Sunday, May 3, 2015

Marie Antoinette — Hair Up To There

Kim Kardashian's platinum-blonde hair | Portrait of Marie Antoinette by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783
When Kim Kardashian dyed her hair platinum blonde a few weeks back, it seemed like everyone had an opinion on the matter. Memes were created, think pieces were written, and fashion police, official and self-appointed, made judgment calls. The moment Kim stepped out in Paris with her white-blonde locks the world was atwitter (on Twitter), but let’s face it: Kim’s testing the hypothesis of whether or not blondes have more fun wasn't going to start any wars or plummet the economy.

But what if it had?

What if Kim Kardashian’s hair choice changed the political landscape of America? What if public outcry for her unnatural color created actual, palpable change in the economy or in government? To even imagine such a world is a ridiculous task, and one can't help but laugh at the idea. But a little over two hundred years ago, one daring hairstyle could hold a lot of political power.

Just ask Marie Antoinette. You probably know the girl from her unfortunate role in the French Revolution (you know, where the people shouted “Off with her head!” and the French monarchy all had not-so-good dates with the guillotine) or the dreamy reimagining of her life in a Sofia Coppola film. As an important figure of the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette is someone you either love or you hate. A figurehead of the frivolities of the absolutist French monarchy, Antoinette was known for her daring style and her preference for the finer things in life. She was also the subject of many a political scandal, and much was gossiped about her and her lifestyle. If you think modern-day gossip rags are ridiculous, you won't believe how outrageous some of the rumors about Marie Antoinette were.

What does this have to do with her hairstyle, you may be asking? You'd be surprised just how seriously people took coiffures back in the day.

Drawing of Marie Antoinette | Portrait of Marie Antoinette by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty, 1775
Marie Antoinette remains an influential fashion icon even today, but she was just as much of a tastemaker in her own time. As the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette was expected to be at the forefront of fashion and style. In the Court of Versailles, reputation was everything, and the easiest way to promote oneself as having a good reputation was to dress well. The ladies at court constantly tried to outdo and out-dazzle one another, and as the highest rung on the intricate ladder of hierarchies, Marie Antoinette was expected to be the most dazzling.

Every aspect of her dress was extravagant and luxurious, but it is Marie Antoinette’s towering hair that remains the most iconic part of her look. With the help of her trusty hairstylist Léonard Autié Antoinette popularized the pouf hairstyle, a crazy eighteenth-century version of the beehive, if you will. With her hair piled atop her head and adorned with jewels, ribbons, flowers, and feathers, these hairstyles could be several feet tall. Autié was a genius at creating stunning new looks for the Queen to wear each day, but over time they became more and more extravagant to keep the ladies at court guessing. The countesses and duchesses and other noblewomen fought to replicate Antoinette’s inventive hairstyles while Autié and Antoinette were already on to the next thing.

In short time the craze for towering hairstyles soared to daring heights, literally. Hairdos became so tall that women had to kneel on the floors of their carriages or stick their heads out windows in order to fit. Some women had attendants who would poke and prod their hair to keep it from falling over, Leaning Tower of Pisa-style. The tall hairstyles were also a safety hazard, and women ran the risk of having their hair catch on fire if they accidentally bumped into a candle or chandelier. I can also imagine that such a large hairdo could be taxing on the head and shoulders. No wonder people were shorter back then!

In addition to being physically inconvenient, the pouf was an economical burden. Purchasing jewels, feathers, and other adornments, along with hiring a hairstylist to concoct such extravagant hairstyles, could add up quickly, especially at Versailles, where no expense was spared when it came to being the most fashionable individual at court. Though the women of France adored the pouf and scrambled to replicate it for themselves, it didn't take long for the ostentatious hairstyle to gain critics. A number of satirical cartoons took to drawing exaggerated versions of French hairstyle, mocking the ridiculousness of the towering bouffants.

"This is Something New" cartoon by J. Lockington, 1777

"The Ladies Contrivance or The Capital Conceit" by M. Darly, 1777

"Ridiculous Tastes or The Ladies Absurdity" by Sayer & Bennett, 1776
For more satirical cartoons on the pouf, check out this blog (seriously, they are amazing)

The extravagant hairstyles worn by Antoinette and the other fashionable ladies of France came to stand for all that was wrong with the country at the time, and Antoinette became the supreme figurehead. France was in deep financial trouble by the time of the French Revolution, having supported America financially in its own revolutionary war. The fact that Marie Antoinette and the rest of the French court were spending thousands of dollars on elaborate hairstyles along with fancy dresses and decadent fêtes did not help alleviate the financial worries of the French people. Seriously, if you think we have a gap between the top one-percent and the rest of the country today, you should have seen rococo France. Many of the normal citizens were struggling to make ends meet and frustrated that their rulers (who were supposed to serve the people, not just themselves) were spending money on parties and fashion statements instead of, you know, basic welfare programs. 

Marie Antoinette may not have been as actively villainous as newspapers and the rumor mill made her out to be, but her penchant for the extravagant didn't help soothe the minds of the French people.

After having children, Antoinette eased up a bit on the crazy hairdos and the wild nights of partying in Paris. She cut her hair short in a style that Autié coined la coiffure à l'enfant and spent most of her time in the Petit Trianon, her fairytale cottage oasis in the gardens of Versailles. But by then the damage was done. France was in serious trouble, and the people were in want of a new political system, one where a middle class could succeed and democracy was widespread. The monarchy, the Ancien Régime, was an outdated mode of governing. Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI, had to go. 

The coiffure à la belle poule was a popular hairstyle to celebrate naval victories, where the wearer literally wore a model ship in their pouf | "Coiffure à l'Indépendence ou le Triomphe de la liberté" drawing 
It’s easy to look back on the style of Marie Antoinette and dismiss it as nothing more than a passing fashion fad. We see illustrations of the pouf and associate it with the court of Versailles aesthetically, but it is important to remember how fashion and beauty could have an incredible impact not just on how people dressed but also on politics. Marie Antoinette’s hairstyles were not the cause of the French Revolution, but they did serve as an example of the excesses and superficial nature of the French court.

Today it’s hard to look at fashion in quite the same way; that someone’s very hairstyle may contribute to national craze and political debate. We may make memes of Kim Kardashian’s platinum blonde hair or any of her other more questionable fashion choices, but I don't think that the Kardashians will lead to an upheaval of our current political system.

Still, fashion has a lot more power than you think. The trends we wear are impacted by the economy and by politics (supposedly shorter hemlines trend when the economy is doing well, hence why midi skirts were all the rage during the recession) and what we wear has broader social context than we sometimes realize. Never underestimate the power of a good outfit or a popular trend. There’s much more to fashion than just looking pretty.

Interested in learning more about Marie Antoinette, her hair, and the French Revolution? Check out the following books, websites, and articles:

For more satirical cartoons on French hairstyles:

For more on Marie Antoinette:

For more on Léonard Autié, Marie Antoinette's hairstylist:

*The authorship of this memoir is disputed. It could be written by one of Léonard's apprentices or followers*


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