Marie Antoinette’s hair was of intense interest to the French in the 18th century. In fact, the hairstyles she created and wore helped to establish her identity as a French queen. With the help of her hairdresser, Marie Antoinette created some of the most memorable styles, including one towering pouf that featured a French frigate, complete with masts and rigging, called Pouf a la Belle Poule. Eventually, however, the queen’s hair began falling out. Just as quickly as her towering pouf hairstyles had risen to extraordinary heights, short locks became all the rage when her hair was chopped off.
The Queen’s hair changed again after France found itself in the middle of a revolution. It was reported that suddenly the Queen’s strawberry blonde hair was white and that it became white practically over night. But the idea that a person’s hair can turn white over night, did not first happen to the French Queen. The first mention of someone’s hair turning white overnight was printed in the Talmud, where it was claimed that it happened to a 17-year-old Jewish scholar because of overwork. There were also apparently other cases of hair turning white over night, which were pointed out by one nineteenth-century doctor in the following description:
Darwin, quoted by Walter Smith, mentions a man whose hair while being brought out for execution changed color before the eyes of the spectators … Parry states that a prisoner became white-haired within fifteen minutes while confined in the guard-house. Wilson refers to a young lady who was waiting her affianced to come home to conclude his marriage ceremony, and who suffered the same effect on hearing of his sudden death. Smilie speaks of another case, that of a young man awakening and finding a grizzly bear lapping the blood which flowed from a wounded arm … Miner witnessed it in a young boy who had learned of his mother’s death. Sir John Forbes, who had gray hair, suddenly, became white, which condition remained for a year, and the end of which time it again returned to the gray.
There are various dates as to when the Queen’s hair suddenly became white. Some people claim that the Queen herself supposedly remarked that her hair suddenly turned snow-white in early October of 1789. Her remark was after the Women’s March on Versailles and the royal family’s forced move to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. However, the Princess of Lamballe saw the Queen after the Women’s March on Versailles in October and stayed with the Queen for a time at the Tuileries Palace, and she never mentioned the Queen’s hair suddenly turning white.
Another story about the Queen’s hair turning white was told by Marie Antoinette’s lady-in-waiting, Madame Campan. Madame Campan reported that the first time she saw the Queen with whitened locks was after the royal family’s failed flight to Varennes in June of 1791:
“She [the Queen] took off her cap and desired me to observe the effect which grief had produced upon her hair. It had become, in one single night, as white as that of a woman of seventy. Her Majesty showed me a ring she had just had mounted for the Princesse de Lamballe; it contained a lock of her whitened hair, with the inscription, “‘Blanched by sorrow.'”
The royal family had been forced to return to Paris after their failed escape attempt, but the Princess of Lamballe made it over the border and found safety in Aix-la-Chapelle. It was while living in exile that the Princess mentions corresponding regularly with the Queen and, at one point, mentions receiving the Queen’s whitened locks and the ring with the inscription stated above. Thereby, coinciding with Madame Campan’s recollection.
Despite these reports by Madame Campan and the Princess of Lamballe, other people claim that the Queen’s hair did not turn completely white until the night before her execution. To back up this story there is a pastel portrait by Alexandre Kucharski in 1790 that shows the Queen’s hair more gray than white. There is also a report by the Queen’s cook and servant at the Conciergerie named Rosalie Lamorliere who states:
“I remarked [on the] patches of white hair (des places de cheveux blancs) on both her temples. There were hardly any over her forehead, or in the rest of her hair. Her Majesty told us that the cause of them was the trouble of the 6th of October [which was the Women’s March on Versailles].”
If Rosalie and others at the Conciergerie are correct, the Queen’s hair was not completely white when she entered the prison, rather she had patches of white. Thus, this supports the claims that the night before her execution the remainder of her hair turned white.
Although, it may be unclear exactly when the Queen’s hair turned white as there is also the portrait to the right that shows the Queen’s hair white in 1785 (well before the Women’s March on Versailles), many people have wondered how such a change could suddenly happen. One nineteenth-century doctor asserted that the Queen’s sudden change in hair color was because “the blood sends some fluid among the pigment of the hair which at once changes it colour.”
Today, the explanation is different and it is called the “Marie Antoinette Syndrome.” This syndrome is believed to be a variant of alopecia areata diffusa or autoimmune non-scarring hair loss. It affects selectively all pigmented hairs and leaves only white hair behind. The belief is that it is triggered by such emotions as sorrow, fear, stress, rage, etc., which may activate the autoimmune mechanisms and cause hair to whiten over night.
- “Cambridgeshire,” in Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 09 December 1865
- Campan, Madame (Jeanne-Louise-Henriette), The Private Life of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and Navarre, 1887
- Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, 1869
- Fifty Sermons, 1874
- Medical News, Volume 67, 1895