The French court at Versailles was the envy of Europe, and Louis XIV the first king to understand the importance of clothes as a symbol of the power of the monarchy.An exhibition "Court pomp and royal ceremonies: court dress in Europe 1650-1800" (until June 28) at the palace of Versailles attempts to recreate the magnificence and desire to dazzle in the 17th and 18th century which was finally brought to a bloody end by the French Revolution.
Ironically, nothing remains of the garments worn by the French sovereigns, said the palace's director general Pierre Arizzoli-Clementel.This was not just due to the destruction wreaked by the Revolution, but because of the habit of the French royals of handing down their clothes as they went out of fashion to their ladies and gentlemen in waiting, who transformed them or sold them on, many eventually ending up in rag shops in Paris.
Fortunately other European monarchies took better care of their wardrobes, which were copied from Versailles and often even made in France as Paris was already the world's leader in luxury.Sweden's King Gustav III (1746-1792) set the trend by systematically preserving for posterity costumes worn at key events in his lifetime.
Austria, Denmark, the German region of Saxony and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II all possess substantial collections, and have lent important items to the show, many of which have never left their home countries before.
Such pieces include the red velvet ermine-lined coronation robe of Britain's George III, worn only once, displayed in its entire length in the same room as the sumptuous silver cloth and Spanish lace costume worn by Gustav III when he was crowned in 1772.His wife, the Danish Princess Sophie Madeleine, wore a "grand habit" in the style of the French queens, with a narrow bodice over skirts almost two metres (six feet) across and a train five metres long. In court etiquette, the length of the train reflected the importance of both the ceremony and the person entitled to wear it.
Other examples of court finery brought out on grand occasions include the extraordinarily elaborate uniforms of the ancient grand dynastic orders -- the Order of the Holy Spirit in France, the Golden Fleece in Austria and the Garter in England."Charles de Gaulle apparently refused the Order of the Garter after the Second World War because he thought the costume ridiculous," said Arizzoli-Clementel.Special ceremonies aside, Louis XIV is credited with simplifying male dress by authorising courtiers to adopt the long jacket and fitted breeches which they wore to go hunting as everyday wear. This became the ancestor of the modern suit, said Pascale Gorguet-Ballesteros, deputy curator of the exhibition.
Nevertheless it still cost a fortune to cut a fine figure at Versailles.No woman could appear at court until she had been formally presented, and a presentation outfit could cost up to 3,000 livres -- the currency of the time -- "for the total look", said Gorguet-Ballesteros."A weaver with a wife and two children in Paris could live on 340 livres a year," he said.
The account books kept by Marie Antoinette's favourite supplier Rose Bertin bear witness to the astronomical sums aristocrats owed -- and often never settled -- for their finery.
A canny businesswoman, Bertin circulated dolls dressed in the latest Versailles fashions for clients to place orders, long before models and catwalk shows.Marie Antoinette was a slave to fashion.
"She was young and beautiful, and bored by stuffy court dress," said Gorguet-Ballesteros.
She wanted to wear what was considered the height of fashion and pioneered more informal wear, including the so-called "English dress" in light muslin, with a bodice ending in a point at the back and full skirts behind, far less cumbersome than the wide "paniers".There is at least one frock in the exhibition embroidered with her fetish peacock feathers that just might have belonged to France's last tragic queen.
All the paraphernalia needed to cut a dash form an interesting sideshow, from boots with scarlet heels, which were in vogue, to jewellery designed to fill cleavages, with precious stones mounted on fine metal stems that trembled as the wearer moved.