It is said that one day, replacing the penitential ashes on their heads by white powder, some nuns showed themselves in public like this, and inadvertently started a new fashion.
We know very little about the use of powder during Antiquity. Cato mentions a “pulverulent mixture” which was supposed to give a certain brilliance to hair. But did the Roman women really use powder to make themselves more attractive? We know that powder or dust on the hair was a sign of mourning and the manifestation of great despair.
At the French court, powder probably made its appearance under the reign of Charles VIII, this king being a good perfumer.
At the time of Francois I, violet powder was known, as well as Cyprus powder. For toiletry care, muscat soap was used and a powder known as bean flour, which had the reputation of refreshing the complexion.
Henri III was probably the first to cover his hair with violet musk powder, and the mignons immediately imitated their master.
“A valet, having in his hands a box full of powder resembling that of Cyprus, powdered the patient’s head with a big powder-puff of silk, which he plunged into this box.”
Under Henri IV, the fashion of powder was already so widespread that women of low condition, not daring to show their hair in its natural state, powdered it with the dust of rotten wood which they found in old buildings. Village girls, ahead of their time, powdered themselves with flour. It is under this same reign that a perfumed powder called griserie began to be spread over hair.
At this time, powder was not used dry on hair. It was made to hold by a mixture. You can imagine how many washes it took to get the hair clean again.
At the time of Richelieu, gentlemen had partial wigs, or coins, which were fixed in the hair, to produce thicker locks, and there was a time when this false hair was powdered with the best quality flour. But so many mockeries rained down on these “millers” and “flour-heads” that the fashion died out.
Louis XIII did not wear powder, in spite of, or possibly because of, the white hair which he had at an early age. The fashion only took on some consistency under the reign of Anne of Austria. Among those who launched it, the Marquis of Jauzey is particularly named.
Louis XIV did not really favour this use. Anything which reminded him that he was getting older, was odious to him, and this artificial whiteness too closely resembled an image of old age, for him to consent to use it. He barely put up with a light cloud of it, toward the end of his life.
At this same time, the wife of the Marechal d’Aumont amused herself by making her own powder. This is how the name of poudre a la marechale came into being.
A patch of blond powder sometimes decorated the wigs of young male courtisans who gave themselves an aura of court and of conquest. For powder was worn, above all, by little bantam cocks on the make.
The rage for disguising hair colour introduced this mode by degrees and, toward the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the Duke of Burgundy, Fenelon’s severe pupil, started wearing powder.
Mme de Sevigne lets us watch the amusing spectacle of the toilette of the Duchess of Bourbon. She writes to her daughter: “She curls and powders herself. She eats the whole time. The same fingers alternately hold the powder-puff and the pain au pot. She eats her powder and greases her hair. The whole makes a very good dinner and a charming hair-do.”
Until then, powder had remained the privilege of people of condition. Even then, it was only of occasional use, or as a whim. It is only under the following reign that it became general.
The chronicle reports that the Duke of Fronsac, the future Marechal de Richelieu, still very young, and already the object of admiration of all the court beauties, appeared at the Opera in a most elegant costume, with his hair completely powdered. This was enough to put powder in fashion.
A treatise on civility from the XVIIIth Century prescribes never “to leave your home without having combed and properly arranged your hair. You can use pomade or powder in very small quantity.”
On 21 September 1740, an act of the Paris parliament forbade starch makers from making starch because of the cereal famine. As powder was made from starch, it was worth only 3 sous the pound before the augmentation of the price of wheat and flour. It increased then to 8 sous.
However, as soon as the act was published, the price of powder rose to 24 sous the pound, in the space of two days. This was a revolution in the world of marquises and young men on the make.
Women had not adopted the fashion of powdering hair as enthusiastically as men. The first lady’s powdered head to appear in History is that of Mlle Cecile de Lisoris, in 1704, and it was only very much later that fashion responded.
Lady Montague, visiting France toward the end of the XVIIIth Century, writes of the worldly women that “their hair resembles white wool, and with their faces the colour of fire, they do not even look human. You would take them for skinned sheep.”.
Second and last part tomorrow.