April 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
One of the most iconic images of eighteenth-century extravagance is a fashion plate depicting a lady wearing a miniature ship in her powdered and pomaded hair.
But this much-misunderstood hairstyle was not just an eye-catching novelty. It was one of many ship-shaped headdresses that celebrated specific French naval victories and, more importantly, advertised their wearers’ patriotism and political acumen.
Far from being the whimsical caprice of bored aristocrats, these maritime modes were directly inspired by one of the defining political and philosophical issues of the day: America’s struggle for independence, in which France was a key military and political ally.
In 1778, France signed a treaty of alliance with the United States and sent its ships up against Britain’s formidable Royal Navy. The Battle of Ushant on July 27th of that year was the first major conflict between the British and the French. Though the battle was not decisive and both sides would claim victory, the French fleet suffered far fewer casualties, and one French frigate in particular, the Belle Poule, badly damaged the British vessel the Arethusa.
“All Paris was enflamed by the news,” the Vicomtesse de Fars recorded, “and for a month the ladies enshrined its memory with an object of fashion of bad taste, called the coiffure à la Belle Poule. This coiffure represented, more or less, a ship in full sail.” The Journal politique marveled at its “ingenious. . . sails of gauze” and “riggings of silver and gold threads.” A variant of the same fashion plate was published under another title, which made explicit its political context: the “Coëffure à l’Indépendance, ou le Triomphe de la liberté.”
The Junon was another French frigate that distinguished itself at the Battle of Ushant; later that year, it secured its own place in fashion history by capturing the H.M.S. Fox. The Journal des modes de Paris described the coiffure à la Frégate la Junon as “a hat on which is represented a vessel with all its apparatus and tackle, having its cannons in formation,” which could be purchased from the milliner Mademoiselle Fredin.
France’s next important victory was the Battle of Grenada on July 6th, 1779, in which the French fleet—led by Admiral d’Estaing—captured the West Indian island from the British. The battle inspired chapeaux à la Grenade and à la d’Estaing; one satirist took this trend to its logical conclusion and depicted d’Estaing himself perched on a lady’s head. read more
PHOTOGRAPH: Geoffrey Pugen