arles women in costume smallArlésiennes - the women of Arles - and their elegant traditional dress are famed for their beauty, celebrated in dramatic festivals and ceremonies in the city throughout the summer.

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In Arles a highly sophisticated dress style evolved in the 18th century, inspired by the fashions of Paris and using sumptuous, jewel-coloured satin fabrics. It would be a bit misleading to describe it as a "folk costume".

Unlike many other regions, it rarely includes a peasant apron. Instead, women sport white parasols, fans, jewels and other stylish accessories. A delicate lace bodice and shawl complete the picture, moulding and flattering the silhouette.

But the most distinctive feature is the hair, a complex double chignon wrapped around a tiny headdress of ribbon or lace.

This elaborate updo and headdress have numerous variations for different occasons. It can take up to ten lessons to learn how to achieve it.

arlesiennesYounger girls, known as mireietos wear a different, simpler costume until the age of around 16.

Guided by "costume godparents", their initiation into the adult version is referred to as "prendre le ruban" (taking the ribbon) and is a key rite of passage into adulthood.

It's all very different from the severe white bonnet of the costume comtadin, pictured below, the dress that dominates in the area to the east and north of Arles, around Marseille, Aix and Avignon. In that part of Provence, you don't often see younger women wearing this much less flattering attire.

costume comtadinThe revival in Arles was the brainchild of one man: the provençal poet Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914), whose life's mission to revive and boost regional pride.

Mistral was worried that women were abandoning the traditional arlésienne dress. So, in 1903, he created a festival called the Festo Vierginenco especially to promote it.

Initially the response was sparse: just 18 young women took part in the first edition. But the following year the numbers swelled to 350.

Today this festival continues and is a major highlight in Arles each summer. Now called La Fête du costume, it takes place each year on the first Sunday of July.

It's part of a longer event, the Festiv'Arles, which also includes a pegoulado (torchlight procession) and, every three years, the coronation of the Reine d'Arles (Queen of Arles).

THE FETE DU COSTUME

We went to the Fête du Costume one year, and it was fascinating. It begins early in the morning, when hundreds of locals, all in period dress, hurry towards the place de la République in central Arles ready for the big procession.

The sheer number of people taking part is quite an impressive sight. They include women of all ages and sizes (all looking very glamorous), as well as children and even babies in period prams and pushchairs / strollers.

The men get dressed up too, though there are fewer of them. The gardians (ranchers or cowboys) on their white Camargue horses wear their classic attire: beige moleskin trousers, a white or bright indiennes print shirt, a black velour jacket and a dashing broad-brimmed black felt hat. The other men sport an array of vaguely period costumes from top hats and tails to straw boaters and patterned waistcoats.

arlesiennes with babyThe whole process of gathering takes a while and is a real social event. Everyone meets and greets each other excitedly with kisses on the cheek.

Get there early (around 9am) to soak up the atmosphere. Most people are delighted for you to photograph them, if asked.

After this long prelude, the procession eventually starts up. It goes down the rue Jean Jaurès, then turns left along Arles' main street, the boulevard des Lices.

The participants stop every now and then for the crowd to admire them and take photos. The Queen of Arles herself arrives at the end, riding sidesaddle on a white horse and surrounded by escorts.

It's easy to find decent viewing points all along the route. A good spot to station yourself is on the corner of the rue Jean Jaurès and the boulevard des Lices. If you don’t feel like standing, grab a table at one of the bistros lining the boulevard.

The participants take a break in the Jardin d’été (the Summer Garden, which is briefly closed off to people in modern dress) before proceeding to the Théâtre Antique (the ancient theatre) for a ceremony.

We skipped this bit, but returned at the end of the afternoon for another ceremony, this time in the huge Amphitheatre (click here to read our guide to the Roman sites in Arles).

It was colourful, entertaining – and, like the earlier one in the ancient theatre, free. It's a great chance to see these sites without paying the usual entrance charge!

fete du costume roman amphitheatreThe Queen of Arles appeared, surrounded by Arlésiennes, and a choir sang the Coupo Santo.

Somewhat our surprise, the entire audience of thousands leapt to its feet for this traditional provençal anthem. After that a phalanx of riders gave playful demonstrations of their horsemanship.

In one game, for example, each cavalier collected a bouquet of flowers from his lady. Then the others rode around him trying to snatch it from his grasp. A session of courses camargaises (playful bull games in which the animal is not killed) rounded off the experience.

By the way, don't be misled by our photo. The huge, 12,000 seat arena was packed - on one side only. Everyone headed straight for the seating on the right of the main entrance in order to avoid the blazing sun.

 

THE QUEEN OF ARLES

No, Arles hasn't suddenly declared independence from staunchly anti-royalist France! The Queen of Arles is just an informal, temporary role. But, like a regular monarch, she is an ambassador for her realm and is expected to appear at many official festivals and functions during the year.

queen of arles saint trophimePictured: The Queen of Arles (in white) surrounded by Arlésiennes poses in the beautiful cloisters of Saint Trophime.

The idea of a Queen began in 1930 in honour of the 100th anniversary of Mistral's birth. Since then a new Queen and her maids of honour are elected every three years on 1 May (there is no King of Arles). In 2017 the 23rd Queen of Arles, Naïs Lesbros, was chosen.

This is no usual beauty pageant. Being France, the selection procedure is highly rigorous and bureaucratic. Hopeful Queens of Arles must fill in a lengthy dossier and undergo two days of interviews and oral and written tests. The whole process takes several months.

There are many requirements. The successful candidate must be aged between 18 and 24. Both she and her parents must have been born in Arles or the immediate area and she must still live there. She must remain single during her reign.

She needs to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of provençal history, literature, architecture and art. She should speak the provençal language fluently, too, and be able to ride a horse sidesaddle. And of course she needs to look fabulous in the arlésienne dress. You can read more about it all here.

The Queen receives a small allowance for travel and the maintenance of her many costumes, but it's hard work too.

For all these reasons, and because of the demands on her time, many young women are deterred from applying and in 2017 just seven candidates came forward.

But the dynasty of Queens continues. And donning the arlésienne dress for special occasions remains popular for women of all generations.

THE ARLÉSIENNE IN ART

In Arles itself, head straight to the Musée Réattu to see some great examples. This excellent little museum owns several genre paintings by Antoine Raspal (1738-1811) which vividly capture everyday life in Arles in the 18th and 19th centuries.

antoine raspal sewing workshopThere were seamstresses in Raspal's family, and he loved to portray women sewing gorgeous costumes - and wearing them too.

Pictured, one colourful, highly detailed prize piece called Un atelier de couturières en Arles (The Couturiers' Workshop), circa 1785, shows the Raspal family at work.

The Musée Réattu also boasts a major donation from Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who painted and drew many studies of women in arlésienne dress throughout his life. Click here to buy a book about them .

The star exhibit at the Réattu is Portrait de Lee Miller en Arlésienne (1937) - although Miller, an American photographer, never actually wore the costume.

Picasso was inspired less by reality than by the artist he most admired: Vincent van Gogh, who spent a short but crucial two years, from 1888-1890, first in Arles and then in nearby Saint Rémy de Provence towards the end of his life.

His landlady in Arles, Marie Ginoux, was the model for a series of portraits of women in arlésienne dress (none of these, alas, remain in Arles today). Van Gogh's room-mate, Paul Gauguin, also drew and painted Madame Ginoux.

Also in Arles, real costumes are on display at the Muséon Arlaten, a museum celebrating provençal culture created in 1896 by Mistral. It's currently closed for restoration.

In literature, the provencal author Alphonse Daudet wrote a short story called L'Arlésienne (1869), about a city girl from Arles who drives her peasant lover to suicide. It's in the collection Lettres de Mon Moulin (Letters From My Mill).

Daudet later turned this into a play, with music by Georges Bizet. The play was a flop and closed after only 21 performances. But the score was later used for two popular standalone suites of the same name, the first composed by Bizet himself in 1872, the second after his death in 1875, by Ernest Guiraud, using Bizet's original themes.

Fun fact about LArlesienneThe heartless Arlésienne herself never appears in Daudet's story. Today, in French, l'Arlésienne is used to describe a major character, either in art or in life, who never appears where they would be expected.

Photo credits (from top): © Pinterest, tradicioun.org, Varaine for Wikimedia Commons, SJ for Marvellous Provence (three images), Musée Réattu.

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