Let them eat cake!

That title phrase has long been associated with Marie Antoinette although the truth is that she never said any such thing. (A remark of a long-dead French princess was revived and put into her mouth to indicate her lack of compassion for starving French peasants. As accurate reporting goes, it was crap. As propaganda, it was genius.)

What Marie Antoinette definitely did was set fashion trends–and some of them were whoppers. There was a fad for the color puce, “puce” being the French word for flea. The color was a purplish brown that matched the color of a flea’s back. Euw. But courtiers, for all their glittering wealth, would have been well-familiar with the shade. They were not spared from the indignity of infestations. (Some sources claim the shade was yellowish-pink. Either way, not very appetizing.)

Another questionably tasteful fad was spawned when Marie Antoinette finally gave birth to a much-anticipated son and heir–given the title of Dauphin of France–after several years of marriage. So exuberant were the French over their new prince, they wore a greenish-brown color called caca dauphin in honor of the infant’s dirty diapers.

She was famously infatuated with idealized simplicity, building a peasant village as a sort of playground for herself and her intimates at Versailles. Cows were scrubbed and perfumed before she came to milk them, and the milk squirted into porcelain bowls marked with her gilded monogram. Her insistence upon being painted in a gaulle or simple cotton gown was so scandalous that her reputation never entirely recovered. Not only was it unthinkable that the queen of the most formal court in Europe should be publicly depicted in a gown that was informal at best, she was blamed for dealing a blow to the silk industry.

But she could also get her bling on with the best of them. One of the most ridiculous fads to hit Versailles during her tenure–and one largely begun because of her–was the fashion for enormous powdered wigs. Like many Hapsburgs, Marie Antoinette, an Austrian princess by birth–had a high forehead. It was thought that by dressing her hair very high, her forehead would appear lower in comparison, making a more pleasing proportion. But it didn’t stop at a simple updo. Using pads and false hair and pomade and pins, the coiffures became a means of self-expression, reaching ever higher as court skirts stretched ever wider over enormous panniers.

Feathers, jewels, ribbons, and poufs of fabric were regular embellishments, but as the trend carried on, the hairstyles became increasingly outlandish. There were styles to commemorate historical events and personal triumphs. Miniature ships, birdcages, and even tiny hot-air balloons were incorporated. Like silk dresses and high heels and velvet frock coats, these hairstyles proclaimed quite clearly, “I don’t have to work, peasant.”

Sadly for Marie Antoinette, the loss of her hair after pregnancy meant an end to the fad, but we can still amuse ourselves with the ridiculous thanks to the Victorian & Albert Museum. Reader Chris sent me a link to their Design Your Own Wig Game!