Fashionable French Dress, 1686-1694
History of Costume II 1660 to 1800
The extravagance and ‘development of high fashion in the late 17th Century was most probably due to the foxy manoeuvre of Louis XIV in keeping the affairs of state in his own capable hands and his wretched nobles in a perpetual state of anxiety and subjection. The bullying he had received in early years, from his mother and wily statesmen, en1ightened his acute mind to the idea that a sovereign he must be, in every sense of the word. His mistrust for his nobles only equalled his distaste for the rabble, who had dared to force their way into his room when he was a child, optimistically hopeful that their young king would be interested in their cause. To remove his august presence as far as possible from a repetition of this irritation and his nobles from the politically stimulating atmosphere of Paris, he caused Versailles to be built and set up a court so exacting in ritual and aimless in intention that over-dressing to catch the king’s eye was the only occupation left to those dogged enough to stand the strain. Court life became a masque of fashion with the competing courtiers as definitely unpaid extras. It says much for the personality and will of Louis XIV that such a large group of Frenchmen seriously submitted for so long to standing about for hours, watching the king eat, dress, play cards or, as a little relief, take the leading part in a masque dressed like an overblown ballerina, all for the chance of hearing their names on the king’s lips or the honour of handing the royal bed-socks. The few less dim-witted sought relief in fighting, an activity he very often allowed since enthusiastic officers were always useful and expendable. The outward appearance of the court at Versailles was indeed an enviable marvel. With the ostentatious background of the palace, its furnishings and gardens executed with the utmost attention to detail, the humans were expected to add the final touch of gorgeous ornamentation, and as the French have never been at a loss in the matter of decoration the court did their sovereign proudly. As in all advertising, the expense was enormous; it was also another clever method whereby the king ensured that his nobles’ wealth was not used to his own danger. The fact that this crippled the vast estates of France – and therefore, eventually, the national economy – was a matter that did not immediately concern him. In the centre of all the court’s splendour shone Louis himself, and although it is said that he never descended to the level of creating styles he was vain and fashion-conscious and on him rested the power of launching the latest ideas. Envy and admiration, certainly, caused the popularity of French fashions abroad, but it must be noted that where adoption was a trifle laggard Louis took firm measures to see that few pockets of resistance were left, as in the case of the occupation of Strasbourg in 1681, when the inhabitants were ordered to assume French costume within four months. It was through Louis XIV that the coat, for general and civil wear, came into being and was altered and embellished right through to the 18th century and on till today. To keep this fashion exclusive at first and therefore tempting, the king established a royal warrant to wear embroidered, fitted coats, the ‘justaucorps à brevet” reserving to himself and a few favourite courtiers the right to wear them. The coat started as a long loose garment, only slightly fitted to the figure, covering the wide gathered breeches. By 1680 rhinegraves and knee frills were démodé and fitted breeches took their place, closed by buttons, garters or a buckled strap, or covered by long hose rolled over the knee. By the 1680’s coats became knee-length and increasingly fitted at the waist, with the back seams of the skirts unsewn so that the stiffened and pleated flaps lapped over each other. Coats were generally left unbuttoned to show the equally decorated veste, or long waistcoat, which was closed to the cravat. As the century advanced even vestes were left open to receive the ends of the lacy neck-cloth. Pockets. Which had opened vertically or diagonally on the coat skirts, were then set horizontally low on the front panels and decorated with braid and buttons to match the rest of the coat. Sleeves became narrower and, by a decree of Louis XIV in 1665, lost the slit through which the under-shirt had billowed. Wide cuffs turned back to the elbow with extravagant trimming made up in importance for the loss of decoration in the upper sleeve. There were no collars, as the great wigs covered the neck to the shoulders and often beyond, but the fronts could be turned back like lapels to show a coloured lining. The cravat evolved from the ‘falling-bands’ or collars of the mid-I 7th century which, narrowed at the back, fell in a square bib under the chin. This same lace or lawn was lengthened and the ends turned one over the other to form a neck-cloth. Before the frilly period faded, in the 1680’s, ribbons round the neck ended in pussy bows, sticking out on either side from under the cravat ends. These grew more important as the century aged and could be tucked into the breeches, tossed over the shoulder or festooned and pulled through a buttonhole of the coat as shown in our fashion of 1693. This also shows how, in warm weather, the veste could be daringly discarded and the floppy white shirt displayed down to the waist. Boots were out of fashion by 1660 and square-toed shoes took their place, with rosettes or wide bows over the high front. The present to the French king, by the designer and shoemaker of Bordeaux, of a special line of footwear, comprising high red heels and bows spanning sixteen inches across the instep, so enchanted the recipient that he vowed he would wear no other shape, and in the succeeding years men of fashion tottered in ankle shoes with three-inch heels and bows that impeded the step. The outstanding symbol of the period was, of course, the periwig, that exaggeration of the previously fashionable long natural hair. Louis XIV clung to his own fine locks until he became prematurely bald in 1673 and thereafter encouraged the wigmakers to heights of extreme fantasy. Having started smoothly in a rounded shape reaching to the shoulders the front hair was then teased into hornlike curls in the general uplifting and narrowing of the lines of dress in the 1690’s. As habits of cleanliness were mainly ignored, the condition of these head pieces is something one would rather not dwell upon. Pepys did draw the line at purchasing a new one round about 1665, suspecting, probably quite rightly, that the bodies of plague victims would have yielded a fine supply of real hair. As wigs grew higher, crowns of hats were lowered to perch on top and the wavy brims were bent inwards, at first in one place, then three, to make the three-cornered hat so popular in the I8th century. Plumes that had rioted on top of the crown were then placed round the inside of the edge of the brim. With exquisite efficiency the French produced fashion-plates to further the image of their splendour. These fine engraved plates, purporting to be of distinguished personages, throw a light on more than the details of dress. The lavish use of fur and the huge muffs reflect the excessively hard winters that gripped Europe during the last two decades of the I7th century.
|Dimensions||38.1 × 25.5 cm|