The Sun King, Louis XIV (1643–1715) launched haute couture, the business of fashion. It was a brilliant move. He made personal appearance important for social interaction.
At court, the king himself was impeccably dressed, and he required the same of his courtiers. Clothing had to fit perfectly, be made with beautiful fabrics, and be impeccably clean. This strict dress code affected every part of one’s life. The king required a certain etiquette of dress for every time of the day: dressing gowns for morning, day dress for the afternoon, and evening gowns for social events. Certain fabrics were made for each season (which we still use today): silk in summer, velvet in winter. These changes made aristocrats in France aware of their behavior and appearance.
Awareness of one’s personal appearance continued after Louis’s reign but lent itself to extremes. Women wore high, intricately structured powdered wigs bedecked with jewels, feathers, and ribbons that were a sight to behold. A lady’s gown, over a corset, was voluminous, open from the waist down displaying an underskirt or petticoat, and had to be colorful. There were hooks and laces galore.
Perhaps the only benefit to come from the French Revolution and its devastation was that it did help curve excesses in fashion. Fashion extremes ended when the Estates General convened in 1789, and a new fashion statement soon emerged. Three colors, blue, white, and red became de rigueur. French citizens, high and low, felt compelled to wear the tri-color cockade, or knot of ribbons, on their hats.
From sizeable, powdered coiffures, women adopted a natural hair color, with curls forming closely around the face. Styles were simplified with dresses of one piece and in ordinary fabrics, such as cotton.
A Natural Beauty
The portrait of the Comtesse de Sorcy (1790) by eminent artist of the day, Jacques-Louis David, gives us a young woman who presented this simple yet elegant style to perfection. The comtesse was one of two sisters and daughter of Swiss-born Parisian banker Jacques Rilliet. Both sisters married rich and titled husbands; Anne-Marie-Louise’s husband was also of Swiss ancestry.
The lady is dressed modestly in a simple white cotton gown and shawl with patterned edges. She sits comfortably on a red velvet chair, against a bare taupe backdrop. Her dark blonde hair falls around her face highlighting her natural composure, beautiful features, and kind expression.
The simple gown flows wonderfully around her, thanks to the artist’s skill. The soft tan shawl seems to imitate the wrap of her arms. From the shawl’s tip, the line flows upward to her shoulder, where the focus continues around her hair that frames her face. How far she had come from the extremes of aristocratic dress. As noted in The History of Art website, the sisters “did not wish to have their portraits to be too extravagant, wearing relatively simple but smart clothing which they would have felt best represented their own characters.”
David painted in the classical style and was in demand as a portrait painter for wealthy aristocrats. He accepted this commission one year after the revolution had begun just as the country’s political and social upheaval was gaining steam. As the revolution wore on, it was not kind to French elites. Most lost everything, and in some cases, even their lives.
It has been said that, for generations, French women have cultivated their natural beauty to perfection and the lady de Sorcy certainly shows it in this compelling portrait.