Parisian Street Gangs or Fashion Icons: Why Not Both?

As is the case with many duels, the fight was over a woman. But unlike your classic literary duel, where two gentlemen battle over the honor of a shrinking violet at dawn, the participants here were two gang leaders and a prostitute — and rather than 10 paces at dawn, this “duel” was a deadly brawl.

It was 1902, the height of the Parisian Belle Epoque, a time when the French capital was still the cultural center of the world, and the bourgeoisie were back in full swing 108 years after the Reign of Terror. While newspapers mostly ignored the goings-on of the lower classes, this proletariat love triangle caught their attention because it involved the Apaches, the most fashionable gang of the early 20th century. Amélie Élie, better known as “Casque D’Or” (Golden Helmet) for her golden red hair, had expertly been pulling at the heartstrings of Manda and Leca, the leaders of the Orteaux and Popincourt factions of the Apaches. The spurned Manda amassed his gang on the streets of Belleville, ready to confront Leca and his men. What ensued was nothing short of all-out war, with a barrage of shots fired and several vicious stabbings.

The following day, Arthur Dupin, a journalist at The Journal, wrote of the incident: “These are the customs of the Apaches, of the Far West, unworthy of our civilization.” The name, which tied into French ideas of the time about Native Americans and the Wild West, was already in use: It had stuck after a police inspector speaking to a journalist in 1900 compared the savagery of gang crime to stories about the U.S. tribe.

After the story of this gang duel hit the press, the Apaches became a Parisian sensation. Unlike the factory workers, street vendors, laundresses and street sweepers who composed the respectable working class of northeastern Paris, the Apaches preferred a particular brand of thievery, known for head-butting, sucker punching and garotting victims with scarves — as well as a unique pistol, the Apache revolver, whose handle was made of brass knuckles and whose end was decorated with a switchblade. But while thieves had always been one of the dangers of Paris, this group of young men and women, mostly aged 15–21, also stood out for their unique dandy style and bizarre slang, known as la langue verte.

France, circa 1900: Les Apaches de Paris

Source Getty Images

Apaches did not let their poverty impede upon their sense of fashion, something they took very seriously. They wore a distinctive flat cap called a “deffe” atop heavily pomaded slicked-back hair and piled layers of waistcoats and vests over intentionally wrinkled sailor shirts. A single blue dot could be found tattooed under nearly every member’s left eye. Their slacks were tight around the knees and flared at the bottom. Apaches were also very particular about their footwear, which they kept constantly shined and in impeccable condition. Should the beloved shoes get scratched, they were automatically thrown away. Female Apaches, by contrast, went hatless and wore black ribbons around their throats.

The Apaches, a term that covered a number of gangs all across Paris, were a cultural sensation. Soon, members of the upper echelons of society started copying their manner of dress, even going as far as to take classes in their slang terms. There was even an Apache dance, popular well into the 1920s, in which a male and female dancer enacted a fight between an Apache pimp and a prostitute. The routine could get so violent that dancers reportedly got injured while performing it.

The Apache dance artistically demonstrates their essence — romanticized for their flair while simultaneously representing a very real threat. The Apaches were known to kill police officers, and there were reports of foreign visitors afraid to visit Paris, believing it was overrun by gang members. Others reportedly were so fascinated by the gangs that they were taken in by fake Apache tours, where guides on the make showed curious tourists “dens” inhabited by actors dressed as gang members. But some scholars believe that the fear of the Apaches was a case of mass hysteria. “There was in Paris a real ‘apache moment’ that lasted from 1900 to 1914,” says Dominique Kalifa, Apache historian and author of the upcoming book Crime, Vice and Poverty: How the Western Imagination Invented the Underworld. “We speak only of apaches,” wrote a reporter in 1907, which was right. But today it is very difficult to know if Apaches aroused real fears or if it was only a hysterical craze during which Parisians amused themselves through fear,” Kalifa adds. In that same year, Parisian police estimated there were 70,000 gang members in the city.

By the end of World War I, however, the threat of the Apaches had all but disappeared. But their cultural legacy lived on for decades through books, plays, songs and even a film named after the famous prostitute Casque D’Or, which hit theaters in 1952. Feared in the past, romanticized now, the Apaches are a historical enigma existing in a liminal zone between fact and fiction.