One of the final humiliations Marie Antoinette suffered, after languishing in a filthy prison cell, waiting for her execution, was to have her hair chopped off in order to offer a clean surface for the blade of the guillotine. Practical perhaps, but also the ultimate insult, according to “Marie Antoinette’s Head,” a new historical work by Will Bashor, a professor at Franklin College, who earned his doctorate in international studies from the American Graduate School in Paris, and who is a member of the Society for French Historical Studies. The book won the 2013 Adele Mellen Prize for Distinguished Scholarship.
“Marie Antoinette’s Head ” tells the story of Léonard Autié, hairdresser to the 1 percent, the man who invented the outrageously towering hairdos of 18-century French aristocracy, including his most famous client, the ill-fated Austrian bride of King Louis XVI. This small-town hairdresser worked his way to fame, fortune, and the inner circles of French society, played a part in the attempted escape of the royal family at the outset of the French Revolution, and later offered financial assistance to exiled members of the court in England, Germany and Russia.
The close-cropped, ”tête de mouton,” or sheep’s shead spelling hairstyle, was popular when Autié arrived in Paris, in 1769, after leaving his native town, Pamier, in the mountains of southwestern France, for an apprenticeship in Bordeaux. In the capital, through a connection he had only hoped would help land him a spot in a salon, he was given the opportunity to work with actresses at a popular theater, where attractive young women performed rope dances, acrobatics, and balancing acts. Autié’s initial success with the women of the theater had as much to do with his good looks and abilities in seduction as they did with his hairstyles, according to Bashor. But one night, he styled the hair of an actress who was to appear as a fairy, and he had a brainstorm. “When finally freed from its curling papers and Léonard’s comb, Julie’s hair took on a bewitching charm. He had divided it into zones with each one presenting different visions: here emeralds, there pearls with a little flower, and a few blossoms that seemed to pierce through the curls. But the most ingenious, the most original attribute of the hairstyle, was an array of stars which ‘in no way seemed to be part of the head which it crowned.’’’
His hairstyle helped the actress win sudden acclaim, and shortly thereafter, Autié’s handiwork was not only in demand with actresses, but, increasingly, with women of means and position. Before long, he was given an introduction to the royal court, where Marie Antoinette decided that he should become her personal hairdresser. His hairstyles were over-the-top exercises in creativity and a symbol of the excess that ultimately contributed to the downfall of the aristocracy.
What started with the idea of replacing Antoinette’s bonnets with pieces of chiffon, arranged delicately in her hair, evolved into the famous poufs — wigs festooned with the likes of butterflies, swarms of Cupids, and model ships. The “hedgehog” pouf was a “concoction of unpowdered hair curled to the tips and rising in tiers, leaving several strands of curls falling on the neck. The hair on top of the forehead was held up in a high and very large clump with hairpins. The entire bouffant style was supported by a ribbon that encircled the entire pouf.”
The wigs were so towering that women who wore these styles had to remove them in order to enter their carriages. Rules were made at the opera house limiting the heights of these creations, after theatergoers complained that it was becoming impossible to see over the hair of the women in the audience.
Bashor weaves history, politics, French court customs, and a movie-worthy tale of ambition, luck, romance, and tragedy into a book that sometimes sinks a little under the weight of its academic tone. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of “Marie Antoinette’s Head,” is the way the author manages to tell a compelling story by drawing on court memoirs, letters of Autié’s acquaintances and contemporaries, the admittedly embellished biography of the hairdresser written in 1838, 18 years after his death, as well as other surviving texts, all duly footnoted and documented. “All dialogue has been transcribed verbatim from original sources,” Bashor writes in his “Note On Sources.” There is also Autié’s family tree, a map of Paris, a chronology, a cast of historical characters, a bibliography, a list of illustrations and credits, endnotes, and a nine-page index to finish things off. Clearly, this book, described on its jacket as “The Devil Wears Prada Come to Versailles,” is no mere exercise in historical extrapolation.
While no recent book, movie, advertising campaign, runway fashion, or music video inspired by Marie Antoinette is ever presented without towering hair, the story of the hairdresser behind the pouf, which might be looked at as a document of a somewhat marginal character in French history, contains more historical interest and drama than you might expect. The hairdresser’s saga throws new fuel to the fire that still manages to burn for everything Antoinette. And ultimately, although the tale is rooted in French history, “Marie Antoinette’s Head” is, at its core, an all-American, small-town-boy-makes-it-big saga. Too bad Jimmy Stewart isn’t around for the Hollywood version.