Fashion & Culture
Fashion | History and Culture

Fashion in the Court of Louis XIV

July 3, 2019

Four years ago I took a tour of history that changed my life. It was June 2015 and I was visiting Paris with my family. On the last day of our adventure, we took a tour of the Château of Versailles, the magnificent palace built by Louis XIV and home of Emperor Napoleon.  I still remember feeling the presence of the nobles, kings, queens, and courtiers as I walked through the halls, the private chambers, and the gardens of the palace. I immediately became infatuated with this era of history and wanted to learn everything I could about the people who had lived there: their stories, their history, and of course, their fashion. 

Last week I had the privilege of returning to the palace. Friday, the 28th of June, was the centennial of the singing of the Treaty of Versailles: an event which signified the official end to World War I. My father is the artistic director for the National WWI Commission and was invited, along with my mom and I, to attend a special event at Versaille commemorating the centennial. It has been four years since my first visit and ever since then I have remained immersed in its history. Dining in the palace made me feel as if I was back in time amongst the kings and queens who entertained nobles in the same halls. 

This blog is predominantly focused on fashion. I decided that to honour the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, I would share some thoughts about my favorite fashion era in history: fashion in the court of Louis XIV. If you would like me to write about the fashion in any other eras (Edwardian, Elizabethan, Victorian, Medieval, etc.) let me know in the comments. Enjoy your tour through history! 

**Note, not all photos are mine. 

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The rise of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and his court at Versailles, signaled the dawn of the Classical Baroque era in art, architecture, music, and fashion. It was defined by natural, curving silhouettes, flowing lines, gold latticework, rich colors, and overall sensuality. Clothing contained an abundance of lace, pearls, ribbons, and gold embroidery, and was refreshingly free from the tight and excessively restricting styles of the Renaissance. 

Fashion throughout this period changed rapidly: the growing middle class copied the styles of the nobles, who would, in turn, create new fashions to stay more “refined” than the middle class. Unlike earlier periods, where bodices, sleeves, skirts, jackets, and breeches were made to mix and match, clothing during this period was designed as complete outfits, often made of the same fabric.  This was referred to as en suite, and was the predecessor for our modern-day “suit.”  Seasonality became an important feature of Baroque fashion, a grateful relief from the year-long heavy gowns and jackets worn during the Renaissance. 

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~ The Styles ~

WOMEN: Women’s clothing became much less restricting under Louis’ court. Flexible styles replaced hard, tight-fitting corsets, flowing lace collars replaced stiff ones, large farthingales (a structure used to support women’s skirts) were abandoned and skirts were merely layered or padded at the hips to produce a full, flowing look. Usually, two skirts were worn, the overskirt (manteau) open at the front and usually forming a train or bustle at the back, and an underskirt. Decorative aprons became popular with the middle classes. The plunging neckline called décolletage became common, often accompanied with wide lace collars. Waistlines were also high during the first part of the period, though long, pointed bodices came back during the latter half of the period. Sleeves were large, gathered at the wrist or elbow and often with turned-back lace cuffs. They steadily became more and more ruffled as the period progressed. Solid-coloured silks and brocades were used more often than patterned fabrics, and usually, decorations consisted only of lace, ribbons, limited embroidery, and simple pearl jewelry.


MEN: During the early half of the Baroque period saw the emergence of the cavalier style for men (think the Three Musketeers).

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Further into the reign of Louis XIV, however, men’s fashions became more extravagant. Rhinegrave breeches, or long, loose, overly decorated pants ending just below the knee – which really looked like skirts – (look to the image on the right) became popular and were worn with lace ruffles just below them. Large collars were replaced with long lace ruffles at the opening of the neckline. Square-toed, high-heeled shoes replaced bootsBefore the death of the Sun King, men’s fashions underwent yet another change! Breeches became close-fitting and either tied, buttoned, or buckled at the knee. Long coats with braid-trimmed buttonholes and large, folded-over sleeves were worn. This suit was referred to collectively as the Persian style and still serves as the base of a man’s suit – the coat, waistcoat, and breeches.

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Although the Baroque period was not as extravagant as the Renaissance in regard to the amount of decoration used, it was just as lavish in its display of wealth. Fine ribbon and lace replaced copious amounts of jewels, elegant embroidery replaced methods such as slashing and puffing, and rich silks replaced highly decorated fabrics. These patterns would continue into the following Rococo period of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. 


~ Louis XIV’s use of Fashion to Control the Nobility and Express Power ~

Louis XIV was France’s longest-reigning monarch serving 72 years on the throne. His reign commemorates a beginning: the birth of haute couture as people know it today – seasonal, corporate, media-driven, and above all, French. When Louis came to the throne in 1643, the fashion capital of the world wasn’t Paris, but Madrid. Tastes tend to follow power, and for the preceding two centuries or so Spain had been enjoying its Golden Age. Spanish style was tight and rigid — both physically and figuratively — and predominantly black. Not only was black considered to be sober and dignified by the Catholic Church, but high-quality black dye was extremely expensive, and the Spanish flaunted their wealth by using as much of it as possible. Louis, however, had a different view on things. Luxury was his new deal: the furniture, textile, clothing, and jewelry industries he established not only provided jobs for his subjects but made France the world’s leader in taste and technology. Louis’s legacy is evident in modern France’s attitude toward fashion; it isn’t a frivolous or trivial industry but an utterly serious one. 

Louis enshrined fashion’s importance among the elite by making it an integral part of their etiquette as well as an indicator of their wealth due to its high cost. Louis’ motivations for this were partially an attempt to send as many nobles as possible into debt in order to have greater control over their actions. The Baroque style of the time was elaborate and contained the elements Louis needed to enchant and suppress his nobles. He required a different code of dress for each formal event and this system sent most into bankruptcy. If this was Louis’s intent, he used fashion in events like these to impose it. Debt severely limited the nobles’ financial power and allowed Louis to further manipulate his nobility and empower himself. It was necessary for nobles and the highest elites who wanted to remain important and have a higher social level to attend the balls and festivities Louis staged at Versailles, and to spend an outrageous amount of money on new clothing. This endless cycle kept the nobles trapped at Versailles and focused on wearing the proper and most fashionable clothing, which led them to be too poor and too preoccupied to revolt. 

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Louis continued to accentuate fashion’s important through more official means, too. In 1668, he passed an edit that required his courtiers to remain fashionable. Although it is not certain the law was enforced or attached to any punishment, it served as a reminder to nobles of what was important. In order to have the chance to rise in society, aristocrats had to spend much of their time at court in fashionable dress. Other, more sumptuary laws dictated who could wear what, reserving velvet for barons, dukes, viscounts, and knights. Thus, it provided those who could afford velvet another opportunity to express their status. Louis XIV similarly used propaganda to encourage the nobility's dependence on the obsession with fashion. They believed that outside appearance reflected not only personality but also social status. The more expensive and fashionable someone's clothing was, the greater his or her importance. Louis also extended his rules of fashion down to the middle class in France, thereby including them in his circle of power. This stressed Louis’s power further as it made it clear that the middle class was willing to save their money just to be in his gardens to see the lavish displays.

The fashions of France soon began to appear all across Europe. Although fashion was not responsible for France’s power, it did make the country appear powerful through the magnificence of the French court. Fashion provided a sense of national identity and patriotism to those wearing. Fashionable and expensive clothing was already a sign of power and the spread of French fashion across Europe. The pride nobles all over Europe took in wearing it was Louis’s way of proving that France and its monarch were strong. Fashion was also important for a more practical reason: the employment of the lower class. Mercantilism in France banned foreign cloth, lace, and trimmings, which meant fabric had to be made in France by the French. This gave jobs to lower class citizens. By this, clothing to an extent aided the circulation of wealth. And although it was certainly not Louis's main motivation or even necessarily something he often kept in mind, the extravagant fashion kept many people employed, which helped to empower France. 

Louis, who took an unstable throne in a divided country, used many techniques to unite France and make it stronger. He chose fashion to control nobles; it gave them something both to flaunt and be proud of, and it consumed their time and money. He admired how it could make a person appear elegant and powerful, both physically and symbolically. For Louis, fashion was not just something for the body; it was his way to present his country to the rest of Europe. 

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