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.

arlesiennesBut 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.

Younger 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.

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

costume comtadinInitially 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, in Arles' Roman Antique Theatre.

Hundreds of women put on their finest arlésienne costume for the occasion.

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

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.

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 is 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.

And finally... But what about the men? Inspired by the gardian (cowboy) culture of the Camargue, the male costume of Arles and the Camargue is less codified. But it typically features beige moleskin trousers, a white or bright indiennes print shirt and a black velour jacket. A dashing broad-brimmed black felt hat completes the picture.

Photo credits (from top): © Pinterest, tradicioun.org, Varaine for Wikimedia Commons, Musée Réattu.

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