Marie Antoinette has remained atop the popular cultural landscape for centuries for the daring in style and fashion that she brought to 18th century France. For the better part of the queen's reign, one man was entrusted with the sole responsibility of ensuring that her coiffure was at its most ostentatious best. Who was this minister of fashion who wielded such tremendous influence over the queen's affairs?
"Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser, The Queen, and the Revolution" (Lyons Press) charts the rise of Leonard Autie from humble origins as a country barber in the south of France to the inventor of the pouf and premier hairdresser to Queen Marie-Antoinette. By unearthing a variety of sources from the 18th and 19th centuries, including memoirs, court documents, and archived periodicals, author Will Bashor tells Leonard's mostly unknown story, chronicling Leonard's story, the role he played in the life of his most famous client, and the chaotic and history-making world in which he rose to prominence.
Leonard, often taken for nobility, would enter the queen's private salon soon after her entourage of ladies-in-waiting dressed her. It was he who fashioned the ever-fantastic edifices of hair, sometimes adding feathers and accessories to create elegant hairstyles up to four feet high. But it could also be said that Leonard was indirectly responsible for the very first attacks upon the queen, found in inflammatory pamphlets circulating as early as 1775. The attacks were prompted by Leonard's incredibly fanatical hairstyles, concoctions that reached such a height that it was necessary for ladies to kneel on the carriage floor--or hold the towering hairpieces outside the coach windows en route to gala balls and the opera.
Noble ladies of the court of Versailles felt obliged to imitate the queen's new and daring hairstyles, despite the danger of becoming burning infernos when they brushed against the candles of the palace chandeliers. The young ladies of Paris were also enthralled with the newfangled trends, drastically increasing their coiffure expenses and incurring large debts. Mothers and husbands grumbled, family fights ensued, and many relationships were irreparably damaged. In all, the general consensus of the French people was well publicized--the queen was bankrupting all the women of France, financially and morally.
Bibilothèque Nationale de France
Leonard Autie unexpectedly received Princess Marie Antoinette’s first request for an elaborate coiffure for the opera one evening. It would be a risky endeavor because he was a bit tipsy. While Leonard slowly separated the princess’s hair, attempting to conjure something magical, he no doubt was battling the thumping arteries of his temples. Fortunately, Leonard’s panic gave way to inspiration, and within an hour his flock of curls was able to hold three white ostrich plumes, set on the left side of her head and fastened in the middle of a rosette he had braided with her hair. A bow of pink ribbon, in the center of which was a large ruby, held the elaborate creation together.
Pouf "Jolie Femme"
Marie Antoinette’s amazing pouf. She examined it in silence. For a moment, from the wrinkled eyebrows, the princess appeared somewhat disappointed, saying, “My hairstyle is perfect, and it is admirably planned, but it is remarkably bold.” However, this frown lasted only an instant, when, like a flash, her face lit up with delight: “Oh, Leonard, it must be over a yard high!” Leonard admitted that the arrangement was daring, but he promised that there would be two hundred hairstyles higher than hers in Paris by the following evening. Her subjects would throng to catch a glimpse of the elaborate hairstyles created by Leonard, and as he predicted, they soon spared no expense to imitate them.
Marie Antoinette’s milliner, Mademoiselle Bertin, invented the ques-a-co, or “what is it?” coiffure, becoming an immeasurable success. It was composed of three feathers that ladies wore on the back of the head, creating a design resembling a question mark. Leonard was very fond of Mademoiselle Bertin, often commenting that their fortunes “trudged along hand in hand like two good sisters.” But Leonard was jealous; in fact, Mademoiselle Bertin’s laurels and praise were beginning to prevent Leonard from sleeping at night. He needed just one more of those grand ideas, one that would overthrow all existing vogues—not only to win back the favor of the dauphine, and to assuage his bitterness at Mademoiselle Rose, but to keep his name on the tongues of Paris.
The Pouf Sentimental
After many sleepless nights, Leonard finally came up with a new sensation: the pouf sentimental. It was the spirit of rivalry with Mademoiselle Rose that brought these headdresses to such monstrous heights, both literally and figuratively. The pouf was first worn by Madame the Duchess of Chartres in the month of April 1774. The duchess’s pouf was composed of 14 yards of gauze and numerous plumes waving at the top of a tower. Leonard employed two waxen figures as ornaments, representing the little Duke of Beaujolais in his nurse’s arms. Beside them he placed a parrot pecking at a plate of cherries, and reclining at the nurse’s feet, he put the waxen figure of a little African boy of whom the duchess was very fond.
Bibilothèque Nationale de France
The new pouf was quite unprecedented; never had anyone dared to create such a hodgepodge. Even Leonard was a bit frightened to show the absurd conception at first, but like most of Leonard’s creations, it caught on swiftly. Soon afterward one could find the strangest things in the poufs of Paris. Frivolous women covered their heads with butterflies, sentimental women nestled swarms of Cupids in their hair, and the wives of officers wore squadrons perched on their heads. Melancholic women went so far as to put crematory urns in their headdresses. It was also not uncommon to mix feathers with flowers which were kept fresh in tiny bottles of water hidden in the pouf.
Bibilothèque Nationale de France
And the hairstyles continued to rise in height. In February 1776, the queen, going to a ball given by the Duchess of Orléans, had plumes so high that they had to be removed from her coiffure to get into her carriage. She had to leave them behind when she returned to Versailles. The next popular pouf, the hérisson, or the hedgehog, was Leonard’s concoction of unpowdered hair curled to the tips and rising in tiers, leaving several strands of curls falling on the neck. The hair on the forehead was held up in a high and very large clump with hairpins. The entire bouffant style was supported by a ribbon that encircled the entire pouf.
Leonard continued to invent a number of new styles, each more extravagant than the next. Some were so high that it appeared that a “woman’s head was in the middle of her body.” One of Leonard’s favorite stories described an evening at the opera when, forgetting the height of Leonard’s pouf, a princess leaned forward—her headdress becoming entangled in the ornaments of an ornamental candlestick. When resuming her upright position, the candlestick remained firm but it drew out a long piece of the headdress’s gauze, displacing the parrot and the cherries. Luckily, they fell on her father, who caught them, preventing them from falling to the seats below, and thus saving Gluck’s opera and his daughter from becoming an “object of mirth.”
The Coiffure à la Belle-Poule
Another incredible creation consisted of a ship sailing on a sea of thick, wavy hair. It was invented after the naval battle in which the frigate, La Belle Poule, was victorious. The ship itself, with its masts, rigging, and guns, was imitated in miniature on the pouf. This elaborate creation, a celebration of sorts, was an overnight success. It should be noted, however, that many such coifs were supported with wired scaffolding and were very heavy. Also, seldom washed and making sleep difficult, these powdered concoctions were commonly breeding grounds for all types of vermin.
The End of an Era
By the time Queen Marie Antoinette had given France its first heir to the throne, she was threatened by the increasing loss of her hair. At the first indication of this catastrophe, Leonard began to tremble; along with the hair of Marie Antoinette, Leonard would lose his power, that supremacy enabling him to open up the hearts of the ladies of Paris and the court—as well as their purses. Leonard then persuaded the queen that his “coiffure à l’enfant” would surely meet with the same enthusiasm as her previous coiffures. The queen’s beautiful hair fell under Leonard’s scissors, and within two weeks, all the ladies of the court had their hair cut short à l’enfant, creating a new era in hairdressing.
The Clouds of Revolution
The queens of France were always of foreign birth for political reasons, but Marie Antoinette was a princess from Austria, France’s longtime enemy. Although it was vital for her to appear as French as possible, her fashions and hairstyles increasingly alienated her subjects. Attacks on the queen’s hair were soon followed by damaging accusations ranging from sexual promiscuity to high treason. When incest was added to the list, the revolutionary court was able to finally make its case to condemn the queen to death.
Her hair—it was the last to go
Leonard Autié, her celebrated and loyal hairdresser, was in exile in Germany when the executioner arrived at Marie Antoinette’s prison cell, scissors in hand, on that chilly October morning in 1793. He tied her hands behind her back and, roughly grasping her hair, cut off the iconic locks that Leonard had made so legendary.
Minutes later, the executioner would exhibit the severed queen’s head to the crazed crowds at the foot of the scaffold. Nothing but the continuous roar of “Vive la nation!” could be heard as he held it up, victoriously, by her hair.