Marie Antoinette by Jacques-Fabien Gautier D'Agoty (1775) Musee Antoine-Lecuyer, Saint-Quentin France
In the court of Louis XVI, members competed for attention and tried to outdo each other with witty remarks and the latest novelty fashions. The most unusual hairdo would soon have to be outdone by another -- something more ingenious and over the top.
A beehive form made from wire was created stuffed with wool or horse hair, and then it was mounted on top of the head. Hair was wrapped around these frames – and when women didn’t have enough (or it was too fine or thin) false hair was added -- building it up to soar up to three feet high. The do was powered with flour which helped to set the creation and absorb natural oils from the head. But it was this same flour that so many starving peasants desperately needed to have to bake bread.
Image from La Mesure de l'Excellence.
Women placed in their hair little figurines made from fabric and small objects made from papier maché. Their hairdresser arranged them as sceneries or landscapes. Sometimes, they used their hair as a stage to replicate historical scenes or sometimes to communicate an emotion -- sentimental pouf -- this type of do was called.
She wore these hairstyles at court and in town, and this had a swift and contagious effect. Rose Bertin, a mere plebeian, was now known as the Minister of Fashion.
"Everybody was talking of the poufs created by the firm of Bertin . . . one famous pouf was that of the Duchesse de Lauzun. She appeared at a reception wearing a most delicious pouf. It contained a stormy sea, ducks swimming near the shore, someone on the point of shooting one of them; on the top of the head there was a mill, the miller’s wife being made love to by an abbe, whilst near the ear the miller could be seen leading a donkey."
excerpt from Rose Bertin -- The Creator of Fashion at the Court of Marie Antoinette. By Émile Langlade. Published in 1913. I so want to find this book....
“The Preposterous Head Dress, or the Featherd Lady", London: Published by M. Darly, March 20, 1776. Yale Library.
The Duchesse de Chartres was one of the biggest big pouf wearers. She wore in her pouf small figures of her five children. Another time she appeared at the opera with her hair dressed in a sentimental pouf – nestled in it she had a little figure of her eldest son in his nurse's arms, a parrot pecking at a cherry, a little black boy, and the initials of her son and husband.
This trend spread England and to Sweden, one woman was report to have even created a replica of her dead husband’s tombstone.
“Miss Juniper Fox”, London. Published by M. Darly, March 2, 1777. Yale Library.
One of the most fashionable hairstyles of the eighteenth century was called: À la Belle Poule, which commemorated the victory of a French ship over an English ship in 1778.
In 1776 the Duchess of Devonshire was said to have made the addition of ostrich feathers, beads and flowers fashionable in le pouf. “Lady All-Top", London: Published by J. Lockington, May 15, 1776. Yale Library.
These big hairstyles created problems though. Hairstyles would obstruct other patron’s views at the theatre. It was difficult to move through doorways or in and out of carriages without knocking it over. Women would stick their head out of a moving carriage – the roof was simply not high enough. Some women kneeled on the floor for the extra room. Rumor says that many slept upright for weeks as not to muss their do. And many others would get their hair caught on fire from candlelit sconces. Lice, mice and other such things were said to have made these pouf their home.
This one is my favorite: "Miss Shuttle-Cock", London, Published by M. Darly, December 6, 1776. Yale Library.
Queens were always expected to look like the king’s dutiful subject – necessary only to produce heirs. It was the king’s expensive, flashy favorite mistresses for whom ultra-chic fashion was appropriate -- not his wife. But Louis XVI was faithful to Marie Antoinette and instead of providing excitement in the bedroom, he allowed her to spend spend and spend some more. Marie Antoinette’s end was tragic, no doubt. She lived a life of furbelows, flounces, and fandangle, (I don’t think I’ve used that word since 1982!); extravagance and excessive spending. And then she paid for it -- her pouf permanently separated from her shoulders.
(Top image from Boston Museum of Fine Art: Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français. 2e. Cahier des Nouveaux Costumes Français pour les Coeffures B.12 (duplicate) "Pouf d'un gout nouveau..."French, 1778)