An Introduction to the French Grisette

The Grisette's Job and Identity

The grisette was a category of working woman specific to 18th and 19th century France. She is hard to define as she was multifaceted, embodied various personalities and functions, and was also viewed differently by each socioeconomic class. According to Louis Huart, bourgeois women viewed the grisette as a "fillette" (little girl) and a creature who makes trouble due to the unique freedoms granted by her lifestyle. This condescending label reinforces the class stratification in France at the time. In contrast, the college student, with whom the grisette lived, viewed her as an "ange" (angel). This is further differentiated from the confessor who considered the grisette to be a demon. As Louis Huart states in Physiologie de la grisette, the grisette’s biggest charm was that she was indefinable.

As mentioned earlier, the grisette often moved from the countryside to Paris to seek a life living with a student. A grisette native to Paris was known to be the “queen of grisettes” seeing that she represented a mix of qualities found in grisettes that moved to Paris from other towns in the country. One can distinguish a grisette based on her specialized work: grisettes in Toulouse specialized in making hairpins whereas grisettes in Grenoble specialized in making gloves. At the age of thirty, grisettes lost their role as a grisette. Grisettes went on to be streetwalkers, lorettes, married women, or simply working women who no longer held any charm for upper class men [1].

The Portrayal of the Grisette

Grisettes were known to be generally happy, very hard-working and dedicated, as well as funny, youthful, and innocent. Despite not going to university, the grisette loved reading and writing poetry mostly about love and romance [2]. When it came to spelling, she improvised a mix of letters to form words. Ironically, she was said to excuse her student for his grammatical mistakes. The grisette also loved making art and decorating the house with flowers, specifically “giroflées" (wallflowers, Erysimum)[3]. It was particularly impressive that the grisette could read and write. She usually only left the house in order to meet with bourgeois women to get them fitted for clothing; therefore, she excitedly waited for Sundays when she and her student could spend the day together outside of their home.

As you will read throughout this exhibit, grisettes cohabited with male university students and performed various tasks similar to those of a wife or a modern day nanny. During their relationship/cohabitation, grisettes lived with the students and, according to the men who wrote stories about the grisette, benefited from educational conversations with them. The grisette’s tasks included cleaning and organizing the student’s house and mending his clothes. This was all in addition to her work during the day as a seamstress or embroiderer. It is important to remember that the grisette is a literary figure that has been documented by men and thus from their points of view. As you will notice throughout our exhibit, we frequently reference different physiologies that seek to analyze and describe the role of a grisette during 19th century France. At the time, physiologies were books written about specific societal groups, studying every aspect of their life. We cite La Physiologie de la Grisette by Louis Huart multiple times because Huart was a French journalist, writer, and theater director who did extensive work on grisettes in France. 

The Grisette in Parent du Chatelet

Parent du Chatelet does not mention grisettes in his 1836 book documenting prostitution in Paris. While putting together this exhibition, we searched for any mention of grisettes in his book, but found nothing. He was, however, concerned with seamstresses, laundresses, and other trades that the grisettes came from.

His concern regarding seamstresses and other women like them appears in two sections of the book. In the section on registering prostitutes, he writes about licensed women who work as prostitutes "sous le titre de" (under the title of) seamstresses, laundresses, or milliners [4]. After telling the police officers how to deal with underage women who they catch, he raises the issue of prostitutes with these titles who entertain "les jeune libertines" (young libertines) either at home or in dark areas, or those who refer the young men to other prostitutes who will entertain them [4]. In another section, he writes about the same women who hide behind these titles as a way of avoiding police surveillance [4]. He even mentions the "panier" (delivery box) that grisettes are known to carry, but the context is very different [4]. In this section, he is writing about "Prostitution Clandestine," prostitution that is illegal or secret. He writes (translated by Mariel Freeman Lifschutz): 

"But it is mainly in taking the title of different trades, or simply the title of linen maid, seamstress, laundress, milliner, etc., that the majority of women who prefer illegal prostitution, evade the police's surveillance, and come to justify their actions." [4]

These sections do not mention the grisette, and they seem to be more focused on prostitutes who disguise themselves as these types of workers. Grisettes, however, did not act the same way as women in brothels or streetwalkers. They maintained relationships with students while also working as seamstresses, embroiderers, etc.

However, there are mentions of grisettes in the third edition of Parent du Chatelet's work from 1857, which contains new documents by two other men: Trebuchet and Poirat-Duval. This would suggest that the term "grisette" was not a term for these women at the time that Parent du Chatelet first published his book. In this edition, grisettes are mentioned in four different sections, most of which are concerned with the spread of syphilis. Grisettes are first mentioned on page 90, and the author writes that the doctors often find syphilis and related illnesses in "the many young girls known under the name of grisettes" (translated by Mariel Freeman Lifschutz) [5]. These women, according to this section, voluntarily get examined because it is free. Unlike the 1836 volume, this edition mentions the fact that grisettes often clean for medical students and law students. It does not seem to make the connection between their sexuality and this work [5].

Grisettes are mentioned again in a section specifically about prostitution in the city of Nantes and controlling syphilis outbreaks. The fear appears to be that the preference for women who aren't observed by the police, including grisettes, is a constant cause of syphilis in Nantes [5]. In their census of prostitutes in Nantes, 69 of them were born in the region, with the majority of them being grisettes. In the following section, grisettes are said to leave their father's home and religion for an apartment with one of their lovers [5]. The last time grisettes are mentioned, unregistered grisettes are singled out in a conversation on asylum for all prostitutes [5]. This later edition seems to have a somewhat better understanding of who grisettes were and what they did than the first edition, but the authors are uninterested in the grisettes themselves unless it has to do with public health. 

Where is she now?

There is no contemporary equivalent for the grisette for two main reasons: the sexual revolution and the drastic change in the role of women in society. Women’s acceptance in higher education and an increase in romantic and sexual agency have made grisettes obsolete. However, there are some similarities between today’s women and a grisette, the most notable being the higher concentration of women in the service industry, including sex work. These three main practices highlight aspects of the grisette that are still visible today: cohabitation in college, hookup culture on campuses, and the employment of nannies. Each of these practices relates to one aspect of the grisette’s identity or role; click through to find out more.


[1] Huart, Louis. 1841. Physiologie de la grisette: Vigrettes de Gavarni. Paris: Aubert, Lavigne. p. 8, 9, 12, 23, 24

[2] Curmer, Léon and Pierre Bouttier. 2004. Les Français peints par eux-Mêmes: encyclopédie morale du dix-Neuvième siècle. Paris: Omnibus. p. 212

[3] Huart, Louis. 1841. Physiologie de la grisette: Vigrettes de Gavarni. Paris: Aubert, Lavigne p. 7, 38

[4] Parent du Chatelet, Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste. 1836. De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris. Paris: Chez J-B Baillière, Libraire de l'Académie Royale de Médecine, p. 392, 497, 498. Hathi Trust, Accessed May 10, 2017.

[5] Parent du Chatelet, A-J-B, Trebuchet, and Poirat-Duval. 1857. De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris, Troisième édition, Commenter par des documents nouveau et des notes. Paris: Chez J-B Baillière, Libraire de l'Académie Royale de Médecine. p. 90, 485, 487, 490, 742

An Introduction to the French Grisette