10/02/06 - marie antoinette's pouf

In today's excerpt - Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) and her hairdresser create the pouf - the yard-high hairstyle that swept through the courts and society circles of Europe. Marie, who became the most controversial French queen, was an Austrian princess betrothed to Louis XVI when she was fourteen. Though she never said 'let them eat cake', she was given to excess, and was intent on dressing for history. In fashion, furniture and social style, her court is still held forth as the paragon of refined taste, though in reality the French court wallowed in filth. She was beheaded during the French Revolution, three years after her husband, and saw her son taken from her and perish at age ten:

"A gown or headdress from Marie Antoinette's favorite marchande de mode, Rose Bertin could easily cost twenty times what a skilled worker earned in a year, and if he wanted to see where his taxes went he could visit the Queen's wardrobe—it was open to the public. ... 

"Sometime in the mid-seventeen-seventies, a young perfumer named Jean-Louis Fargeon, ... was shocked by his first visit to the palace for some of the reasons it must also have shocked Marie Antoinette, who had grown up in a court and a family where impeccable hygiene was an article of faith. Not only did courtiers at Versailles look embalmed behind their masks of white powder and rouge but the many who bathed only once a year smelled like corpses. The filthy halls and courtyards stank of the excrement from humans and pets; dead cats floated in stagnant water; and a butcher plied his trade—gutting and roasting pigs—at the entrance to the ministers' wing.

"Fargeon often collaborated on scented accessories with the earthy Bertin—a genius who ... was the architect of the famous pouf and Leonard—the royal hairdresser ... was its engineer. This amusingly freakish coiffure became the rage all over Europe, and, like most of the Queen's fashion fantasias, it proved particularly ruinous to her plebeian imitators, who, it was said, sacrificed their dowries on the altar of the Austrian's frivolity, and thus their chances of marriage, then turned to rich protectors to take up the slack so in the end—the omega of such arguments—the French birth rate suffered.

"The pouf was a cross between a topiary and a Christmas tree, and each creation, about a yard high, had a sentimental or political theme, depending on the wearer and the occasion. It started with a wire form that Leonard padded with wool, cloth, horsehair and gauze, interweaving the client's tresses with fake hair. When the edifice had been well stiffened with pomade and dusted with powder (vermin were fond of both, so fashionable ladies carried long-handled head-scratchers), it was ready to be trimmed with its defining scene. Ships, barnyards, vegetables, battles, nativities, and even a husband's infidelities were some of the themes. Weber calls the poufs 'personalized mobile billboards', and the Queen wore a pouf a l'inoculation to publicize her triumph in persuading the King to be vaccinated against smallpox. Perched in the hairdo was a serpent in an olive tree (symbols of wisdom and Aesculapius), behind which rose the golden sun of enlightenment."


Judith Thurman


'Dressed for Excess'


The New Yorker


September 25, 2006


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