Some fashion trends evolve slowly from existing styles, while others seem to spring out of nowhere. And then there are styles—often the most radical and difficult to rationalize later—that can be pinpointed to a single idiosyncratic originator. Marie Antoinette’s signature “big hair,” the pouf, is one of these.
Towering up to two feet high, coated with powder, and crammed with ribbons, flowers, jewels, feathers, and even model ships, fruit, or tiny figurines, the pouf was one of the most bizarre hairstyles ever created.
The inventor of the pouf, Léonard Autié, showed up in Paris in 1769, an ambitious and unlicensed hairdresser from Bordeaux on the make. Sporting second-hand aristocratic clothes and an inflated sense of his own genius, Léonard quickly got himself blacklisted by the most popular Parisian stylist. Finding himself without any clients, he had no choice but to take a backstage job in a theater. The first hairstyle Léonard created was for an unremarkable actress playing a fairy, and it marked a decisive turning point in 18th-century style. Will Bashor’s description of the landmark hair-do in Marie Antoinette’s Head, his 2013 book about Léonard, reads like a vision from an acid trip.
“He had divided [her hair] into zones with each one presenting different visions: here emeralds, there pearls with a little flower, and a few blossoms that seemed to pierce through the curls. But the most ingenious, the most original attribute of the hairstyle, was an array of stars which ‘in no way seemed to be part of the head which it crowned.’ … He fastened his stars to a circle of extremely fine wire that he fixed in the hair; the golden stars seemed to arch themselves as a crown on his fairy’s head without any visible attachment.”
The bold chignon—and the formerly overlooked actress—were an immediate hit with the audience. That this fantastical head-mounted costume created a sensation on stage makes sense. It makes absolutely no sense, however, that such an outlandish concoction would soon find its way onto the heads of France’s wealthiest nobles in even the most formal settings. And this is not the only thing in Marie Antoinette’s Head that makes no sense.
Four facts about Marie Antoinette’s hair that make no sense
1. The first pouf was both bizarre and racist
Léonard created the first pouf, which came to be known as Le Pouf Sentimental, for the Duchess of Chartres in April 1774. Bashor notes that “the sentimental pouf was quite eccentric—to say the least.” In addition to 14 yards of gauze and a number of feathers, Léonard placed wax figures of the Duchess’ son and his nurse, a little plate of cherries, and letters formed from the hair of the Duchess’ male relatives within the towering coif.
He also included the Duchess’ favorite pets: a parrot and “a little African boy.”
2. Hair care was obscenely expensive
Léonard charged clients like Marie Antoinette the equivalent of $800 (in today’s U.S. dollars) to style a pouf, with an additional fee of $240 per month for a biweekly touchup. A surviving receipt for a member of the nobility shows a bill of $1,200 for a single month of hair care.
Blue-collar workers in Paris at the time averaged just $8 in wages per day, and a single loaf of bread cost the equivalent of $1.
3. Marie Antoinette adopted her signature hairstyle to spite a former prostitute
Madame du Barry was one of Léonard first clients. A former prostitute who managed to catch the eye of the Count du Barry, she soon became the mistress of King Louis XV; a role that granted her notoriety for exhausting the royal treasury and meddling in the political affairs of the nation.
Marie Antoinette detested her. So when Madame du Barry recommended her current hairdresser, Léonard, to the future queen of France in 1772, the younger woman jumped at the chance to hire him as her personal stylist.
“[It was] another way to snub the king’s favorite, Madame du Barry; she would simply deny her the services of the brilliant new hairdresser by taking him up for himself,” Bashor notes. “The irony, of course, is that Marie Antoinette felt she was punishing Madame du Barry by taking Léonard, while Madame du Barry thought she was flattering the queen by giving him to her. The machinations of the French court often twisted back on itself in this manner, like a Möbius strip.”
4. Hair-styling was an all-day affair
The French court, housed at Versailles, was just 15 miles from Paris. But it took three hours for Léonard to make the journey in a carriage (though a messenger going hell-for-leather on horseback could make the trip in less than half an hour). His services were required for two daily dress, makeup, and hairdressing procedures known as “toilettes.”
“The toilette of noble ladies customarily took place in the morning and the evening. … The evening toilette, the hour when Paris and the court of Versailles normally had their hair curled up in rollers, lasted almost as long as that in the morning,” Bashor records. “[In the morning] her hairdresser would take an hour or more to complete his creation.”
The term “morning” is quite relative, however. Madame du Barry’s “morning” session with Léonard didn’t begin until noon. Marie Antoinette, for her part, was addicted to attending balls held within the palace, which “she would not leave until six o’clock in the morning. She would then hear mass and go to bed, sleeping until two o’clock in the afternoon.”
And now the one fact that makes perfect sense…
Yes, Léonard WAS drunk when he came up with the idea for Marie Antoinette’s “big hair”
One evening, Léonard was getting drunk in his apartment with a fellow hairdresser, when Marie Antoinette’s valet unexpectedly knocked on the door.
“All the furniture began to dance before his eyes as the valet spoke: ‘Madame the Dauphine requests the presence of Monsieur Léonard at once. Her Royal highness is going to the opera this evening.’”
He frantically drank several cups of coffee and “entered the dauphine’s apartment with the assurance that a tipsy man never lacks, and it appeared that Her Highness did not notice his condition.”
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In his drunken state, he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with her hair, so he curled it and added “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.”
Upon seeing what he had done to her hair, Marie Antoinette stared at her reflection in the mirror in silence, frowning. She remarked that it was “remarkably bold” and judged that it was more than a yard in height. Léonard equivocated that it was indeed daring, but all the ladies in Paris would have even higher hair by the next evening, once they got a load of her.
Léonard then staggered back to his apartment, where he informed his still-drunk friend that the strange thing he had done to Marie Antoinette’s hair would have resulted in a death sentence in the previous king’s court. He had given his patroness a head “more than forty inches long from the lower part of the chin to the top of her hair.”
But there’s no accounting for taste. Marie Antoinette’s breathtaking coiffeur was indeed a success and Léonard’s drunken gamble paid off. “Her subjects would throng to catch a glimpse of the elaborate hairstyles created by Léonard, and as he predicted, they soon spared no expense to imitate them,” Bashor writes.
Marie Antoinette’s head became an icon from that moment on … right up until the moment when her subjects chopped it off.