Hair-raising times : what to wear to the opera

Jenner performing his first vaccination. Painting by Ernest Board

What links Marie Antoinette, vaccinations, Gluck, a famous naval battle, and Parisian opera houses? A man named Léonard Autié. 

Léonard Autié, or Monsieur Léonard as he was more often known, was born in the south of France. As a teenager started working as a hairdresser, eventually moving to Paris where he soon became known for his unusual styles, and was much in demand as a hairdresser to the nobility. As the most fashionable choice of hairstylist, he was employed as the personal hairdresser of Marie Antoinette in 1772.

Monsieur Léonard’s best-known creation is the very recognisable and much-caricatured 18th Century hairstyle, the ‘pouf‘, the development of which has been attributed both to him and to Rose Bertin, the queen’s dressmaker. This extravagant style became fashionable in France after Marie Antoinette wore a version of it to Louis XVI’s coronation. Hair was piled high on the head, with maximum volume created by the addition of pads and other supports, as well as extra false hair, pomade and powder. It could then be decorated with pretty much anything, and was often used to make a political statement or to mark particular celebrations. A famous example is the ‘pouf à la Belle-Poule‘ in which the hair was decorated with a model of a French frigate, the Belle-Poule, which was victorious in a duel against the British ship HMS Arethusa in 1778. (Although Arethusa definitely came out of this duel rather the worse for wear, the duel was also claimed as a victory in Britain, where it was celebrated with a sea shanty, rather than a hairstyle).

File:Coiffure belle-poule.jpg
A caricature of the fashionable ‘coiffure à la Belle Poule’ of the 1770s. (Moreau.henri, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1774, an outbreak of smallpox at Versailles was the unlikely origin of another wacky hairdo. Louis XV died in May 1774 after catching the disease. The newly crowned Louis XVI decided, after persuasion from Marie Antoinette, to take the smallpox innoculation, a medical procedure which, while common in some parts of Europe, was still regarded with some suspicion in France. Marie Antoinette celebrated the success of the procedure by donning the ‘pouf à l’inoculation‘. For this style, the hair was decorated with the images of a a serpent, symbolising Asclepius the Greek god of medicine, and an olive tree, symbolising wisdom.

Marie Antoinette’s patronage of Gluck, her childhood music teacher, provided inspiration for another of Monsieur Léonard’s creations. For the opening night of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, the queen wore a ‘coifurre a l’Iphigenie‘, which was decorated with a crescent moon and black ribbon to represent themes from the opera. Monsieur Léonard’s interest in opera was not confined to the creation of fashionable hairstyles for its audiences, however, and in 1789 he co-founded the Théâtre de Monsieur as a new Parisian venue for productions of Italian opera, opera comique and vaudevilles. The company was renamed as the Theatre Feydeau after the revolution, and finally merged with the Opera Comique in 1801.

Salle Feydeau – the custom-built theatre for the Théâtre de Monsieur, Paris. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether Monsieur Léonard kept up the habit of designing hairstyles suitable for whatever opera was showing at the time, who can say… most likely not I would guess. However, perhaps the much anticipated re-opening of theatre doors as we come further out of lockdown this summer is a good opportunity to revive the trend. Which opera would you adopt as fashionable headwear? Of course, until we pluck up the courage to wear such styles in public, we can practice behind closed doors. If you require operatic accompaniment to this, you can find Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide in the Pendlebury Library DVD collection, as well as on Medici TV. More about Monsieur Léonard, the pouf, and the Théâtre de Monsieur can be found in Will Bashor’s book Marie Antoinette’s head : the royal hairdresser, the queen, and the revolution / C209.c.2890.


[Editor – A guest appearance from Kate, who is currently on maternity leave. Welcome to the world, Baby Isobel]

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