Customs

For political reasons, it was very important for Louis XIV to keep control of the nobles in France. As has been noted earlier, he accomplished this task in a variety of ways. One of his more ingenious ways to limit the political activity of the noblitilty was to establish elaborate rules for behavior and dress. The rules for dancing were especially complicated. Many of the rules of court etiquette defined oneís prestige and superiority over others. As a result, the nobles were so busy mastering appropriate court etiquette, and competing for the prestige it gave, that they had no time to plot rebellions. They also had little opportunity to be at home because they were always at court learning new dance steps or observing the latest form of dress. Absence from court, like absence from school in the present time, was a punishable offense. One benefit of spending the day hanging out in the Hall of Mirrors was that one was able to keep up with the latest court gossip and fashion. Most of the time, over 1,000 nobles and their 4,000 servants lived at Versailles, along with the 5,000 personal servants of Louis XIV and his 9,000 soldiers.

Etiquette and the daily schedule in Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV centered around the kingís routine and so encouraged nobles to define their importance in relation to the king. After the king was awakened at 8:00 a.m., favored courtiers were allowed to help him dress. One opened the royal bed curtains, another wiped the perspiration from the kingís body, while another presented the king with his shirt (previously warmed for him). Performing one of these duties was considered an honor and meant that the person was one of very high rank in court. After the king attended a short religious service, the courtiers watched him shave, dress, and eat his breakfast. For the rest of the day, courtiers waited in one of the large reception rooms while the king met with important people in French politics, attended church services, or visited with family and a select group of nobles. Frequently, all would attend a symphony, opera, or other entertainment in the evening. The king usually ate a late supper, watched by the nobility, and then bowed to the ladies and retired to his bedroom.

Louis XIVís elaborate rules of etiquette included the following:

  1. People who wanted to speak to the king could not knock on his door. Instead, using the left pinkie finger, they had to gently scratch on the door, until they were granted permission to enter. As a result, many courtiers grew that fingernail longer than the others;
  2. A lady never held hands or linked arms with a gentleman. Besides being in bad taste, this practice would have been impossible because a womanís hooped skirts were so wide. Instead, she was to place her hand on top of the gentlemanís bent arm as they strolled through the gardens and chambers of Versailles;
  3. When a gentleman sat down, he slid his left foot in front of the other, placed his hands on the sides of the chair and gently lowered himself into the chair. There was a very practical reason for this procedure. If a gentleman sat too fast, his tight pants might split;
  4. Women and men were not allowed to cross their legs in public;
  5. When a gentleman passed an acquaintance on the street, he was to raise his hat high off his head until the other person passed;
  6. A gentleman was to do no work except writing letters, giving speeches, practicing fencing, or dancing. For pleasure he engaged in hawking, archery, indoor tennis, or hunting. A gentleman would also take part in battle and would sometimes serve as a public officer, paying the soldiers;
  7. Ladiesí clothing did not allow them to do much besides sit and walk. However, they passed the time sewing, knitting, writing letters, painting, making their own lace, and creating their own cosmetics and perfumes.

Dress and Fashion

 

From the time Louis XIII became king of France to the French Revolution, France was the fashion capital of Europe. Whatever new style was worn at Versailles was soon adopted by the nobility throughout Europe. Although many changes were made in styles of clothing, the basic components remained the same. Men wore wigs, vests, breeches, and coats; women wore two dresses over a corset and a hooped or padded skirt. The extravagance of a noble man or womanís clothing was intended to show the public how much social standing that person had. In fact, during the reign of Louis XIII, a law was passed stating that only the nobility could wear precious stones and gold.

Louis XIV kept his courtiers under control by constantly having new accessories or decorations added to the royal wardrobe. In order to retain oneís rank, a courtier had to follow the latest fashion, which was expensive and frequently changing. Some nobles were thus driven into debt by the expense of living at Versailles. In this situation, the king could become their creditor, giving him additional control over them. Ribbons were a favorite decoration for men and women. Men wore ribbons on their high heeled shoes, at their knees, and on their vests and coats. Sometimes over 250 yards of ribbon, gathered in bunches, would adorn one vest. A fashionable noble in Louisí court wore a periwig, made of human hair and consisting of masses of curls that often hung below the manís shoulders. Starting at about 1690, men began to powder their wigs. Over the wig, a man wore a flat felt hat with a large brim, decorated with an ostrich feather. Sometimes, one side of the brim was tilted up, giving the man a more rakish look. Around his neck, a man wore a cravat, a long white scarf wound several times around the neck and fastened in a bow or knot. A long white shirt, which could also be used as a night shirt, was worn under a vest and coat. The shirtís ruffled sleeves could be seen below the elbow-length sleeves of the coat. Vests came to the knee and were elaborately decorated. Over the vest was a long coat that had a skirt from the waist to the knee. Although the coat had a long row of buttons down the front, it was usually worn open. Instead of trousers, men wore wide and baggy breeches that were fastened at the knee and decorated with rows of lace. Menís dress was completed with white silk stockings, turned down at the knee and ruffled, and black, high heeled shoes. During the early years of Louis XIVís reign, men wore boots with large turned-down tops, called funnel-top boots. Later in the century, boots were worn only for hunting. When the weather was cold, men wore large cloaks, often heavily trimmed, like their vests, with gold and jewels. Menís clothing was completed with a muff, a sword, or a walking stick. Although fashionable men had small mustaches, few wore beards.

Womenís dress was equally elegant, but more restricting. Under everything was a corset made of cloth reinforced with many vertical whalebone rods that extended from the womanís chest to below her waist. The corset was tightly laced in the back from the bottom to the top, so that the womanís figure would seem as small as possible. Even young girls wore corsets. Over the corset, women wore a hooped skirt called a farthingale. Hoops were considered a symbol of wealth. In fact, a woman who did not wear a hoop was not invited to social functions. At times the hoop was as wide as three people, making it difficult for women to pass each other in doorways or to sit on sofas. Over the corset and hoop, a woman wore two dresses. The dress underneath had long sleeves that came to the wrist and could be seen under the sleeves of the top dress whose sleeves came only to the elbow. Dresses were cut extremely low in front and back and were worn off the shoulders. Sometimes parts of the skirt of the top dress would be caught up and tied with bows, revealing the lower skirt. When outside, women wore muffs and also masks to protect their faces from weather. Women usually wore small caps on their heads, whether they were at home or outside.

During the reign of Louis XV, menís clothing became a bit more practical. The front flaps of the coatís long skirt were folded back and buttoned or hooked together, especially for hunting. Waistcoats were shortened and breeches became more narrow. Large cuffs were added to menís coats. Thieves and pickpockets often used their wide cuffs to hide stolen goods. Men still wore cravats and high heeled shoes, but the shoes were now decorated with buckles and red heels. The wide-brimmed felt hat was folded up in three places making a tricorne. Wigs, too, became more practical. The long hair was tied with a ribbon or braided at the back. Only a few curls around the manís ears remained.

Women still wore hoops and corsets, but over the front of the corset was worn a "stomacher," a padded flat board, that made the womanís figure look flat from neckline to hips. Necklines were still low but now were square. Sometimes a woman would add a lace insert called a "tucker" in England. Another change in womenís dress was the sack dress, which hung straight down the back from neck to floor, rather than being fastened at the waist. Masks were no longer in fashion and were replaced by beauty marks on the face. Hair was still covered by caps.

During the reign of Louis XVI, menís clothing had little ornamentation, although it was still brightly colored. The long coat with the skirt was replaced by that of the "swallow-tail coat," which was short in the front and knee-length in the back. This style of coat can still be seen when modern men wear formal dress to proms or weddings. Waistcoats were short, like our modern vests, and shoes or "slippers" were low heeled. Men began to wear watches, and umbrellas for men were introduced.

The flowing sack back of womenís dress during the reign of Louis XV became a long train during the reign of Louis XVI. The length of oneís train denoted the womanís rank in court. Women of high rank soon had to walk by sliding their feet forward to avoid stepping on their train. Marie Antoinette, who was disappointed to see hoops begin to disappear from womenís fashion, reintroduced them as panniers, which were wide baskets made of cloth, iron, and leather, fastened to either side of a womanís waist under her dress. Sometimes the panniers were 15 feet wide. The main function they served was to give women a surface on which they could rest their elbows. Also during the time of Marie Antoinette, womenís hair styles grew higher and higher. Often the hair was over 3 feet high, supported with wire frames and pads. These outlandish hair styles were decorated with flowers, wreaths, plumes, and even models of ships and farm animals. Because these hair styles were so elaborate, women would not wash their hair for months at a time. As a result, many elegant women in the court of Louis XVI had head lice. Long sticks called "Ďback scratchers" were invented to relieve the itching when the vermin became too active. After 1789, women began to use parasols to keep the sun off their faces.

When the French Revolution began, fashion changed completely. To look like an elegant noble was no longer safe and could cost a person his or her life. Clothing for women became very simple, looking much like the draped dresses of the ancient Greeks. Elaborate hair styles, corsets, and hoops disappeared. The greatest change in menís clothing was in color. The vivid blues, greens and reds of courtiersí vests, coats, and breeches were replaced by the somber browns, blacks, and navys, which one can still see in modern menís suits.

Sports in France

Out of a total population of 56 million, about 16 million French people play one or more sports regularly. More men than women participate in sports.

Sports are also important in schools. "Classes de neige" (classes in the mountains), "classes de mer" (at the shore), and "classes vertes" (in the country) are provided so that children can benefit from the fresh air for a few weeks.

The favorite sport in France is soccer. It is called "Le Foot" in France and it is as popular to the French as baseball is to Americans.


French Holidays

The French people celebrate several holidays during the year. Legal holidays celebrated are:

  • New Year's Day-January 1st
  • Easter Sunday and Easter Monday
  • Labor Day-May 1st
  • Liberation Day-May 8th (Marks the end of WWI)
  • Ascension Thursday-celebrated 40 days after Easter (the ascension of Christ into Heaven)
  • Pentecost Sunday & Pentecost Monday-observed the 7th Sunday & following Monday after Easter
  • Bastille Day-July 14th (commemorates the storming of Bastille)
  • Assumption Day-August 15 (elevation of Virgin Mary)
  • All Saints Day-November 1st (commemorating the saints)
  • Armistice Day-November 11th (signing of the armistice at the end of WWII)
  • Christmas-December 25th

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