France has been at the forefront of fashion for quite some time. In the 18th century, fashion magazines were published every ten days, and could barely keep up with the changes in styles. As we look back from the 21st century, the fast-moving fashion accessory of the time that sticks out most to us is the pouf, which became symbolic of the era.
A pouf was halfway between a hat and a hairstyle. It was a thematic headdress made up of flowers, feathers, ribbons, gauze, and various props, reflecting events of personal or pop-cultural significance, including hit plays or scientific breakthroughs or political scandals. The illustrations of ship-shaped poufs are absolutely surreal. I started off thinking, oh, that’s just a silly caricature, but many of them were real hats. And they were not silly aristocrats being ridiculous; they were political statements referencing the American Revolution.
In 18th-century France, of course, everything was a political statement. Those fashions might be hard to decipher today, but at the time, wearing the wrong thing could get you killed, particularly as the French Revolution neared in 1789. Marie Antoinette’s dedication to the latest fashions reverberated through the fashion industry and the general populace as well. You can read the story of French fashion and the revolution at Collectors Weekly.
(Image credit: The Musée Franco-Américain)