Tells From Queen Marie-Antoinette Hairdresser

8d1fe1e67c79136842748eaab3f2b637It is hard to get that right hairdresser even if you are the queen. But what if you are the queen of France and known for your fashion well in that case there is only one man you can turn to Leonard Autie.


Although the exact year of the birth of Leonard Autie is unknown, it is probable that it was 1746.

Nothing is known of his early days, but it is likely that he spent them in the South of France, where he was born.

It is also likely that he served his apprenticeship as a hairdresser in a city in the same section of that country.

He came to Paris, he tells us, in 1769 and quickly acquired a clientele in the society of that capital.   As a hairdresser, he became “king.” It is he who created all the new head-dresses.

Léonard-Alexis_Autié_at_work_-_Bashor_2013_plate9He varied them weekly, almost daily, and the fashion papers of the period were filled with his innovations.

He understood his epoch; novelties and eccentricities were in demand and he responded more than generously. His appointment as the official hairdresser to the Archduchess Marie-Antoinette crowned his reputation.

He continued in that capacity after the Archduchess had become Queen of France, even until the flight of the royal family which terminated by the arrest of Louis XVI, at Varennes, June 22, 1791.

After this flight, in which he took part, Leonard went to Luxemburg, but nothing is known of his stay there. Later he is heard of as living abroad, in Russia and Germany.

He remained away during the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire, and only returned to France with the Bourbons in 1 8 14.

There he died, in Paris, on the 24th of March, 1820.   Histories usually give us the bare facts and dates. They seldom show us how the people lived of whose laws and battles they are the records. Memoirs like those of Leonard give us just what the histories lack.

We see in Leonard’s book a “moving picture” of the events of the last twenty years of the Ancient Regime.

We see Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, their near relatives and their favorites at close range. We have lifelike portraits of a dull, well-intentioned Louis; of a proud, frivolous Marie Antoinette.

We have striking sketches of the Comte de Provence (later Louis XVIII), of the Comte d’Artois (later Charles X), and of Mira- beau, the “Demosthenes of the Tiers-Etat.”

We see the last of Louis XV’s favorites, du Barry, and we have a glimpse of that gay monarch him- self as he was towards the end of his reign.

Coiffing Marie Antoinette


Leonard Autie unexpectedly received Princess Marie Antoinette’s first request for an elaborate coiffure for the opera one evening. It would be a risky endeavor because he was a bit tipsy. While Leonard slowly separated the princess’s hair, attempting to conjure something magical, he no doubt was battling the thumping arteries of his temples.

Fortunately, Leonard’s panic gave way to inspiration, and within an hour his flock of curls was able to hold three white ostrich plumes, set on the left side of her head and fastened in the middle of a rosette he had braided with her hair. A bow of pink ribbon, in the center of which was a large ruby, held the elaborate creation together.


Pouf “Jolie Femme

Marie Antoinette’s amazing pouf. She examined it in silence. For a moment, from the wrinkled eyebrows, the princess appeared somewhat disappointed, saying, “My hairstyle is perfect, and it is admirably planned, but it is remarkably bold.” However, this frown lasted only an instant, when, like a flash, her face lit up with delight: “Oh, Leonard, it must be over a yard high!” Leonard admitted that the arrangement was daring, but he promised that there would be two hundred hairstyles higher than hers in Paris by the following evening. Her subjects would throng to catch a glimpse of the elaborate hairstyles created by Leonard, and as he predicted, they soon spared no expense to imitate them.The


Marie Antoinette’s milliner, Mademoiselle Bertin, invented the ques-a-co, or “what is it?” coiffure, becoming an immeasurable success. It was composed of three feathers that ladies wore on the back of the head, creating a design resembling a question mark. Leonard was very fond of Mademoiselle Bertin, often commenting that their fortunes “trudged along hand in hand like two good sisters.” But Leonard was jealous; in fact, Mademoiselle Bertin’s laurels and praise were beginning to prevent Leonard from sleeping at night. He needed just one more of those grand ideas, one that would overthrow all existing vogues—not only to win back the favor of the dauphine, and to assuage his bitterness at Mademoiselle Rose, but to keep his name on the tongues of Paris.


The question arises if hairdressing was highly regulated by the Parisian guild, what was Leonard’s competitive advantage over the master hairdressers of the capital city at the time. To answer this, we begin with the theory behind l’art de coiffure.

According to the manuals of the guild, hairdressers first learned that cutting hair was the science of giving natural hair its form by removing irregularities in length and cropping in stages, all the while enhancing the face—the true art of the hairdresser.[1] Therefore, to practice hairdressing the coiffeur would first cut the hair according to the client’s features and then finish by curling and powdering.

Capture d’écran 2012-05-17 à 13.19.43

Cutting the Hair
The professional (male) coiffeur would start by combing the entire head of hair MA 2athoroughly to remove any tangles. Then using his wood, tortoise shell or gold comb (Fig. 1), he would begin at the top of the head and comb one portion or row of hair at a time, combing gently straight down or to the side, depending on whether the hair was to be cut straight or angled. When the comb was near the end of the hair, the hair was cut underneath the comb with half-closed scissors (Fig 2). Cutting the hair to the desired length was continued with the rest of the hair, but the top rows of hair were required to be shorter than the lower rows.

MA 1(Note: When styling a wig, one would follow the same rules that govern natural hair. Care had to be taken not to cut the wig too short so that it could completely cover all the natural hair below. Also, it was necessary to cut the hair underneath the wig to avoid any unpleasant thickness or bumpiness. Since there were no precise rules for wigs, the coiffeur relied on his best judgment when styling them.)

Curling the Hair
After the hair was properly cut, one ordinarily wrapped the hair in curling papers, heated the packets with curling arms, and finished with powder. However, this process required special instruments and materials which were used in a certain order and manner.

curling-papersFirst, small pieces of paper were cut into small triangles, preferably using gray paper or blotting paper because they tear easily. Gathering a small portion of the hair with the comb and holding it with the first two fingers of one hand around the middle, the coiffeur would then roll the hair in a curl and immediately envelope it with the curling paper. This was the loop curl (Fig. 3).

Another type of curl was the crepe (Fig. 4), which was preferable for short hair on the top of the head.  The crepe was created by taking the strand of hair and twisting it in the curling paper to avoid the hole found in the middle of the loop curl.

MA 5Once the whole head was covered with rolling papers, it was time to use the curling irons. The coiffeur used two kinds of curling irons. One was a clip with two flat jaws of equal thickness (Fig. 5), and the other resembled scissors (Fig. 6). The irons were heated in the fire, not on the coals. The desired temperature was achieved if the iron did not scorch a curling paper or by testing the heat near the cheek. When ready, the curling papers with hair were heated by the iron for a few moments. Another iron would be heated while curling since the irons did not hold their heat too long.[2] With a full head of curling papers, it was necessary to heat several irons. figure 6

Once the curling papers were all cooled, they were removed and all the locks of curled hair were then combed together. Then the coiffeur would ordinarily gracefully arrange the curls around the forehead and the temples. If needed, the curling iron resembling scissors was used to reinforce any unwieldy curls.

If the hair appeared too thick in places, it was necessary to thin it by holding several strands of hair with the fingers and cutting them near the roots with the slightly-opened scissors. This would give a light and pleasing appearance to the curly hair. For hair that appeared too unwieldy, strong pomade, the best being beechnut wax, was mixed with a touch of powder, melted in the hands, and applied to the roots of the hair to give it consistency.

Powdering the Hair
MA 2Once the curls were arranged to satisfaction, the only task left was to powder the hair. The best powder for the hair was made of wheat flour and was kept in an iron cup or sheepskin pouch (Figs. 7 and 8).

The best puffs used to powder hair were made with long bristles from the top of the heads of geese (Fig. 9). To powder, the coiffeur coated his hands with pomade and lightly waxed the curls. Then he lightly dipped his puff in the powder; this small quantity was sufficient for dusting the hair and highlighting the cut and curls.

MA 9For fear that the clients would get powder on their face and in their eyes, the coiffeur took the precaution of protecting them with a mask (Fig. 10). figure 10

Leonard, the revered hairdresser of Marie Antoinette, did read these manuals and did practice the prescribed art de coiffeur like any other hairdresser in Paris, but he went a step further to take the art to the extreme. By adding yards of gauze, flowers, and heron feathers and by creating scaffolds of wire to raise the towering hairdos with horsehair, Leonard created magic that captivated the queen of Versailles and all of Europe.

marie antoinette youth ducreux


When­ Marie Antoinette died under the heavy blow of the guillotine on Oct. 16, 1793, it was a decidedly unglamorous affair. That’s not to say it wasn’t a celebration: Many French revolutionaries were ecstatic to bid the extravagant queen adieu forever. After the blade came down, the executioner brandished Marie Antoinette’s head in a triumphant wave so that the entire crowd could see it.

Yet for the thousands of people gathered to watch the scene, it was a disappointment. They’d wanted to see the 38-year-old woman quake in fear and cower penitently. A well-known 18th-century journalist and revolutionary, Jacques Hébert, wrote in the newspaper Le Père Duchesne that she was “bold and impudent to the very end”.

Despite the fact that the executioner had cut off all her hair and ordered her to don a threadbare white shift (likely soiled by the time she made it up the steps to the guillotine — she’d been hemorrhaging for days), she maintained her composure.

Marie Antoinette’s death was one of the biggest scandals of her life.

Was it good riddance or not? To this day, there are wavering opinions about the young queen. Sympathizers point to the fact that young Antoine, as she was called in her native Austria, was nothing more than a bargaining chip for her mother. When she was only 10 years old, her mother arranged for her to wed Louis Auguste, a carefully orchestrated union that would join the Austrian Hapsburgs and the French Bourbons. But detractors argue that while she had very little say in the conditions of her life, she certainly could have lived her days at court in a fashion more befitting the queen of a nation on the cusp of revolution.

While there’s no point in deliberating her virtue or vices, we can delight in being voyeurs into the opulent court at Versailles, the scene of many Marie Antoinette scandals. We begin with the oft-quoted dismissal of her hungry subjects.

‘Let Them Eat Cake!’

As famous as she is for hav­ing proclaimed, “Let them eat cake,” when she heard that the­ peasants were starving from the dearth of bread, Marie Antoinette actually never said it. The young queen was known to be quite tender-hearted, in contrast to her less flattering attributes as a spendthrift and wild reveler. There are accounts of her administering aid to a peasant who’d been gored by a wild animal as well as taking in an orphaned boy. Besides accounts like these that attest to her kind and generous nature, there are straightforward facts that disprove her utterance of this scandalous remark.

The expression comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions,” a treatise penned in the late 18th century. There’s a possibility that Rousseau turned the phrase himself; other historians think it may have been uttered by Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa was a noblewoman of Spanish descent who wed Louis XIV

­And the expression isn’t as callous as it may sound. From an economical standpoint, it was a perfectly logical thing to say.

What Rousseau or Maria Theresa actually said — whatever the case may be — is “qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” This doesn’t mean “let them eat cake;” it means “let them eat an egg-based bread”

top-5-marie-antoinette-scandals-2The type of bread to which the speaker referred is a more luxe loaf than the typical flour-and-water bread of the Parisian pauper.A French law mandated that bakers sell their brioche at the same price as their inexpensive bread if this supply ran out. Later on, the law would be the downfall of the hungry lower classes when bakers responded by baking very short supplies of bread to save themselves from economic ruin.

Marie Antoinette had plenty of enemies in Paris, and it was easy to fabricate stories about the queen’s spendthrift habits. Very likely, someone attributed this line to the wrong royal and the tale seemed true enough to stick.

Along with Marie Antoinette’s image as a bonbon-eating, costumed and powdered confection of a lady comes her reputation as a lover of fine things.

The Diamond Necklace Affair

Like most good scandals, this one involves a smattering of diamonds, a prostitute and forged correspon­dence. We’ll begin with the diamonds.

Jewelers Böhmer and Bassenge nearly went broke creating a necklace that they presumed King Lo­uis XV would buy for his mistress Madame du Barry. Weighing in at 2,800 carats, the jewelers thought they’d fetch 1.6 million livres for the stunner — that’s roughly equivalent to 100 million U.S. dollars in today’s market. Unfortunately for Böhmer and Bassenge (and Madame du Barry), the king died before he could purchase it. They hoped that the new king, Louis XVI, might agree to buy the necklace for Marie Antoinette. Whatever frivolous reputation she may have acquired later in her reign, Marie Antoinette made a patriotic, sentient decision to discourage Louis from purchasing the necklace. She reasoned that he’d be better off putting the money toward France’s navy.

The necklace languished in the jewelers’ possession until a desperate, enterprising woman named Jeanne de Lamotte Valois devised a plot to pull herself out of debt by acquiring the necklace and selling it for parts. The Comtesse de Lamotte appealed to Cardinal de Rohan, who was rather unpopular at court. From 1772 to ’74, he’d served as the French ambassador to Vienna, where he became a quick enemy of Marie Antoinette’s mother — and of Marie Antoinette herself. The comtesse told the cardinal that Marie Antoinette desperately wanted the diamond necklace but that she didn’t want to ask Louis for it. Lamotte slyly suggested that if Cardinal de Rohan could find a way to procure it for Marie Antoinette, his good reputation would be restored at court.

A necklace that Marie Antoinette did own is auctioned at Christie's London on Dec. 12, 2007, as part of the Magnificent Jewelry Sale. The bauble, which is comprised of pearls, diamonds and rubies, was valued between £350,000-400,000.

A necklace that Marie Antoinette did own is auctioned at Christie’s London on Dec. 12, 2007, as part of the Magnificent Jewelry Sale. The bauble, which is comprised of pearls, diamonds and rubies, was valued between £350,000-400,000. Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Lamotte had her lover, Rétaux de Villette, write letters in Marie Antoinette’s hand and send them to the cardinal, asking him to buy the necklace. The comtesse even paid a prostitute who looked like the queen to have a secret tête-à-tête with the cardinal in the Versailles gardens one night. At last, the cardinal wrangled the diamonds from Böhmer and Bassenge on credit. The jewelers presented the necklace to the queen’s footman for delivery — only the footman was Rétaux in disguise. He seized the necklace and headed to London.­

When his first payment was due, Cardinal de Rohan couldn’t cough up the amount. The jewelers demanded money from Marie Antoinette, who had no knowledge of the necklace. By then, the necklace had been sold. A furious Louis had the cardinal arrested; later, he was acquitted of all charges and exiled. The scheming mastermind Lamotte was imprisoned but broke free and took up residence in England. There, she spread propaganda about the queen — though she needn’t have bothered.

Marie Antoinette’s reputation (already hanging tenuously in the balance) was ruined. The scandal confirmed that she was, indeed, “Madame Déficit.” The diamond necklace affair would be one of the final straws before the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette’s death sentence.

But before her head rolled, the good times did. Next, we’ll peek into her boudoir and investigate her affair with a Swedish soldier.­

The Deed With the Swede

Marie Antoinette met the Swedish soldier Hans Axe­l von Fersen in January 1774 at a ball in Paris. At the time, she was still the dauphine (not yet the queen), and Fersen’s military career had just begun. Marie Antoinette was instantly attracted to Fersen — like many women before her and many women after her — who was handsome, sol­emn and chivalrous. She invited him to Versailles, and he became known as one of her favorite guests. Fersen returned Marie Antoinette’s affections, but couldn’t offer constancy: His military career blossomed into a diplomatic post and took him to England for several years and then to the American colonies, where he fought with the colonists on behalf of France.

When Louis officially became king, he gave Marie Antoinette Petit Trianon, a three-story “pleasure house” tucked away in the vast grounds of Versailles. The house had been under construction from 1762-68 — it was intended for Madame de Pompadour, a mistress of Louis XV. Marie Antoinette was delighted with her acquisition and expanded its domain to include a rustic farm and town that she called Le Hameau (“the hamlet”). Quaint as the property may have been, it cost Louis 2 million francs to build (nearly 6 million U.S. dollars in 2006).

She passed her time in these shrouded quarters, and members of the court considered it a great honor to be invited there. In fact, those who weren’t invited to Petit Trianon circulated rumors about the queen’s debauchery and reputed love affair with her close friend the Duchesse de Polignac. Louis never slept over at Petit Trianon, though he did visit to attend theatrical performances in which Marie Antoinette played the parts of Babet and Pierette, provincial dairymaids.

An artist's depiction of Petit Trianon in the summer, with a merry group frolicking and picnicking on the isolated grounds.

Fersen was a much more frequent visitor. He had his own apartment directly above Marie Antoinette’s, and judging from the correspondence between the two of them, they had a very intimate relationship. In one series of correspondence, they wrote about the acquisition and arrangement of a stove. While they were involved, Marie Antoinette still pursued her wifely duty of creating an heir to the throne; there’s really no way to tell if her children were Louis’ or Fersen’s. But Louis accepted the children as his own, and Marie Antoinette and her lover were careful to avoid any unwanted pregnancies.­

When Marie Antoinette and her family were imprisoned at the Tuileries during the first thrust of the French Revolution, Fersen was instrumental in plotting their escape. He borrowed large sums of money and even mortgaged his house to help them flee, and he never did pay it back in full — nor did the escape work. The party was apprehended in the town of Varennes, miles from the Austrian border.

Fersen outlived his lover by nearly 20 years. On June 20, 1810, he was beaten to death by a Stockholm mob for his suspected involvement in the crown prince’s death.

In a letter he wrote to his sister, Fersen explained that he would never marry because the woman he loved was taken.

The Brick Wall in the Bedroom

For seven years, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s marriage was unconsummated — and it was all anyone could talk about. Well, that and the brewing revolution.

The couple wed in May 1770, and the ceremony and ensuing celebration had all the trappings of a lavish royal fête. At Versailles, custom permitted the king’s courtiers to accompany the newlyweds to their bedroom, where they reposed on display. It did little to stoke the fires of passion.

Marie Antoinette was frustrated. She was willing and able to sexually receive her husband; as a matter of fact, she lived in a state of anxiety that he would never warm to her and that she’d be sent home to Austria as an utter failure. Her mother, Maria Theresa, reminded her of this danger at every possible juncture in their correspondence. She wrote to Marie Antoinette to “lavish more caresses” on Louis. What’s more, it was painfully clear to everyone that something was wrong with the couple. It wasn’t just the young couple’s physical gratification at stake: France was waiting for Marie Antoinette to produce an heir to the throne.

News of Louis’ impotence spread from the court of Versailles to the streets of Paris, where pamphlets mocking his powerlessness were distributed. The propaganda planted the seed that if Louis couldn’t perform in the bedroom, he certainly couldn’t perform on the throne. Louis XV watched forlornly as his grandson failed to execute his mission; the reigning king had a rapacious sexual appetite and an insatiable mistress, Madame du Barry.


Louis was doughy, impressionable and more fascinated by locks, languages, and hunting than he was by his lovely young wife. Marie Antoinette explained to a friend, “My tastes are not the same as the King’s, who is only interested in hunting and his metal-working”. But different tastes or not, Maria Theresa wasn’t going to take the news lying down. She sent her son Joseph to assess the couple’s damage. He called them “two complete blunderers” and surmised that nothing else stood in their way of consummation.

Joseph may not have been entirely correct in his analysis. Louis had been diagnosed with a condition called phimosis in which the foreskin of the penis is tighter than normal and doesn’t loosen upon arousal. This condition made sex very painful. There was an operation available to correct the condition, but Louis was reluctant to go under the knife. Some historians think he finally acquiesced and had the procedure while some say he never did; regardless, the couple finally consummated.

Marie Antoinette and Louis later wrote to Joseph, thanking him for his help. Who knows what suggestive advice he might have whispered in their ears during a walk around the grounds of Versailles?

A siren call even sweeter than her husband’s voice roused Marie Antoinette from her malaise at court.


The National Wardrobe

When she wa­s a young girl in Austria, Marie Antoinette was r­ather rough-and-tumble. She liked horseback riding and hunting. But at Versailles, her tomboy tendencies were squeezed out of her with each tightening of her corset. Marie Antoinette hated being put on display and having grand ceremonies made out of everyday activities like getting dressed and eating meals.

She need only receive a letter from her mother to remind her of her place. Marie Antoinette was, after all, in a marriage of diplomacy — Maria Theresa couldn’t stand for her daughter to fail Austria. Though she acquired the reputation of a spendthrift, Marie Antoinette wasn’t always so fast and loose with her budget. Her mother rebuked Marie Antoinette for keeping a slovenly appearance, and the letters she wrote to her homesick daughter were full of reminders about wearing clean clothes and grooming her hair.

Marie Antoinette doffed her unfashionable togs for the latest in French couture from the house of Rose Bertin. During Louis’ reign, he incurred more than 2,000 million livres in debt by contributing reinforcements to the American Revolution; Marie built up her debt in her closet. Her Hairdresser wrote “She had nearly 300 dresses made annually for her various social engagements at the court of Versailles, her private parties at Petit Trianon and for the stage of her jewel-box theater.”

lebrun marie antoinette children

­But it wasn’t just the dresses that Marie and her couturier fussed over. She had an original hairstyle commissioned — the gravity-defying pouf — and even had an exclusive fragrance made for her by Jean-Louis Fargeon (also her glovemaker). Marie Antoinette’s elixir evoked the gardens and orchards at Petit Trianon, and it was supposedly so strong a scent that it gave her away during her family’s plotted escape from the Tuileries.

Her pricy parties and extensive wardrobe earned Marie Antoinette the moniker Madame Déficit. She couldn’t shake the title — not that she tried. Marie Antoinette was far removed from the revolutionary murmurs in Paris. And her ignorance ultimately culminated in her death sentence.



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