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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 7737

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Nothing else in the picturesque life of the French colonies of the Occident impresses the traveller on his first arrival more than the costumes of the women of color. They surprise the aesthetic sense agreeably;-they are local and special: you will see nothing resembling them among the populations of the British West Indies; they belong to Martinique, Guadeloupe, Désirade, Marie-Galante, and Cayenne,-in each place differing sufficiently to make the difference interesting, especially in regard to the head-dress. That of Martinique is quite Oriental;-more attractive, although less fantastic than the Cayenne coiffure, or the pretty drooping mouchoir of Guadeloupe.

These costumes are gradually disappearing, for various reasons,-the chief reason being of course the changes in the social condition of the colonies during the last forty years. Probably the question of health had also something to do with the almost universal abandonment in Martinique of the primitive slave dress,-chemise and jupe,-which exposed its wearer to serious risks of pneumonia; for as far as economical reasons are concerned, there was no fault to find with it: six francs could purchase it when money was worth more than it is now. The douillette, a long trailing dress, one piece from neck to feet, has taken its place. [35]

But there was a luxurious variety of the jupe costume which is disappearing because of its cost; there is no money in the colonies now for such display:-I refer to the celebrated attire of the pet slaves and belles affranchies of the old colonial days. A full costume,-including violet or crimson "petticoat" of silk or satin; chemise with half-sleeves, and much embroidery and lace; "trembling-pins" of gold (zépingue tremblant) to attach the folds of the brilliant Madras turban; the great necklace of three or four strings of gold beads bigger than peas (collier-choux); the ear-rings, immense but light as egg-shells (zanneaux-à-clous or zanneaux-chenilles); the bracelets (portes-bonheur); the studs (boutons-à-clous); the brooches, not only for the turban, but for the chemise, below the folds of the showy silken foulard or shoulder-scarf,-would sometimes represent over five thousand francs expenditure. This gorgeous attire is becoming less visible every year: it is now rarely worn except on very solemn occasions,-weddings, baptisms, first communions, confirmations. The da (nurse) or "porteuse-de-baptême" who bears the baby to church holds it at the baptismal font, and afterwards carries it from house to house in order that all the friends of the family may kiss it, is thus attired; but nowadays, unless she be a professional (for there are professional das, hired only for such occasions), she usually borrows the jewellery. If tall, young, graceful, with a rich gold tone of skin, the effect of her costume is dazzling as that of a Byzantine Virgin. I saw one young da who, thus garbed, scarcely seemed of the earth and earthly;-there was an Oriental something in her appearance difficult to describe,-something that made you think of the Queen of Sheba going to visit Solomon. She had brought a merchant's baby, just christened, to receive the caresses of the family at whose house I was visiting; and when it came to my turn to kiss it, I confess I could not notice the child: I saw only the beautiful dark face, coiffed with orange and purple, bending over it, in an illumination of antique gold.... What a da!... She represented really the type of that belle affranchie of other days, against whose fascination special sumptuary laws were made; romantically she imaged for me the supernatural god-mothers and Cinderellas of the creole fairy-tales. For these become transformed in the West Indian folklore,-adapted to the environment, and to local idealism:-Cinderella, for example, is changed to a beautiful metisse, wearing a qua

druple collier-choux, zépingues tremblants, and all the ornaments of a da. [36] Recalling the impression of that dazzling da, I can even now feel the picturesque justice of the fabulist's description of Cinderella's creole costume: ?a té ka baille ou mal zie!-(it would have given you a pain in your eyes to look at her!)

... Even the every-day Martinique costume is slowly changing. Year by year the "calendeuses"-the women who paint and fold the turbans-have less work to do;-the colors of the douiellette are becoming less vivid;-while more and more young colored girls are being élevées en chapeau ("brought up in a hat")-i.e., dressed and educated like the daughters of the whites. These, it must be confessed, look far less attractive in the latest Paris fashion, unless white as the whites themselves: on the other hand, few white girls could look well in douillette and mouchoir,-not merely because of color contrast, but because they have not that amplitude of limb and particular cambering of the torso peculiar to the half-breed race, with its large bulk and stature. Attractive as certain coolie women are, I observed that all who have adopted the Martinique costume look badly in it: they are too slender of body to wear it to advantage.

Slavery introduced these costumes, even though it probably did not invent them; and they were necessarily doomed to pass away with the peculiar social conditions to which they belonged. If the population clings still to its douillettes, mouchoirs, and foulards, the fact is largely due to the cheapness of such attire. A girl can dress very showily indeed for about twenty francs-shoes excepted;-and thousands never wear shoes. But the fashion will no doubt have become cheaper and uglier within another decade.

At the present time, however, the stranger might be sufficiently impressed by the oddity and brilliancy of these dresses to ask about their origin,-in which case it is not likely that he will obtain any satisfactory answer. After long research I found myself obliged to give up all hope of being able to outline the history of Martinique costume,-partly because books and histories are scanty or defective, and partly because such an undertaking would require a knowledge possible only to a specialist. I found good reason, nevertheless, to suppose that these costumes were in the beginning adopted from certain fashions of provincial France,-that the respective fashions of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Cayenne were patterned after modes still worn in parts of the mother-country. The old-time garb of the affranchie-that still worn by the da-somewhat recalls dresses worn by the women of Southern France, more particularly about Montpellier. Perhaps a specialist might also trace back the evolution of the various creole coiffures to old forms of head-dresses which still survive among the French country-fashions of the south and south-west provinces;-but local taste has so much modified the original style as to leave it unrecognizable to those who have never studied the subject. The Martinique fashion of folding and tying the Madras, and of calendering it, are probably local; and I am assured that the designs of the curious semi-barbaric jewellery were all invented in the colony, where the collier-choux is still manufactured by local goldsmiths. Purchasers buy one, two, or three grains, or beads, at a time, and string them only on obtaining the requisite number.... This is the sum of all that I was able to learn on the matter; but in the course of searching various West Indian authors and historians for information, I found something far more important than the origin of the douillette or the collier-choux: the facts of that strange struggle between nature and interest, between love and law, between prejudice and passion, which forms the evolutional history of the mixed race.

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