Joyeux Quatorze Juillet! Happy Bastille Day! Bon jour to la République and au revior Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. What better way to celebrate La Fête Nationale than by exploring one of the most famous of the Ancien Régime’s follies.
Apart from a predilection for carb-laden treats, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” or “let them eat cake” was actually never said by the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, the French queen is most associated with her dramatic taste in costumes.
AND NO WHERE IS THE EXTRAVAGANT STYLISTIC CHOICES OF THE COURT AT VERSAILLES MORE EVIDENT THAN IN THEIR EXPERIMENTS IN COIFFURE.
Though only 14 when she left Vienna to marry the would-be King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette was still expected to “set the tone at Versailles,” and to downplay the formidable “Habsburg forehead.” With this stern mandate from her likewise formidable mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, and the artistic manipulations of her hairdresser, Léonard Autié, she did just that.
The result was the “pouf.” This whimsical concoction was a dome of natural hair, additional hair pieces and wiglets, feathers, ribbons, all manner of accessories, all finished with a heavy dusting of hair powder. To style these “dos” a generous dollop of pomade was employed by the hairdresser. These early hair gels were primarily made up of animal fat or lard and plant oils. Often times these fussy hairstyles could last a week. But after seven days the wearer had to beware of a distinct stench emanating from their locks, due to the putrefaction of the pomade.
Regardless of smell, French style continued to reach new heights, quite literally. In a letter from her mother, Maria Theresa scolds the young royal for her fashionable excesses. Rumors of Marie Antoinette‘s hair had reached the Viennese court, and the Empress chastised her daughter for her pouf that was said to be “36 pouces,” or 91.44 cm high (36 inches)! In order to accommodate these three foot “Franken-dos” ladies had to kneel to enter and exit carriages. Perhaps the ladylike migraines and fainting spells of court damsels were a result of these hairy burdens!?
Despite smell and weight French ladies were enamored with the Habsburg princess’ coiffure. One of Mari Antoinette‘s ladies-in-waiting noted:
“Immediately everyone wanted the same hairstyle as the queen, to wear feathers and garlands…The expenses of the young ladies were greatly increased, mothers and husbands complained, and some fools ran up debts. there were upsetting domestic quarrels, many marriages went color or split apart, and the general rumor was that the queen would ruin all French ladies.“- Madame Campan
Eventually, ladies abandoned the odd feather or ribbon for more exotic hair accouterments. Small wax dolls, fruits, and plant-life dotted the poufs of Versailles. Notable examples of these hairy extravagances include: The “pouf à la victoire,” a hairstyle complete with laurel branches to celebrate American victory after France entered the War for Independence. Other militaristic “dos” were the coiffure à la Belle Poule and the coiffure à l’Indépendance ou le Triomphe de la Liberté. Nestled in these hairstyles were models of successful French war ships. What better way to celebrate an English defeat than a thoroughly Gallic pouf?
Other styles were slightly more morbid. Women took to wearing tiny crematory urns in their wigs to indicate mourning. After the death of Louis XV, the coiffure allégorique grieved the king with a miniature cypress tree (a traditional symbol of death), whilst sporting a tiny cornucopia as a sign of a hopeful new reign under Louis XVI.
The end of the 18th century saw the zenith of these mountainous hairstyles. But at the height of this hair frenzy, court style changed. In exchange for dramatic hair and dress, Marie Antoinette and her bevy of court ladies, adopted a less fussy style. Silk dresses were swapped for less restrictive cotton gowns. And hair was now worn à l’enfant, a simple style lacking the height of the pouf.
However, these modest adjustments to the royal toilette could not save the Bourbon monarchy from the mounting unrest of the French public. On July 14th the Bastille prison was stormed, the symbolic flashpoint for what would be the French Revolution. Soon Marie Antoinette and her husband would lose their heads (and hair!).
227 years have passed since Marie Antoinette and her well-coiffured head wore the crown of France, but the lady and the pouf continue to capture society’s imagination. Every year another biography of the tragic queen makes its way to the New York Times’ Best Seller’s List, “period piece” movies like Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette attract gaggles of sartorial junkies, and exhibitions glorifying the 18th century aesthetic make their way through the museum circuit, like the Met’s recent show on court painter and Marie Antoinette favorite, Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun. 2009 even saw a brief resurgence of the “pouf” thanks to MTV’s Jersey Shore, albeit on a smaller, tanner scale.
Yesterday, the New York Times reported that current President of the French Republic, François Hollande, has been paying a steep fee for his own hair upkeep-9,895 euros a month since 2012. With such a staggering sum, we wonder if Mr. Hollande will be debuting his own Marie Antoinette style pouf?
Written by Mallory O’Donoghue
Graphics by Patricia Lesyk