Dominique Pennegues

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The twenties brought back the Parisian Apache style into fashion in the upper classe. Apache phenomenon dated from the second half of the 18th century and ended in 1914.

However, the Roaring Twenties choosen this movement's particular costume, music and dance, making famous for posterity a deeper social phenomenon, to which some politicians attributed the origin of the anarchist movement, so to justify the young Apaches's "death sentence" by placing them on the front line of the battle at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. The carnage was such that it effectively ended the movement.

The question that arises first is the origin of the word "apache" for these street gangs of young boys and girls, issued from poor working classe families and  living in the north and east of Paris.

French medias of the time defined those gangs as "violent, immoral and cruel, not having control of their passions and desires."

Parisian police spoke of life threatening at every street corner, speaking of the ability of young apache to handle a knife. Police also gave these young people a more honorable image  when evoking their courage to fight (which allowed police forces to glorify themselves when making prisoners some of them).

But who really were these young girls and boys, what was their real behaviour, and what about the real danger they could pose to the safety of Paris at the time ? And from where their Apache nick name comes ?

It's Alfred Delvau who, first, called the gangs "redskins" in 1860, in his novel "Paris underground."

We know that in the 19th century, the French authorities rated the Native American Apaches as  "wild barbarous", without moral nor potential to progress in their behavior, their greatest pleasure being to kill and dance."

 We note that this definition of Native American Apache people was early taken  by French press to name  street gangs of youth from Belleville and Ménilmontant.

 However, reality was very different. Consultation of police records (more reliable than the press) shows that the majority of those young people who had been the subject of an arrest were issued from working class families, had received an education, they could read and write, and older ones (15-20 years) exercised a regular day job.

 The gangs were well organized, subject to compliance with the rules passed by the group, the girls held an equal place to young men's ones, and could be chosen to be the head of the organisation, this recognition of women being in total contradiction with its time.

 The Apaches wore during the day an outfit suited to their profession of workers, and had another outfit for the night. At this time of day, they paid very close attention to their style, and particularly their footwear.

 Always carefully combed and shaved, "clean on themselves and their clothes", their dress code consisted of a cap, a dark jacket, a white shirt, plaid or dark pants, a red neckerchief , a belt made of a strip of red cloth with fringes, and shiny boots.

The hair was cut short in the neck ("to facilitate the blade of the guillotine") and the face was framed by two long "lines of hair" . A tattoo on one cheek (dots) allowed to know to which gang  each member belonged. Some of them also wore a tattoo at the end of the eye for a deeper look.

They wore during robberies espadrilles for not making any noise. Their acts of robberies were always in bourgeois apartments, which earned them the sympathy of the working class who did not hesitate sometimes to help them escape.

Their entire outfit refers to the classic outfit of the Autonomous Province of Navarre : cap is a variation of the beret, red neckchief evokes the blood of the St. Fermin's beheading, who was saint of Navarre patron. Red cloth belt and espadrille are also originating from the same province.

 This effort delivered in appearance, to assert their desire for freedom and independence from a system of classes, différentiats them from mafia lawless of the same time and with which they are too often confused, newspapers, and later novels and films, having totally hijacked the originality of this phenomenon.

The flexibility of mind of youth is found in their ability to adapt to the image that the media gave them at the time. Thus, when in 1898, a deadly fight happened between two men in the presence of a woman Faubourg du Temple, the incident was assigned and Parisians could read in the press the next day an article entitled "Crime committed by the Apaches of Belleville. "

The nickname was immediately popular and adopted by the young rebels who considered themselves flattered to belong to Geronimo's descendants. From that very moment, the red neckchief became worn in honor of the famous warrior who had adopted it too. In December of the same year, a coffee room located Place du Palais Royal was broken into and police forces could read, written on the mirror with soap, the words "This was done by the Apaches". Never so much delinquency had been committed by these young people before they were granted the famous surname, and they did it in order to honor it. The names of the gangs changed: 'Terror of Pantin "and "Montparnasse Pantere " became " Belleville Redskins  "and" Montrouge Mohawk".

The "Apaches", who used to spend their free time dancing, gradually changed their dance to make it more passionate, dangerous, violent and acrobatic, thus adapting to the reputation that the media made of them. This dance, which became famous during the twenties, is supposed to mime a pimp and a prostitute. There was no fixed choreography, each couple created that he wanted at the time of performance, and harmonica which was their usual musical instrument was replaced by the accordion.

At the same time, a group of artists, poets, writers and musicians, decided to name their group "Groupe Apache" to protest against the conservatism of French composers. They chose as hymn Borodin's Second Symphony . Among them were Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinski, Manuel de Falla and Leon Paul Fargue.

The Apache dance became better known to the public when Mistinguett and Max Dearly presented it to the public at Le Moulin Rouge in 1908 under the name of "Valse Chaloupée". Georges Villard had preceded  them a few months before, by writing the famous "Valse Brune." (1)

In 1911, Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier (himself from Belleville) presented once more the Apache dance as 'La valse Renversante (the Stunning Waltz)  at the Folies Bergeres.

Rudolph Valentino, born to a French mother, came to Paris to share the life of an Apache dancers couple to learn their style of dance. Other songs were written, including "Apaches of Paris" by G. Delmas, and this craze offered a new space for young Apaches dancers who were recruited for some cabaret "special nights".

The First World War ended the Apache movement which was replaced after the war by "le milieu".  Yet a surprising revival Apache movement took place through the clothing fashion and entertainment world.

 The new craze for this movement / lifestyle (term ro be taken with distance) had its echo in the world of dolls where the greatest creators, including Stefania Lazarska, Paul Poiret and Gerb's proposed their artistic Apaches dolls,  particularly interesting in terms of expression and painted features.

 Note that some of them have a cigarette between their lips, and men dolls are more common than women dolls, which do not represent real Apache girls, but wealthy women disguised as Apache for the time of an evening.

 These dolls were for French customers but also for export, as shown in an advertisement published in Playting 1927.

English, German and American manufacturers have also produced Apaches dolls, such as Blossom or Etta, and this type of dolls is particularly sought after by doll collectors.


 (1) Maurice Mouvet, French born in New York, presented the Apache dance in New York in 1913. He claimed to be the creator of the "new dance" and had been inspired while observing the original Apache dancers in the Halles district during his stay in Paris in 1908 with Max Dearly.