Coiffing Marie Antoinette

by Will Bashor, author of Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution

marie antoinette's headEditor’s note: Leonard Autie died in Paris on March 24, 1820. Click here to read more about Will Bashor’s Marie Antoinette’s Head (Lyons Press), a book Kirkus Reviews calls “An informative examination of a little-known player on a great stage. An entertaining, well-researched work.”

Leonard Autie, hairdresser to Marie Antoinette, would have been trained in the art of hairdressing in southern France in the mid 1760’s. It is documented that he practiced his craft in Montpellier and Bordeaux, but his creative genius was unable to win over the matronly bourgeois ladies of these provincial cities. To find his fame and fortune, the young coiffeur then journeyed to Paris on foot, arriving in 1769 with nothing but a tortoise shell comb in his pocket and a “big bundle of vanity.”

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.

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.

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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.

Will BashorWill Bashor has a doctorate in International Relations from the American Graduate School in Paris, and he teaches at Franklin University, Columbus, Ohio. His interests have ranged over many fields, among them the study of international law and business, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and European history. Visit him at willbashor.com.


[1] Garsault, François de. Art Du Perruquier, Contenant La Façon De La Barbe; la Coupe des Cheveux; la Construction des Perruques d’Hommes & de Femmes; le Perruquier en vieux; & le Baigneur-Etuviste. Paris: Saillant & Nyon, 1757.

[2] Villermont, Marie comtesse de. Histoire de la coiffure feminine. Paris: Henri Laurens, 1892.

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