Maison Close (2010) is a French TV series that is 10 years old, but just recently came to Hulu. We’ve been waiting for it, so I decided to check it out, and was pleasantly entertained! There’s two seasons but only the first is available in the US, hopefully season 2 will make it out eventually?
The show is set in a Parisian brothel in 1871, just after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), which included the Siege of Paris, meaning life got hard, particularly in terms of food shortages (people ate ALL the animals in the city zoo, which, SOB). Life has gotten back to normal, but the characters frequently reference the siege and were obviously impacted.
Probably the most interesting thing about the show is how much it shows the dark side of prostitution, and how much the systems in place were designed to take advantage of the women who worked in it. Prostitution was legal, but not “nice legal” — like, the police are happy to help force young women into the profession; the prostitutes themselves are trapped in a never-ending cycle of debt, as the house charges them for everything (and fines them frequently). Some almost break free but then the system forces them back in. Furthermore, this is no candy-colored Harlots take on sex work (okay, Harlots tried to be realistic in its depiction, but some of it was prettified). Women are not only trapped into the profession but violently raped; one gets acid thrown in her face, while two others become addicted to drugs as a means of dealing with their trauma.
There’s a range of characters, from Hortense, the “patronne” (i.e., she runs the business; only women were allowed to run brothels — she’s a retired professional herself, of course); her assistant, Marguerite; Véra, the celebrated prostitute who’s desperate to get the hell out; and newcomer Rose (Jemima West of Indian Summers and The Borgias).
The setting is gorgeous — according to an interview with West,
“It was a palace in the middle of Lisbon, which was amazing–like, an abandoned palace, and they basically redesigned it for the series, so it became a brothel. And I’d walk to work in the morning because I lived five minutes away, and I’d get to this palace, and we’d get dressed and made up and costumed up. And then we’d go up the stairs, and we’d be on set. And it was amazing because it was built as if it was the real brothel. Like when we went from one room to the next, we were actually going from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom, and all of that. And that was great because it really creates a universe that we can walk through and evolve in, as if it were real life” (Brothers, Corsets, and Whips: An Exclusive Interview With Jemima West).
Costumes in Maison Close
The costumes were designed by Sophie Dussaud, who has done a ton of work in France, including a recent multi-year series of Agatha Christie adaptations (Les petits meurtres d’Agatha Christie). In general, I liked her work when the costumes were actually trying to be period correct; I was okay with (i.e. didn’t hate but didn’t love) some of the more modernized elements. Because, of course, Dussaud said in the Production Notes:
“We have long rejected the idea of a series in costume. Our ambition was to renew the French series, to give it that touch of modernity that it is often lacking; it seemed to us simpler and more natural to stage contemporary worlds. We had to distance ourselves from the usual codes of imagery of the time. Not to criticize what had been done elsewhere, but to be closer to the forgotten modernity of this period and to give it a fresh look… For me, the realism is absolute through the freedom that was offered to us; it was certainly not a matter of betraying the time period, but on the contrary to try to approach the aesthetic surroundings of the individual in this period. In addition, the subject of this series, a closed house in 1871, easily allowed the imagination “to occupy the place.” It was delicious and cruel to conceive the twists and turns of these double locked women, “caged”, while I was looking for transparency, the penury of the bodies, their exposure, and also to convey a French spirit still very influential at the time… After the casting, when we discover the faces, the bodies, the sensitivities of actresses and actors, all that was concept becomes concrete: the perception of the characters, their reality, their words, the materials, the colors, their movement, their definition. The creation is in this flesh, under the eye of the director and through the actor, so that the latter can embody his character. It is a wonderful and fragile moment where everything exists. We can then name them: Hortense (in opaque black absorbing all colors), Véra and Rose (in old gold and pale gold, both dressed in a specific metal), and all the others (bearing the colors and transparency of precious stones). The men are also locked in their codes and precisely defined.”
Let’s start by looking at “patronne” Hortense. She’s very beautifully and elegantly dressed, almost always in all-black (occasionally with yellow). My biggest peeve is that she moves between early 1870s bustle gowns, and then mid-1860s hooped gowns with big pagoda sleeves, with no explanation. I can see that just having come out of the Siege of Paris, she may have had to hang on to some older dresses — but it’s never addressed, and it’s not like she wears the out-of-date styles only in private, which would make sense.
This bustle dress is really frickin’ stunning. Note the striped underskirt, and the sheer chemisette:
Of course, the filming is literally DARK, so trying to see details — especially in black! — is hard. I lightened the shit out of these images, and even then, I’m like gestures vaguely. Nonetheless, I like what I can see of this evening dress, with all its textures and trims:
At one point, Hortense gets this lovely mantle or “visite”:
This is Hortense’s second main dress, and it’s really stunningly beautiful, especially the stripe treatment on the skirt! It’s just, it’s never addressed that it’s seriously out of date:
Hortense’s third main outfit confuses me. It’s REALLY beautiful, but schizophrenic in that the bodice is half yellow and black stripes, and the other half solid black with what I think is cut velvet.
The other weirdness is that Hortense is a quick change artist. She’ll be wearing the above out and about, arrive back at the brothel, and in .02 seconds will have whipped off the bodice (offscreen) and be wearing this lace fichu. Which is lovely, but it would in no way fit under that bodice. Also, the lace on the blouse would be annoying under that fitted black collar. It’s a minor quibble, but these are the things I think about!
Hortense has another evening gown, this one with a lower neckline that makes it read more 1860s. It also has a full, more 1860s-ish skirt, but I don’t think she wears a hoop with it.
And finally, my hair has gotten SUPER LONG due to quarantine, and so it has been up in a braided coronet all the time. That makes Hortense ALL my #hairgoals, because this is basically my look right now, although with less additional fake hair:
Hortense’s assistant is Marguerite, an older woman who basically does all the meet and greet at the front door, as well as herding the women behind the scenes. I love that she’s older and very proper looking:
And now, the prostitutes! In part because she’s the star, and in part because of where the plot goes, Véra is one of the few to have any proper clothes. She’s always in purple or dark red. Her main gown is this one, and it has some really lovely details:
She also has this dress, but you never really see it clearly:
Rose is a country girl who has come to Paris to try to find her mother, who became a prostitute and worked at this brothel. She hasn’t seen her in years, and so doesn’t really know what she’s looking for. She’s wearing a dress that at best is from the 1850s, which, okay I guess she’s REALLY poor and so wearing a super hand-me-down?
At one point, prostitute Valentine has to fill in for Marguerite, and she gets a nice dress with an interesting collar:
Other than that, it’s ALL lounging wear, all the time for the prostitutes — which, right now during quarantine, sounds pretty good! They are frequently in lounging robes over corsets:
There’s a lot of corsets, and some predictable corset whining in the press:
“Obviously, we had to wear corsets. I’d never worn a corset, and that was definitely a challenge, because you have to carry yourself in a completely different manner. And it was interesting, actually, because after the series (we shot for a few months), our waists changed–the way our waists were. Because they sort of tie you in so much and give you such a narrow tummy but then accentuate the hips. So my body actually morphed a little bit after the series. [laughs] It was incredible. And obviously, you’re carrying yourself really straight, and you can’t really lounge, so you’d have to sort of always have a very fixed and firm posture, which is very interesting.
Sounds kind of painful…On behalf of all the viewers, thank you for enduring the corset.
[laughs] The most difficult was actually eating: eating with a corset on is a massive challenge!” (Brothers, Corsets, and Whips: An Exclusive Interview With Jemima West)
I am rolling my eyes SO HARD at both West and the interviewer.
There’s a few other lovely kimono-type lounging robes:
And then some weird ones, made of a super modern metallic fabric that made me twitch:
But the prostitutes’ main ensemble are these sheer metallic organza overdress thingies that are basically a chemise and hooped bustle. I don’t hate them, but they’re very modern and I’m not a major fan.
Rose’s are always in gold:
But they come in a range of colors for other characters:
A few hair thoughts — of course I loved redhead Angèle, except: okay, so hair has a natural breaking point. And given the tightness of her curls, maybe this is as long as her hair grows. But she NEVER EVER wears it “up” or styled, even when she’s making house calls or otherwise might have call for at least SOME kind of styling:
And Valentine has longish pieces that she wears looped up to create faux-bangs, which is possibly period correct as the 1870s is one of the few eras in which bangs were fashionable, and I can imagine someone not wanting to actually cut their hair. However, these just read as retro pin-up model to me:
And finally, a lovely image from when a professional photographer comes to the brothel to take pictures of the prostitutes dressed up in fancy dress:
Have you watched Maison Close? What’s your take on their version of 1870s costume?