This week, over 100,000 fashion insiders will gather in New York’s Lincoln Center for dozens of designer shows at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Copies of copies of copies of this year’s outlandish silhouettes and bizarre prints will end up in our closets a few years from now, and we will wonder how we ever thought them strange.
You might not know, however, that the industry and the art Fashion Week showcases are just a few hundred years old. Haute couture comes from a time and a place: the late eighteenth century, in the courts of France and England.
The long-haired King Louis XIII of France is to blame. He began balding at the young age of twenty-three and introduced the wig in 1624 to cover it up. Male courtiers throughout France and England took up the wigs, which had not been a popular feature of male fashion since ancient Egypt. His father, Henry IV of France, had employed a similar tactic: He popularized dark hair powder in his greying days. Following these trends took dedication: Powder was expensive, especially white powder, and it was a way to show off wealth without the destructiveness of colored dyes. (And as with any popular thing, the British taxed it, and the 1795 Duty on Hair Powder Act would remain on the books until 1869.)
These particular cosmetics were exclusively used to highlight class differences rather than gender ones, though. In fact, in the eighteenth century, men employed cosmetics significantly more than women, who remained under social and religious obligations to present themselves more modestly. The introduction of gendered cosmetics really came with Marie Antoinette. Androgynous fashion and cosmetics, from gender-neutral blue jeans to the rising popularity of “guyliner,” are a convenient reminder that gender presentation in fashion is cyclical if anything.
The cycle in which we now find ourselves originates in the haute couture of Marie Antoinette. Specifically, it begins in 1774, when Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser Léonard Autié collaborated with her milliner and dressmaker Rose Bertin to invent one of the most derided trends in fashion history: the pouf.
Up to that point, aristocratic women had been pressured to retain a “natural” look. They avoided the overtly artificial wigs worn by men and instead added bits of false hair to their powdered natural coifs, adding the occasional jewel or ribbon in the style of Madame de Pompadour. This utterly artificial naturalism is something most women nowadays are familiar with: Makeup stores are full of expensive “au naturel” brands and hair salons advertise “natural waves,” encouraging women to spend as much money as possible to look like they woke up like this. (This is especially a problem for women of color, who rarely encounter “nude” foundation or “natural” shampoos intended for their features.)
Bertin and Autié’s pouf violated the naturalistic norm in every possible way. They curled Marie Antoinette’s hair, both real and false, over cushions attached to the top of her head. The increased height—usually at least the length of the face—provided more surface area for ornamentation. The resulting pile of frizzed natural and false hair could be worn for weeks at a time once set in place. (According to Victorian diarist Mary Frampton, “twenty-four large pins were by no means an unusual number to go to bed with on your head.”)
The pouf was a canvas, and this new degree of personal expression in their appearance let women run a bit wild. Hairstyles became allegories of current events: Syringes were curled into wigs to celebrate the invention of the vaccine, boats crested on wavy heads to observe naval victories, and the pouf’s shape’s convenient similarity to the hot air balloon came in handy when commemorating the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon experiments.
The pouf was by no means the action of Marie Antoinette’s that most infuriated her subjects, but her self-presentation and the ostentatious creativity it induced in the rest of the female aristocracy certainly set the tone for a portion of the hatred that fueled the French Revolution. Political cartoons jeering at impractically wigged women were deemed worth running alongside news of the American Revolutionary War.
The wearing of cosmetics was so integral to the identity of aristocratic women in France that their morning routine of painting the face and dressing the hair became an informal ceremony with an audience, known as the public toilette. Louis XV’s wife, Queen Marie Leszczynska, was famously among the few who did not wear any makeup, a detail often paired with her Catholic piety. A former ambassador of the time wrote of her: “This Princess . . . who knows no cosmetics but water and snow, and, seated between her mother and her grandmother, embroiders altar-cloths, recalls to us, in the commandery of Wissemburg, the artlessness of heroic times.”
Too often, events like Fashion Week encourage women to see themselves as Marie Antoinettes or as Marie Leszczynskas. One is either a self-celebratory creative or a liberated emblem of modesty (or, conversely, a self-absorbed airhead versus an ugly prude). There is rarely any space for a makeup-wearing, fashion-forward woman who also embraces the importance of self-respect—let alone any sort of religiosity or moral attitude toward dress.
A 1775 letter Marie Antoinette received from her mother, Queen Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary, offered some pertinent advice. “You know that I have always been of the opinion that one should follow fashion moderately, but never carry it to excess,” she wrote. “A pretty young queen . . . must set the tone, and everyone will hurry to follow even your smallest errors.”
Moderation is a loaded word. It is a moral word. It recognizes that fashion, like any other mode of artistic expression, is loaded with responsibility and message. For this reason, some women chose—and choose—to abstain from the industry.
Dichotomies informed by fashion tend to be set up for women to lose. Critiques of fashion, even when aimed at the way the fashion industry exploits insecurities, tend to be overwhelmingly aimed at finding women insufficiently modest or overly superficial. Shrugging off those critiques, on the other hand, means ignoring the ways in which the fashion industry does genuine harm.
Maria Theresa’s moderation can be a saving grace here. Moderation in fashion means thinking about your choices regarding self-presentation, and considering the example you are setting. Fashion lovers often describe and defend style as self-expression; if self-expression is in fact fashion’s highest purpose, then employing it morally means ensuring you express a full and accurate reflection of yourself. That means choosing clothes that express your intentions, your attitudes, and your context, not just your creative spirit. Fashion is an art form to enjoy, an opportunity to present yourself on your own terms, and a moral occasion.
But a mere triviality? Not even close.
Catherine Addington is a writer currently based in New York. She tweets here. Image from Wikimedia Commons.