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Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1708/Dress in France

From The Pall Mall Gazette.


In the last article written by M. Chapus before his death the fashionable chronicler of Le Sport traces the changes which have taken place in French costume since the last of the Valois, of whom M. Chapus says: "He (Henri III.) corrupted the morals of his period, as his sister Marguerite de Valois did the fashions." M. Chapus says that, though she had an abundance of beautiful black hair, she had a great fondness, like ladies of a more modern time, for golden locks, and wore wigs of her favorite color. She selected as pages only those lads who had hair of this color, and did not scruple to have it cut off when she wanted a new perruque. She wore a number of gold chains twisted into the hair and several more around her neck; and in this, as in other fashions, her example was generally followed by the ladies of the nobility and of the bourgeoisie. Among these customs, most of them involving considerable expense, were those of wearing perfumed gloves bordered with fringe, which were not taken off even at night; masks of black velvet or satin, which were attached to the face by means of a piece of string, with a pearl at the end of it, the pearl being placed in the mouth; and belts, from which were suspended a mirror and a folding fan made of vellum with a trimming of lace. M. Chapus might have added that the Hôtel de Sens, in which Marguerite de Valois resided at Paris, is about to be demolished. During the League there was a marked diminution in the luxury of dress, but when Henri IV. had established his authority in Paris the former fashions reasserted themselves; and D'Aubigne speaks of no fewer than sixty-four new shades of color, among them being the "dying ape," the "seven capital sins," the "dead man come to life again," and the "sick Spaniard." The length of the sleeves was so great that it was deemed necessary to invent spoons with very long handles, in order that ladies might be able to eat their soup without soiling their dress.

For a hundred years France had shared the empire of fashion with Italy and Spain, but in the reign of Louis XIII. she had it almost entirely to herself. For the first time after the lapse of several centuries, ladies wore dresses which did not spoil their figures. The ladies of the old school still retained masks, but the younger ones merely wore veils of black crape, "which served as a relief to the whiteness of their skin." Young and old alike made a plentiful use of perfumes, powder, rouge, and patches cut to imitate stars, flowers, and animals. The perfumed gloves, red, green, and sky-blue stockings, and morocco shoes of different colors, also continued to be the fashion. The male dress comprised a short mantle draped round the bust, a pourpoint with long basques attached to it, short top-boots, a belt for the rapier, a flat hat with broad brim and feathers, a flat collar turned down upon the pourpoint, and the hair was worn long with the moustache curled. There was but little change in the general character of the fashions under Louis XIV., and the ladies continued to wear such low dresses that one of the priests in Paris wrote a book denouncing the practice, being followed by Abbé Boileau, a brother of the poet, who published a work on the "Abuses of Nudity." These efforts were made to no purpose; but Mme. de Maintenon was more successful, and her habit of wearing black lace upon her shoulders was generally followed. In the sixteenth century, the public baths, which had been opened fifty years before, gave rise to such scandals that the police had been compelled to close them, and the only baths then existing were those in the hotels of wealthy persons and the river baths used in the summer. The result was that at the beginning of Louis XIV.'s reign the use of baths had gone entirely out of fashion; water was replaced by perfumes, and even the great ladies of the court went a week without washing their hands. The king, who had himself felt the inconvenience arising from the absence of baths, had measures taken to reopen them with a due regard for propriety, and all Paris washed and was clean. Up to this time ladies had always had their hair dressed by their own maids, but henceforward they employed the professional barbers who managed the public baths. One Sieur Champagne was sent for by all the courts of Europe, and, to use his own expression, "worked upon all the royal and princely heads." The wig-makers had their share in this success, and the mania for false hair was so great that a learned theologian, one Jean Baptiste Thiers, wrote a long essay to show that "artificial hair was an outrage to God, because it distorted the person whom he had made in his own image."

In the eighteenth century France began to copy from other nations, and in 1716 "English ladies appeared in Paris with pannier dresses, the hoops having a circumference of twelve feet. This fashion gave rise to an incident which created a great commotion both at court and among the nobility, as well as in government circles. According to etiquette, the queen, when she went to the play, was accompanied by two of the royal princesses, who were seated right and left of her. It was found, however, that the hoop-dresses of the two princesses, spread out like fans, concealed the queen from the view of her liege subjects; so Cardinal Fleury decided that for the future the chairs should remain unoccupied. The princesses would only acquiesce in this arrangement upon condition that there should be a row of unoccupied chairs between them and the duchesses, who sat in their rear. The husbands of the latter protested against this as an insult to their wives, and published an anonymous pamphlet, which, after being condemned by the Parliament, was burned by the public executioner. During the minority of Louis XV. the ancient mode of dress remained in vogue, but Montesquieu introduced English fashions, and the redingote (riding-coat) made its appearance in 1730. Adversaries of what was termed Anglomania met the redingote with the habit à la frangaise, and, to show that they were no Puritans, they covered it with gold and silver lace. At this period the ladies dressed in imitation of stage shepherdesses, but, as a concession to nature, wore straw hats à la Bastienne (with broad brims). There were as many as forty-five varieties of wigs, and Dugue, the chief of the hairdressers, went his rounds in a carriage and pair. Legros published treatises upon his art, founded an academy of hairdressing, and exhibited upon the Cours la Reine and the Boulevards young women who had "lent their heads," as the saying was, for him to experiment upon. Powder was used in such quantities that the Parliament of Paris declared the practice of employing flour for its preparation to be one of the causes which brought about the scarcity of food, while patches and rouge were as fashionable as ever. From this epoch, too, dates the introduction of the umbrella, the original form of which was the Oriental parasol held by pages over the heads of the great ladies when they went out on foot. The parasol could not be closed, but in 1768 it was modified into its present form.

The first years of Louis XVI's reign witnessed a great change in the mode of dress, which became much more simple, that of men in particular. Ladies wore ears of corn in their hair as symbolic of the plenty which was about to prevail; but Queen Marie Antoinette was soon led away by her fondness for ornament, and it became the fashion to deck the hair with diamonds, emeralds, etc., and ostrich feathers a yard long. The circumference of the hoops increased to seventeen feet, and in one year as many as two hundred and fifty different kinds of trimming for dresses were invented. Husbands found it impossible to pay their wives' dressmaking bills, and Mme. de Campan, in her "Memoirs," speaks of "several disputes in families and painful scenes; everybody said that the queen would be the ruin of the French ladies." Men's dress was more staid, and they wore knee-breeches, long silk waistcoat, shoes with silver buckles, and cocked hat. This was the general mode of dress at the outbreak of the Revolution, and from what M. Chapus says of false hair, powder, and other artificial aids to beauty, it is clear that, in the toilet, as in most other things, there is nothing new under the sun.