By Chantal Roberts
Three hundred six years ago on September 1, le Roi Soleil died, but as with everything Louis XIV touched, his influence endures.
In 1665, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, France’s finance minister quipped, “Fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain.” Colbert, as Louis’ comptroller, established the French fashion industry by organizing a systems of trade guilds and unions. Louis stated that no woman should be admitted to les Maîtresses marchandes lingères unless she professed to be an Apostolic, Roman, Catholic. This guild was one of three open to women during this time. The guild was for female linen seamstresses and hemp merchants; the maîtresses couturières were also seamstresses who had permission to make clothes for women and children—except for noble women, whose expensive dresses were made by male tailors.
Louis, with his business-like mind, forbade nobles from importing anything that could be made in France. It is rumored he made the Dauphin burn his coat because it was made of foreign cloth.
One of the most successful improvements established by the Versailles Court was to dictate that new fabrics be released twice a year. The obsolescence of textiles encouraged the nobles, who were eager to show off their wealth, to buy more. The summer, or été, fashion season began on Pentecost (usually mid- to late-May); the winter, or hiver, season began on All Saints Day, November 1.
Jean de La Bruyère, a writer during the time, noted, “Scarcely had one fashion usurped the place of another when it was succeeded by a third, which in its turn was replaced by some still newer fashion, not by any means the last.”
Dressing was an arduous task requiring several servants or ladies-in-waiting. The public dressing of the nobles began with Louis and his mother, Anne of Austria. Most women had a pre-dressing event before the actual levée, which was more theatre with props of gold or silver toilette sets, perfumes, and cosmetics.
The dressing consisted of the chemise, white, which was changed several times a day in order to keep fresh and by decree of Louis in another attempt to keep the nobles in debt by having to wear several different clothes in one day. On top of the chemise were the stays, laced up, and then the bum roll to help with the petticoats (skirt) then the bodice.
Women’s dress was off the shoulder with a bit of the chemise peeking out in order to show how rich the woman was due to how white the chemise was.
Hair was flat against the crown, pulled back into a low bun with cascading curls encircling the face. Of course, Louis was not able to control everything. Women soon began using cages to wrap around their hair so that it was larger and larger along their sides called hurluberlus and paresseuses which were false wigs or long ringlets, called mustaches.
Period costumes are encouraged at Molière’s 400th birthday party, Saturday, January 15, 2022. It is 2pm- 4:30pm at Kirkwood Hall in the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
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