The French Pouf of Marie Antoinette’s Time
A complicated headdress, also known as a “pouf,” became popular during the time of Marie Antoinette. It was called a pouf because the hair was raised with pads, wool, false hairpieces, and pomade. It came into existence because Mademoiselle Marie-Jeanne Bertin, or “Rose” as she was called at court, gained fame as the Queen’s dressmaker and in conjunction she and the Queen’s hairdresser, Léonard Autié, began to create some of the most memorable teetering and towering poufs of the 18th century.
Bertin’s rise to fame began in a millinery shop where through a stroke of luck she met the Princess of Conti. She then introduced her to the richest heiress in France, the Duchess of Chartres, who employed her to create her trousseau. The Duchess was also sister-in-law to the princesse de Lamballe‘s, who was a friend, confidante, and superintendent of the household to Marie Antoinette and this relationship enabled the Duchess to also introduce Rose to Marie Antoinette.
Before long Bertin became the Queen’s personal stylist and dressmaker. She then formed a tight team with Autié, who was said to have been particularly skilled in placing poufs of gauze throughout a woman’s hair and in fact one day it was claimed he used some 14 yards of gauze for one headdress. He and Bertin also designed several poufs that were noteworthy and became popular among the women of the French court. Among the popular pouf creations were five: the pouf aux sentiments, pouf à la circonstance, pouf à l’inoculation, à loge d’opéra, and pouf à la Belle-Poule.
The pouf aux sentiments was one of the most outrageous styles that Marie Antoinette ever wore. It contained the likeness of anyone or anything a woman felt affection for, such as a canary, friend, or relative and appeared around 1774. As this hairdo was personal and used family relics or souvenirs, women everywhere were crazy to have one created and designed specifically for them. The Duchess of Chartres wore one described in the following fashion:
“[It] represented her eldest son in his nurse’s arms, a parrot pecking at a cherry, a little negro boy, and her initials worked in hair from the heads of three of her relatives [her husband (the Duke of Chartres), her father (the Duke of Penthièvre), and her father-in-law (the Duke of Orléans)].”
The pouf à la circonstance replaced the pouf aux sentiments and came into popularity upon the death of Louis XV who died of smallpox on 10 May 1774 after ruling 59 years. The new pouf was intended to honor France’s new king, Louis XVI. Like the previous popular pouf aux sentiments, the pouf à la circonstance was a complicated and towering hairdo composed of many items:
“[A] tall cypress ornamented with black marigolds, the roots being represented by a piece of crape; on the right side a large sheaf of wheat was placed, leaning against a cornucopia from which peeped out an abundance of grapes, melons, figs, and other fruit, beautifully imitated; white feathers were mixed with the fruit. The hat was a riddle; the answer was as follows: While weeping the dead monarch, though the roots of sorrow reach to the hearts of his subject, yet the riches of the new reign are already looming in view.”
The pouf à l’inoculation was the next hot fashion. It came into vogue because Louis XVI decided to get inoculated against the disease. At the time, getting an inoculation seemed a brave thing to do as French people were fearful of them. Marie Antoinette, who encouraged him to do it having already been inoculated while in Austria, decided to celebrate her husband’s bravery with a new pouf known as the pouf à l’inoculation. This pouf had a rising sun (which represented Louis XIV who was called the Roi-Soleil), and an olive-tree laden with fruit that represented peace. Around the olive tree was a serpent (which represented medicine) and the serpent was holding a flower-wreathed club, which represented the force that could overcome disease. Moreover, as the pouf gained in popularity with the French, so too did the acceptance of getting a smallpox inoculation.
À la monte au ciel (to ascend to heaven) was as high as its name implies, but even it was outdone by the imposing à loge d’opéra that appeared around the same time as the Duchess of Chartres’ pouf aux sentiments, mentioned earlier. The à loge d’opéra was “seventy-two inches high from the chin to the top of the hair.” It was also arranged in zones and each was parted and ornamented differently. It was completed with three feathers attached to the left temple, and a rose-colored bow with a brilliant ruby. In England, the coiffure à loge d’opéra’s counterpart was the “commode” coiffure, which was said to be so high “fashionable ladies were obliged, in traveling, to lean out of their coaches, being willing … to make themselves ludicrous, in the eyes even of their contemporaries, in order to obey [fashion] … decrees.”
The pouf à la Belle-Poule was another outrageous pouf worthy of mention. As with the other poufs, this too was built over a delicate wire scaffolding and used pads, pomade, and wool intertwined to secure the headdress in place. However, the focus of this pouf centered on current events and a victorious naval engagement. At the time, France was siding with the American colonists against England in America’s Revolutionary War. A battle took place in June of 1778 between the French frigate La Belle Poule and the Arethusa. According to the French, the heroic victor of the clash was the French frigate and to pay homage to La Belle Poule, Marie Antoinette wore a headdress that replicated the frigate down to its guns, rigging, and mast. Unfortunately, despite the Queen’s patriotic display, the creation did nothing to shore up her flagging reputation with the French population.
There were several other pouf styles in the Georgian era beside the five already mentioned. Another one was a tufted style called the en pouf à la Luxembourg having been introduced in honor of the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. A second pouf was introduced by the Duchess of Lauzun at a reception and proved to also be highly interesting in the choice of items used to create it. The name of this pouf is unknown but described in the following fashion:
“It contained a stormy sea, ducks swimming near the shore, someone on the point of shooting one of them; on the top of the head there was a mill, the miller’s wife being made love to by an abbé, whilst near the ear the miller could be seen leading a donkey.”
The Queen also once wore a vegetable creation known as the pouf à la jardinière. It included such garden delectables as an artichoke, cabbage, and radishes and so impressed one French woman, she declared:
“I shall never again wear anything but vegetables! It looks so simple, and is so much more natural even than flowers.”
Despite the popularity of these towering styles there were many inconveniences and even dangers associated with wearing them. For instance, women supposedly had to avoid candle-lit chandeliers so that their headpieces did not go up flames. Streetlamps were also a threat as the pyramidal dos would sometimes get snagged or entangled in them as women passed by. If that wasn’t bad enough sometimes there were “hunters firing mistakenly at poufs shaped like gigantic birds in flight.” However, despite the ridiculous fashion, women were dying to imitate the latest fashionable pouf.
Of course, women were most likely to want a style worn by the Queen herself because she was a trendsetter and women everywhere wanted to copy whatever she did. To maintain her status as a fashion icon, the Queen therefore constantly sought newer, bigger, and better poufs, and she did so until after the birth in 1781 of her second child, Louis Joseph Xavier François, Dauphin of Franc. At that time, the Queen noticed her hair was thinning and after trying various hair restorative products and finding they did not work, another new hairstyle was born. Overnight the towering headdresses became passé and fell when the Queen adopted a new short crop called the coiffure à l’enfant suggested by Autié.
-  Leslie, Frank, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol. 26, 1888, p. 222.
-  Langlade, Émile, Rose Bertin, 1913, p. 35.
-  Atlanta, Vol. 8, 1895, p. 163.
-  Ibid.
-  Langlade, Émile, p. 30.
-  Weber, Caroline, What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, 2006, p. 111.
-  Ibid, p. 113.
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