Life at Versailles

Clothing and Cosmetics

Why Versailles?
It Happened Here!
A Day in the Life of Marie Antoinette
Photo Albums
Nobility and Etiquette
Clothing and Cosmetics
Food and Drink

  Fashion across Europe was set by the nobility living at Versailles.  Then, as now, fashion was fickle.  A style could come and go in less than a year.  Fashions were often named after people or events, so if one of those were out of fashion, then it could lead to the style being discontinued as well.

The finest textiles- including cloth of gold, silk, satin and velvet- were utilized, and accented with laces, ribbons, gold embroidery and jewels.

  In 1660, sumptuary laws were in force.  Chiefly utilized by Colbert to protect French industry from foreign competition (The last sumptuary law issued in France was in 1704.),[1] they were made also to restrict the use of certain clothing materials such as gold from outside of the Court of France.

  Knowledge of clothing and hairstyles was spread by illustrations and portraits of these persons.  Miniature copies of the clothing were made by dress makers all over to show to their clientele.  How soon your order was filled depended on several factors, including what type of material was needed, where the material originated from, how many pieces were ordered and how in demand the dressmaker himself was.

  The components of a gentleman’s wardrobe changed very little over time in comparison to that of a lady’s.  The basic pieces of the gentleman attire were as follows:   

  The first layer of a gentleman’s top half was the dress shirt, which was lengthy enough to double as a night shirt.  Around the neck, on top of the shirt, was a very long scarf, or cravat, wound around the neck several times before being tied into either a knot or a bow.  The ends of this scarf were either trimmed with lace, or each end was itself individually tied with silken cord.    

  The next layer was a long vest which fell to just below the hip. Over this was a great coat, which was tailored to the waist and then became full and skirt-like to the mid thigh. There were big cuffs on the coat, big pockets over each thigh, and generally the coat was decorated with gold embroidery along the edges or even over the whole coat, but there was also a fashion for trimming the edges with loops of ribbon.  This coat was not usually buttoned up, but left open.  At the cuffs there spilled forth the lace trimmed sleeves of the dress-shirt.

  The breeches went from being very loosely gathered at the knee a style called canons during the first half of Louis XIV’s reign and by the end of the reign of Louis XVI, the style was for the line of the breeches to be clearly and closely tapered at the knee with buckles and/or ribbon to fasten them.   Men wore silk stockings and high-heeled shoes, typically with red heels. The shoes were fastened with ribbons or big buckles of gold or jewels.

  The finishing touches included handkerchiefs and hats.  The point of their big, lacey handkerchief was held between the first two fingers, with the frothy laced side draped over the back of the hand.

 Men’s hats were very beautiful, decorated with feathers, ribbon and lace.  It was either held under the left arm or worn on the head.  If it was on the head of the man, he would remove it in greeting without moving his head or covering his face with his hand in the process of removing it.  He would reach for it over by the side of his head and lift up and out to tip it, leaving it in the air until the person he was acknowledging had passed[2].

  Although present before, wigs became a mainstay of the gentleman’s toilette in Louis XIV’s reign, possibly coinciding with his entrance into middle age and male pattern baldness!  Wigs were made of either human hair or horsehair (It was great because it would not go flat as easily as the human hair wigs).  The first wigs that became popular were big things, with middle-parted, side-swept bangs. As they became standard, styles evolved, with names like the cavalier, the financier, the square, the Spanish, and so on.

  The courtier’s psychological make-up created this mania for wigs:  if the king was balding then it was very bad form to parade your full head of hair in front of him: Cover it up! And, as time progressed, it simply became a staple in the wardrobe of nobility. 

  The dress of the women at Court was comprised of heavily boned stay topped with an embroidered or lace trimmed petticoat. 

  In the time of Louis XIV it was supplemented with a bustle, over which was worn the main component of the ladies dress, the mantua.  The mantua was a full length robe with short sleeves that belted at the waist.  The waist front area was decorated with a changeable piece called, surprise, a stomacher which this time period was longer than the natural waist and ended in a point.  In the time of Louis XV’s reign women wore basket-like panniers on the sides under their dresses and three quarter length sleeves covered with lace and ribbons.

  When Marie Antoinette became her own woman the style was becoming much easy going, perhaps to equalize the outrageousness of the hairstyle in favor, the towering pouf. Dresses in simple fabrics such as muslin and cotton toile did not depend on stays for shaping and they were generally jewel-necked and casually belted at the waist.

  There continued throughout all of these changes in ladies fashion to be a standard court dress.  The main components were a fitted bodice, sleeves and a very full, wide skirt.  Throughout the decades there might be modifications to the trims on the dress, but it was a very distinctive style worn only on very important occasions of state.

 The degree of richness in apparel was dictated by rank as was so much else at Versailles. An example is the length of a woman’s dress train.  During the reign of Louis XIV, the Duc de Saint-Simon says that, using a measurement called an ell- which equivalent to 1.5 yards- a Queen’s train was 11 ells, Daughters of France had a train of 9 ells while those of Granddaughters of France were7 ells.  A princess of the blood was allowed 5 ells, and lastly, a duchess could carry a train of three ells.  Below that rank there were no trains.

  Women’s hairstyles were also constantly evolving during the 17th and 18th centuries.  In March 1671, Madame de Sevigne wrote of the new Duchesse de Ventadour to her daughter living in Provence: “Her hair was cut short and rolled in a thousand curlpapers, causing her to suffer a thousand deaths, all night long.  My daughter, it is the most ridiculous hairstyle you can imagine. And you can believe me, for you know how I love fashion.[3]

  Yet it was not long before she wrote again to her daughter:

 “I have succumbed.  This new coiffure is designed just for your face; you will look like an angel, and it takes only a moment to arrange…..The hair is cut, on each side, in layers- out of which one makes round, loose curls to hang no lower than an inch below the ears.  The effect is somehow very youthful and very pretty- like two large bouquets of hair on each side….One uses one’s ribbons in it, as usual….I will have a doll’s hair dressed in this fashion and send it to you.”

For a large part of Louis XIV’s reign there was a popular headpiece called the commode.  It was a hooped wire attached to a small cap tied to the top of the head and was decorated with lace, ribbon and hair.  A particularly popular style was la fontanges, named after Angelique de Fontanges, Louis XIV’s mistress for a brief, shining moment.  The story is that while out on a hunt, her hair came undone, and so she tied the front up with some ribbon, so that the curls were splashed forward, like bangs.  All the ladies present found it becoming and so followed suit. 

  During Louis XV’s reign, the height of women’s hairstyles fell, made up of curls piled on the back of the lady’s head.  Usually a circle of lace or ribbon was worn around the neck, framing the face like a pretty picture.

  The reign of Louis XVI is known for the ridiculously large hairstyles it produced.  Known as poufs, these hairstyles could be more fittingly referred to as headdresses, as there involved a great deal of fake hair and items of decor to be added onto the wearer’s head rendering them so large as to transcend the mere appellation of “hairstyle.”  They could be decorated with not just ribbons, feathers and jewels but also with figurines and braided rope, setting a whole scene within the cloud of hair upon which it was perched to celebrate some philosophical idea or to commemorate a current event.

  Altogether, the population of Versailles presented a very pretty picture, everyone primped in their finest to the best of their ability. 

  Grace was very important at the Court of France.  In every setting a courtier was aware of how they were observed, and held themselves in such a way as to always present the most flattering picture.

  Men would stand with one foot out in front of the other, as if in a ballet performance.  Toes were always pointed out, even when walking.[4]  When standing, their arms would be either at or on hip level, or with one hand resting at the sword or on the head of a walking stick.

  When sitting, a man would take care to perch on the chair, and most likely flip the one side of his coat back to show off the contrasting coat lining, or to display the breeches and vest under the coat.  His walking stick was held out from his body, to give him an alert, yet relaxed, look.

  Women moved as if they were gliding over the ground, sliding their feet more than lifting them up to take steps.  It created a more graceful flow to their dresses and they were better able to avoid stepping on each other’s train.

  Before sitting, ladies first made sure their dress was straight and appropriately arranged in the back, so that it would look rumpled once they were seated upon the chair.  Correct posture was important, as was properly turning out the wrist to create the most flattering appearance to their arms and wrists.

  When they held fans, ladies would use them not just as a way to stay cool, but more as an underscore to their conversation, fanning more or less depending on what they were saying.  They did not typically cover their faces with the fan.  It was held down at waist level.[5]

  Just as important as clothing and hair was having an appearance of health and vigor.  Cosmetics were used as an aide to perfecting the face.

  Paleness was provided by either white chalk or white lead, because “healthy” for a courtier was not associated with “tan” as it today.  To be tan meant you were spending time out of doors as a laborer.  A courtier was accustomed to being shaded by an umbrella if they were outdoors, to protect their complexions. Porcelain skin was highly prized.

  Fruit juice or cerise powder - white lead with coloring added in- or red paper was used to color the cheeks and lips.[6]

  Beauty marks were often applied for dramatic effect on the cheeks, chin or brow of both men and women.  They could be round or cut into the shapes of stars and hearts.

[1] Lacroix

[2] Kipar

[3] Mossiker

[4] Kipar

[5] Kipar

[6] NMM




Noeud d'epaule, echarpe (shoulder scarf, knotted).


Hunting costume

Ladies shoes

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