History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

27 August 2008

Can You Top This? Marie Antoinette's Hairstyles

"The Ladies' Head-Dress"

Give Chloe a bushel of horsehair and wool
Of paste and pomatum a pound
Ten yards of gay ribbon to deck her sweet scull
And gauze to encompass it round.
Let her gown be tucked up to the hip on each side
Shoes too high for to walk or to jump
And to deck sweet charmer complete for a bride
Let the cork cutter make her a rump
Thus finished in taste while on Chloe you gaze
you may take the dear charmer for life
but never undress her, for out of her stays
You’ll find you have lost half your wife.

---The Lady's Magazine, 1777

This post falls into the category of "research outtakes" -- marvelous information that I have come across while researching another subject -- in this case, the marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.

But I admit to a passion for fashion myself, so I just couldn't skim over the parts of Marie Antoinette's biographies that refer to the popular Parisian hairdresser Monsieur Léonard Alexis Autier (1751?-1820) being summoned by the Queen of France to race over to Versailles and dress the royal coiffeure.

Before Marie Antoinette, the youngest archduchess of Austria, arrived in 1770 to wed the Dauphin, Frenchwomen had already begun to style their hair into tall poufs by coating it with pomade and tugging and teasing it over wire cages and woolen pads. The term "hairdresser" was born in the mid 18th century, known as such because they dressed the hair with ornamentation. By 1767 there were 1200 hairdressers working in Paris; a few years earlier there had been none.

French ladies of the 1770s

The new Dauphine was expected to embrace the styles of her adopted country (in fact, before she was handed over to the French delegation in April, 1770, she was compelled to undress fully and divest herself of every shred of Austrian clothing and change into garments constructed in France of French textiles made in French factories, mills, and workshops.) Marie Antoinette was also expected to set fashion trends and to spend lavishly as she did so, because it was good for business.

Marie Antoinette, who reportely shampooed her hair with a mixture of eggs, white wine vinegar and rum, took the the pouf coiffeures to new heights until they reached absurd extremes of more than three feet. These towering creations were adorned with a profusion of ornaments and objects on it that showcased current events, turning a noble woman's hairdo almost into a bulletin board. One of the most famous of these current events coiffeures was the "inoculation" pouf that the queen wore to publicize her success in persuading the King to be vaccinated against smallpox.

Marie Antoinette's august mother, Empress Maria Teresa of Austria, chastized her for her frivolity and extravagance, specifically targeting the queen's outlandish hairstyles:

I cannot help but touch upon a point that many of the papers repeat to me too often: it is the hairstyle that you wear. They say that from the roots it measures 36 pouces high and with all the feathers and ribbons that hold all of that up! You know that I have always been of the opinion that one should follow fashion moderately, but never carry it to excess. A pretty young queen full of charms has no need of all these follies. Quite the contrary. A simple hairstyle suits her better and is more appropriate for a queen. She must set the tone, and everyone will hurry to follow even your smallest errors . . .

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, Sony Pictures, 2006

Léonard would start by interweaving Marie Antoinette's real hair with fake tresses and arrange it on a wire form placed on her head and padded with wool, straw, or cotton. Then he would stiffen the hair with a scented pomade (made of beef lard or bear grease) and cover it with powder. Huge capes were draped about the client, who was already in court dress, and then the powder was blown on to the coiffeure. In 1770, no one -- male or female -- could come to court with unpowdered hair. People who visited Versailles in the 1770s recalled that scent of pomatum pervaded the entire court.

Mme. Henriette Campan, Marie Antoinette's First Lady of the Bedchamber, observed that Immediately everyone wanted the same hairstyle as the queen, to wear feathers and garlands . .. The expenses of young ladies were greatly increased, mothers and husbands complained, some fools ran up debts, there were upsetting domestic quarrels, many marriages went cold or split apart, and the general rumor was that the queen would ruin all French ladies.

And according to Jane Austen's cousin Eliza Hancock, later Eliza de Feuillide, people looked as if they had been "dipped in a meal-tub."

After the foundation was ready, it was time to get creative: the hair would be accessorized, stylized, cut into defining scenes, modeled into shapes, fruits, things, from recent gossip to nativities to husband's infidelities, to French naval vessels like the "Belle Poule", to the pouf "aux insurgents," complete with ships and smoke, in honor of the American Revolution. Some of these insanely elaborate hairdos featured live birds in cages, waterfalls, cupids, and naval battles. In an eccentric display of mourning, one widow had her husband's tombstone erected in her hair.

Because these hairdos were tremendously costly, women would keep them for a week or two. Naturally, since it was coated with animal fat and a powder mixed from flour, the hair would become rancid and would often attract vermin -- ostensibly the origin of the term "her hair is a 'rats nest'. " And how would they mask the stench of the rotting pomades? French perfumes, naturellement!

It's axiomatic of of any era that women who are slaves to high fashion will endure physical pain and make all sorts of physical sacrifices to sport the latest style. [I admit that my definition of a "sensible shoe" is that the heel height is a mere 3" ]

In Marie Antoinette's day, women developed backaches from the weight of their coiffeures. Carriage interiors were not high enough to accommodate these overwrought constructions, and women might travel for miles crunched over and crumpling their full skirted silk gowns because their hair would not travel upright.

Like the look? I saw this wig online for a mere $90. If you were to decorate it yourself with an eye toward illustrating our own current events, what would you use to adorn it?


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I would decorate my wig with little American Flags and Obama for President pins. Perhaps some macadamia nuts since Obama is from Hawaii, and some Hawaiian flowers.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love it! Fabulous!!

I'm sort of in the mood to decorate mine with a couple of melting glaciers and a little lake (if they could do naval battles in MA's day, I'm sure I could figure out how to balance a puddle in the wig) and a poor little polar bear struggling to get from one ice floe to another.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Amanda! I love it.

How did they sleep with thier hair this big and heavy? Sitting upright?

11:54 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I couldn't find any definitive answer on the sleeping issue, and I wondered about it myself. I did find some reference to gauze, so I think they may have removed some of the hardware, left the basic coiffeure in place (and the hairdresser came back the next day to stick everything back in) and wrapped their heads in gauze.

This works, in terms of preserving the basic hairdo -- because my grandmother (back when people used to get their hair done professionally once a week and never washed it and set it themselves in the interim -- which I could never understand) used to wrap her head in (unused, obviously) toilet paper, to preserve her hairstyle while she slept.

But I think that most of the beds had long tubular boslters rather than pillows and so I guess the vainest women did sort of sleep semi-upright. Yet I wonder, since they all had affairs, how they tossed around amid the sheets ... unless they only availed themselves of certain positions.

Now there's a thesis: "sex and the 18th century hairstyles."

12:07 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I was fascinated by the whole hairstyle thing myself, Amanda, when I researched The Bookseller's Daughter. So I had my eponymous heroine Marie-Laure get her hair done by one of those wild and crazy hairdressers, for a party that Benjamin Franklin will be attending.

But as my book happens in the mid-1780s (when the queen had gone all Rousseau), after suffering through hours of crimping and teasing, Marie-Laure winds up with something the hairdresser calls:

...a veritable milkmaid’s coiffure: the Queen herself was wearing just such simple styles these days.

Just the thing, Marie-Laure thinks, that every milkmaid wears to bid the cows bonjour.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, I love the idea of all those hours spent fussing and teasing and crimping, just to look "natural" -- which is exactly what we're still doing today. I can't count the number of times I've seen elaborate "how-to's" in magazines to get the same look I have when I pin up my hair for the shower or bath, or pull it back for the gym. And that tousled look which I love to call the "freshly ****ed" look," is how my hair tends to look when I do absolutely nothing at all to it, but wash it, use a bit of conditioner, and let it dry on its own.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fabulous post, Amanda! I love getting my hair done for special occasions, but it's truly hard to imagine living (let alone sleeping or do anything else in bed :-) in such elaborate hair styles. One reason I like writing in the Regency with its relatively simpler dress and hairstyles.

11:38 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

When I was researching Emma Hamilton's background for TOO GREAT A LADY, I learned that she not only had hair down to her knees when she was a teenager, but at the time when she was working at Dr. Graham's Temple of Health demonstrating his mud bath cures, her hair was also powdered and dressed on top of her head and the weight of all that hair alone, plus the pomade and powder was staggering and gave her headaches. She needed to use so much "product" as the hairdressers like to call it these days, just to cover all that auburn hair.

Does anyone know how the hair powdering craze came about? Or why, if there was a why? Or why they did that to their own hair, since wigs were tremendously popular at the time?

5:03 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Those hair styles are mind blowing! I would decorate that wig with little gold medals in honor of Michael Phelps! I can't swim so I really admire someone who can in in world record time.

I don't know how they wore those powdered wigs. When I was singing more often than not I had to wear an elaborate wig onstage. They're HOT! ITCHY! and HEAVY! For some roles they would just add extensions or literally sew hair to my own hair.

My Mom has wrapped her hair in toilet paper on Saturday nights for years so her "coiffure" is perfect for church.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Louisa I'm so relieved and delighted to know that my grandmother's toilet paper method of coiffeure preservation was not a personal eccentricity (because she certainly had plenty of those!), but a time-honored tradition practiced by savvy women!

I used to wear a lot of wigs when I was performing classics onstage, but nothing that was dressed as elaborately as the hair in my post. And they were hot enough without myriad decorations piled onto them. But my own hair is really heavy and can't even hold a set, even with a ton of heavy duty hairspray, and when I didn't wear wigs, the weight of my hair would pull out a style within 10 minutes of setting it, so in order to preserve the health of my hair, which wasn't going to hold the style for the duration of the performance anyway, I opted for wigs instead.

I LOVE your Michael Phelps wig creation! Marvelous! I kept telling my husband during the Olympics that I had so much awe and respect for these athletes because I can't do any of that myself. I even had a dream about Michael Phelps during the Olympics, but it was before he nabbed the 8th gold. I dreamt that he came to NYC and my friends and I took him out for a night on the town. And in my dream he was sort of sweetly awkward and overwhelmed by the pace and bustle of New York City. I guess my subconscious wanted to believe that there was something he couldn't do, that I could. :)

7:26 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Good Lord! Between those towering hairdos and the panniers, can you imagine how hard it must have been to get through doorframes? You'd have to stoop and turn sideways, all at the same time....

2:17 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lauren, that's one reason I love to visit old houses because I always have the fashions of the day in mind as I check out how wide and high the door frames are (ditto for staircases) and how deep the chairs are, whether they have arms (I figured that most 18th c. formal armchairs must be only for the men because you can't squash the panniers between the armrests).

2:39 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I wish the big, padded derrières were still in style!!! Pastries for everyone! Oh, wait, isn't that how MA got in to trouble in the first place...

Great and fascinating post, Amanda, although the idea of rotting hair on my head is just gross :)

3:19 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Jessica, my current research on Marie Antoinette dispels the myth about the pastries -- so nosh away!

She never said "Let them eat cake" (Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.) That expression, or a very similar one has been attributed to French queens of previous reigns. Rousseau had heard it or was aware of it -- and that was years before MA's time.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I should have said, "supposedly got into trouble." I actually knew she didn't say that :) But thanks for clearing up where it did come from!

Now, about big butts being in fashion...

8:51 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Jessica, Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez are quite proud of their bodacious derrieres. There are always going to be designers who favor curvy women. One of the great things about living today, is that you don't have to conform to just one ideal to be in fashion.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Sandy Blair said...

Fabulous article!!!!!

6:26 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

re those gowns with panniers: I learned that there was a proper way to walk in them, rather like ice-skating. Or imagine mopping the floor with both your feet.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks, Sandy! I had fun writing it!

Pam, I've been reading about how the ladies used to glide in the heavy pannier-ed skirts, and that Marie Antoinette in particular was known for her incredible grace in doing so.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Rebekah Phillips said...

I would decorate it with shells, flowers, and ribbons. It would make me the belle of the ball!

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Mary Livingston said...

Dear Writer of this Aricle,

About how long do you think a lady of fashion take to get her hair ready in the 1770's? Thank you.

Mary Livingston

4:01 PM  

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