The 18th Century indulges two of my biggest interests: Enlightenment philosophies and Rococo fashions. The French court was centered at Versailles, and many historians would focus on the debauchery taking place there. (Did you know that Louis XV had FIFTEEN different mistresses, four of which were sisters???? I’m sure hearing this kind of gossip back then was the equivalent of watching the Kardashians today. . . ) Debauchery aside, the 18th Century marked an era of new and liberating virtues: intellectual curiosity, patronage of the arts, and liberation from religious dogma. And who better to united these virtues and influence the king than fashion icon Madame de Pompadour?
Born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson in 1721, M.me Pompadour spent her childhood studying at the Ursulines convent in Poissy. She was beautiful, well-educated, and had been taught many artistic disciplines. She could recite entire plays by heart, play the clavichord, dance, sing, paint and engrave. Her many talents aligned her with the Enlightenment ideals of the time, and allowed her to marry well. In 1741, M.me de Pompadour married Charles Guillaume Le Normant d’Etiolles. In d’Etiolles, she became quite popular and founded a salon. A salon was an informal gathering where like-minded people came to socialize and to discuss new ideas and philosophies. It was at her salon that M.me Pompadour met the famed philosopher and writer Voltaire.
In 1745, she met Louis XV, who promptly became enamored with her. He helped dissolve her marriage, bought her an estate, and gave her the title Marquise. (This title is somewhere above a countess and below a duchess . . . all you really need to know is that her title allowed her to be formally introduced to the court at Versailles.) So, what led her to become the official royal mistress until her death?
Beauty aside, M.me de Pompadour was smart. First, she was nice to Louis XV’s wife. Then, she focused on keeping Louis XV entertained. She had a small theater built at Versailles and staged plays just for him. Famous artists designed the scenery and costumes. M.me de Pompadour accompanied him while hunting, playing cards, and touring properties. She also threw dinner parties in his honor.
M.me de Pompadour had a particular passion for fine and decorative arts. She bought hundreds of objects in all sorts of shapes, styles and colors. She became increasingly identified with the ornate, swirling forms and pastel colors of the Rococo movement. Her hobbies other than pleasing Louis XV included helping with the creation of the first Encyclopedia and promoting French manufacturers. She transformed the fortunes of Servres porcelain, the Gobelins tapestry works, and commissioned inordinate amounts of artwork.
Her dress demonstrate her taste and surroundings always subtly communicated her intellectual curiosity. Through her various portraits, you can start to identify M.me Pompadour’s signature style:
- a low, square neckline
- a stomacher (see below) decorated with a series of descending bows
- pastel colors
- floral motifs, especial with chine: flower patterns printed on the warp only, making the print very subtle
- engageants: ruffles sewn to the sleeves that end below the elbow
- eschelles: masses of artificial flowers
M.me de Pompadour died of tuberculosis in 1764, but her style lived on much longer. If you liked her style, I recommend visiting the following sites: