The French Pouf

"Rose" Bertin, Courtesy of Wikipedia

“Rose” Bertin, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Mademoiselle Marie-Jeanne Bertin, or as she was called at court, “Rose,” gained fame as dressmaker and became known for creating complicated headdresses. These headdresses, also known as “poufs,” were called such because the hair was raised with pads, wool, false hairpieces, and pomade. Bertin’s rise to fame began in a millinery shop where through a stroke of fate she met the Princess of Conti and became responsible to create the trousseau for the richest heiress in France, the Duchess of Chartres. The Duchess then introduced her to Marie Antoinette, and before long Bertin became the Queen’s stylist and dressmaker.

Working with Léonard Autié, the Queen’s hairdresser, Bertin and Autié created some memorable teetering and towering poufs. Among the poufs designed were the pouf aux sentiments, pouf à la circonstance, pouf à l’inoculation, à loge d’opéra, and pouf à la Belle-Poule.

Pouf Aux Sentiments, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Pouf Aux Sentiments, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The pouf aux sentiments was one of the most outrageous styles that Marie Antoinette wore. It contained the likeness of anyone or anything a woman felt affection for, such as a canary, friend, or relative. As this particular hairdo was personal and used family relics or souvenirs, women everywhere were crazy to have one created specifically for them. The Duchess of Chartres wore one, described in the following manner:

“In the background was the image of a woman carrying an infant in [her] arms; [representing the duchess’ son and his nurse and] … a  parrot picking a cherry [the duchess’ pet bird].”

It also included locks of hair from the Duchess’s 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. The pouf à la circonstance was intended to honor the new King, Louis XVI. It was a complicated and towering hairdo composed of many things:

“[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.”

Cartoon Parodying What was Required to Dress a Woman's Hair, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Cartoon Parodying what was Required to Dress a Woman’s Hair, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The pouf à l’inoculation was the next hot fashion. It came into vogue because Louis XV died from smallpox and Louis XVI’s decided to get inoculated against the disease. At the time, Louis XVI’s inoculation seemed a brave thing to do as French people were fearful of inoculations. Marie Antoinette 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 smallpox inoculation become more accepted.

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’s 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.”

Poufs à la Belle-Poule, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Pouf à la Belle-Poule, Courtesy of Wikipedia

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 and the heroic victor of the clash, according to the French, was the French frigate La Belle Poule. To pay homage to France’s victory, 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.

The headdresses mentioned were just some of the creations worn by the Queen and fashionable women of Paris. The Queen also wore the pouf à la jardinière. It was a vegetable creation with such garden delectables as an artichoke, cabbage, and radishes. It impressed one woman so much, 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 ridiculous fashion, the inconveniences associated with wearing these towering styles, and the danger — supposedly women had to avoid candle-lit chandeliers so that their headpieces did not go up flames — women were dying to imitate the latest pouf worn by the Queen. As she was a trendsetter, and as women copied her, the Queen was constantly seeking a new, bigger, and better pouf, and she did so until after the birth in 1781 to Louis Joseph Xavier François, Dauphin of France. At that time, the Queen noticed her hair was thinning. So, overnight the towering headdresses became passé, and another new hairstyle was born when the Queen adopted a new short crop called the coiffure à l’enfant suggested by Autié.


  • Atlanta, Vol. 8, 1895
  • Langlade, Émile, Rose Bertin, 1913
  • Leslie, Frank, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol. 26, 1888
  • The American Magazine, Vol. 26, 1888
  • Weber, Caroline, What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, 2006

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