Jul 22, 2005

Fashion history


Christina Larson reviews When Real Men Wore Heels.
Once the alpha male of the Western world, Louis XIV shrouded himself in resplendent satin coats with gold embroidery and lace sleeves, silk stockings and full-bottomed wigs—which Mansel suggests showcased the Sun King's divinely-ordained right to rule France. At a time when most mortals wore course shirts of flax and wool, the king brandished strategic splendor as later rulers would display military might. He also invited his courtiers to watch him dress. Robing the king was an elaborate 90-minute ritual each morning, with attendants crowding the antechambers awaiting their turn to enter: Only the highest officials of state were admitted while he was shaving; bishops, marshals, and provincial governors could enter later. Visiting dignitaries were sometimes awarded the privilege of handing the king his shirt. The ritual afforded the French court a close look at the king's new clothes—significant because nobles affirmed their allegiance by imitating the king—and kept business flowing to the nation's silk looms and lace factories. The dress industry then employed a third of wage-earners in France (many of the lace factories were founded by finance minister Colbert), and if members of the Third Estate were busy stitching sleeves, they had less time to plot rebellion.

Admission to court functions and access to his majesty's counsel was assured by proper attire: Male courtiers were required to don silk or velvet coats encrusted with jewels and embroidery, while women squeezed into corseted dresses with puffy sleeves and long trains. Ordinances prohibited untitled aspirants from donning such finery. One emblematic accessory, which Louis turned into a must-have item among both ladies and gents at court, was a pair of red high heels, or talons rouges. The fashion, as Mansel explains, advertised a lifestyle of leisure, “demonstrat[ing] that nobles did not dirty their shoes.” Seventeenth-century aristocrats, after all, believed they were born into privilege and didn't need to saunter far or break a sweat to earn their keep.

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