing oneself to the public, both visually and verbally.

These were the cultural circumstances that made the idea of living one’s life as a work of art conceivable. The idea of transforming one’s life into a work of art had been floating around for a while, particularly among those called “dandies,” and “esthetes,” with whom Péladan shared the desire to distance oneself from mainstream culture through aesthetic innovation. However, Péladan was the one to formalize the sentiment and its categorization as an art form. He called it La Kaloprosopie, or Kaloprosopia, (from the Greek καλός (beautiful) and πρόσωπον (person)) and it was essential to Péladan’s aesthetic mission: an artistic and spiritual revolution through the mystical self.

Péladan called Kalapropsia a “social affair.” It only worked if given a stage, and for Péladan, the stage was Paris. Péladan was hyper-aware that on this stage, one’s external appearance carried immense meaning; as a result, he took the way others perceived him extremely seriously. On the opening day of the first Salon de la Rose + Croix, he forbade the attendance of one of the exhibiting artists because he could not afford the white monks’ robes and large red cross necklace that Péladan required the artists wear. For Péladan, the cultivation of his image extended past his physical self to the stage which surrounded him. 

This is not to say that the aesthetic created by his physical self was not of the utmost importance. Péladan meticulously crafted a look that could be summarized by long, flowing robes, elaborate lace collars, unruly hair and a pointed beard. The effect produced by this style clashed with the mass-produced men’s suits sold at Le Bon Marché. His look was suggestive of a distant, ideal past. In pseudo-physician, author and social critic Max Nordau’s treatise “Degeneration,” Nordau devotes a brief section to Péladan and prefaces his analysis by writing that, “he dresses himself archaically in a satin doublet of blue or black; he trims his extremely luxuriant blue-black hair and beard into the shape in use among the Assyrians.”

This “clashing” with mainstream culture was essential context for his look. Journalist Tara Isabella Burton notes that “such dress was meaningful only if it provoked a reaction and ran against the grain of mainstream culture … [Péladan’s] influence existed in constant dynamic tension with the world around him, even while taking advantage of the frenzied media culture of the day.” Kalapropsia was defined by the creation of a personality that was contradictory or in opposition to the rest of society, and an audience provided that opposition. The public life of the city was therefore necessary for Kalapropsia. 

The contradictory nature of Péladan’s aesthetic garnered much attention, receiving ridicule from the Parisian press. Even though Péladan’s art criticism, books and performances were arguably equally outlandish and attention-worthy, the press focused mostly on his fashion choices and physical appearance and especially his hair. For example, an 1891 article in the St Louis Post-Dispatch, “A New Parisian God,” that covered a lawsuit involving Péladan noted that “he is a rather a clever writer, but much more remarkable for a voluminous crop of curly hair, more conspicuous and decorative than that possessed by another other man in Paris.” 

The scrutiny of Péladan’s physical appearance confirmed his belief that one’s appearance was central to public perception at a time of increasing visibility and sharing of images in Parisian society and was often viewed as more important than words. 

As historian Carol Armstrong notes, Parisian public life at the end of the nineteenth century had become a matter of spectatorship and the work of getting ready to go out into the world and “present” oneself was deliberate and active. The increasing availability of public spaces had turned everyone into actors.

Péladan’s fashion choices are therefore about more than just clothing. As historian Frantisek Deak notes, “a dandy gives great importance to the clothes he is wearing, but he is a much more complex phenomenon than a man of fashion; he is someone for whom his appearance and manners are a communicative act.” In the book L’art Idéaliste et Mystique, Péladan wrote that “in a time when honors are dishonored, where function signifies incapacity, there is a kind of public virtue in providing, through wearing a costume, that one is oneself, one is free, one is outside the frame.” For Péladan, fashion was a mode of communication that allowed him to distance himself from the rest of society while testing boundaries and making a statement about societal values — all without saying a word. 

Daily Arts Writer Jaden Katz can be reached at jadenk@umich.edu.