Among the numerous items in the library’s Maxine Waldron Collection of Children’s Books and Paper Toys is a gorgeously hand-painted French set of paper cards from the late 1780s not intended as a children’s plaything but rather as an advertisement for coiffures – the French word for both hairstyles and headdresses. The set consists of four drawings of heads framed in medallions, reminiscent of portrait miniatures, and twelve different fashion changes, all delicately rendered in watercolor. Included is a diminutive slipcase measuring 3 3/8” high x 2 ¾” wide that housed the set. The fashion cards show the creations of Denis-Antoine of Paris, as stated on the partial label reading: “Se vend dans la même/A Paris/Chez-Denis-Antoin/rue S. Jacques, vis-à-vis/à S. Ambroise,” which roughly translates to: “Sells in the same/in Paris/at the shop of Denis-Antoine/rue St. Jacques, opposite/St. Ambroise.”
Although particulars of Denis-Antoine are unknown, the label provides us with his store’s location in the left bank’s 5th arrondissement just south of the Ile de la Cité, home to the city’s luxury fashion trade. By the 1780s, Paris, while only the third largest city in Europe with a population of approximately 650,000, was nevertheless its undisputed fashion capital. Its reigning fashion icon, Queen Marie Antoinette, with her ever-changing styles featured in numerous prints, inspired clothing trends at a dizzying pace. To keep up with Parisians’ demand to follow these trends, an extensive network of clothing and textile trades and services spread throughout the city, with the area around the Palais Royal and the busy thoroughfares of Rue Saint-Denis and Rue Saint-Honoré just across the Seine as its nexus. Most nobility gravitated to the Rue Saint-Honoré, where the queen’s personal marchande de modes (fashion merchant), Rose Bertin operated her store. Denis-Antoine’s shop may not have been located in the center of the fashion district or connected to the highest ranks of aristocracy, but the styles on the cards were clearly intended for clientele that could afford to spend both time and money on their coiffures.
And what hairstyles they were! Elaborate though they seem, the 1780s coiffures were toned-down versions of the towering poufs of the previous decade. Sometimes reaching three feet high, those poufs were built on foundations made of wire, cloth, and gauze augmented with horse hair and animal hair and could stay undisturbed for weeks. The most outrageous poufs were wildly accessorized with windmills, ships, and even entire garden scenes, some with sociopolitical meanings, some merely fanciful. When Marie Antoinette began to lose her hair during her second pregnancy in 1781, her hairstyles became less complicated as did her costumes reflecting her more informal style. Concurrently, more casual English fashions became popular aided by cheaper importation of their fabrics and France’s increasingly precarious economic situation. Lighter fabrics and less ornamentation helped to characterize this fad known as the l’Anglaise style. Even though Denis-Antoine was not selling clothing, the cards show this more modest attire with pastel-colored gowns simply decorated with gauze handkerchiefs, ruffles, and bows around the necks and bodices. No longer ridiculously tall, the hairstyles on the cards were still teased somewhat high with curls framing the face and topped with millinery creations adorned with feathers, bows, flowers, beads, and ribbons. A notable difference is unpowdered hair or wigs, a reaction to the many poor harvests and wheat shortages during the decade.
Also on trend was Denis-Antoine’s use of paper to advertise his services. In previous centuries dolls of all sizes circulated through the royal courts of Europe to announce the latest styles to a select few and later to shoppers in store windows. With increasingly cheaper production costs, paper became the preferred medium by the late 1700s for disseminating the latest fashions to wider audiences, through fashion plates printed singly, in series, or in magazines. The newly created fashion press kicked into high gear with several periodicals chock full of fashion plates offering guidance to Parisians in dressing in vogue. Considered the first fashion magazine, Galerie des Modes et des Costumes Français was published from 1778 to 1787 by print sellers Esnauts and Rapilly on the Rue St. Jacques. The Cabinet des Modes, the next popular and influential magazine, quickly followed under a series of titles between 1785 and 1794.
Much remains unknown about Denis-Antoine, his status within the city’s fashion hierarchy, and his fate in the troublesome times ahead. Did he survive the French Revolution, flee Paris to thrive elsewhere (as did Rose Bertin who later opened a shop for émigrés in London), or switch professions? Did Denis-Antoine design the cards himself or hire an artist who also created fashion plates for the magazine Galerie des Modes, published on the same street as his shop? Despite the mysteries, this extremely rare set of fashion plates is not only a true work of art but also an important window into fashion history during the waning days of the ancient régime.
Post by Jeanne Solensky, Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera
Madeliene Delpierre, translated by Caroline Beamish, Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century. Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1997.
Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2006.