Guest Post: “Hats, Horses, and History”


I’m pleased to be able to share with you, this guest post by Dr. Kimberly Chrisman Campbell. She is an independent fashion and textile historian and occasional contributor to WornThrough. Her work on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French fashion has also appeared in Costume, Textile History, PieceWork, and Dress, as well as in several books and exhibition catalogs, most recently Paris: Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century (Getty Publications, May 17, 2011).

Before Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones, before Royal Ascot and the Kentucky Derby, and even before the sport of horseracing itself, there was the promenade de Longchamp, a three-day spectacle of fashion and horseflesh. The modern-day romance between outlandish hats and world-class horsemanship has its roots in this eighteenth-century Parisian ritual, as does the American tradition of the “Easter Parade.”

About four miles from central Paris, in the Bois de Boulogne, lay the medieval village of Longchamp. Since 1256, it had been home to a convent that served as a popular destination for pilgrims for hundreds of years before the phenomenon known as the promenade de Longchamp began in the late seventeenth century.

The promenade was not an authorized religious pilgrimage, but a spontaneous, secular one, taking place on the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday before Easter—the final days of Lent. Musical members of high society began to make the annual trip to Longchamp in the seventeenth century, drawn by the convent’s sung Holy Week services. By the mid-1700s, the sleepy village in the woods had become the epicenter of French society, if only for a few days each year.

Though the promenade de Longchamp could not be found on the liturgical calendar, it was a major event in the fashion calendar. Conveniently timed to showcase new spring fashions after the dull, chilly days of Lent, this Parisian rite of spring cloaked rampant consumption in the guise of religious devotion. Eventually, the Archbishop of Paris became so shocked by the chic visitors from Paris that he ordered the convent to shut its doors to the public during Holy Week. Undeterred, the beau monde continued to parade from the city to Longchamp and back, showing off shiny new carriages, horse harnesses, liveries, and fashions.

Stripped of its original purpose, the promenade took on a life of its own—one entirely devoted to spectacle and splendor, with no pretense of piety or musical connoisseurship. Instead of a place or a religious ceremony, Longchamp now meant a social event, and “going to Longchamp” was shorthand for taking part in the annual fashion show.

Nouvelle Robe dite la Longchamps retroussee avec des noeuds damour et des galands: 1779, Gallerie des Modes, Desrais, Dupin, via Museum of London.

Thousands of Parisians in their best dress followed the well-worn path to the village of Longchamp each spring. Entrepreneurs pitched tents along the route, selling food, flowers, and trinkets. By 1785, the promenade was no longer linear but circular: a long line of carriages and pedestrians paraded slowly up one side of the road for a mile and a half, then turned and paraded back down. It was a remarkably efficient way of seeing and being seen.

Fashion magazines exploited the procession’s power to inspire, dictate, and forecast new fashions, advertising “Longchamp” gowns and accessories. Fashion merchants used the promenade to introduce new styles to a highly fashion-conscious captive audience.

When Anglomania swept France in the 1780s, the Comte d’Artois, brother of Louis XVI, was one of the first Frenchmen to take up the English sport of horseracing. He chose the Bois de Boulogne as the site for the races he staged, reinforcing Longchamp’s horsey reputation.

The promenade de Longchamp attracted people of all ranks: royals, courtiers, soldiers, labourers, and prostitutes. As France approached the brink of revolution, long-simmering class tensions began to surface within this volatile social mix. In 1789, the promenade was interrupted by an angry mob. The convent—already incidental to the festivities—was closed and dismantled by the Revolutionary government. But Napoleon revived the tradition, recognizing its important contribution to the health of the fashion industry.

Mode de Longchamps. Robe de gros de Naples… (mode vestimentaire féminine). Via BNF

Longchamp’s influence was felt well beyond France; in June 1831, Godey’s Lady’s Book acknowledged that the April procession “cast the die of fashion in equipage and morning dress for the next three months to come.” By the 1840s, the promenade had eclipsed its eighteenth-century popularity; now there were four rows of carriages coming and going, rather than two.

Le Protee, 1835 (University of Washington Library)

In 1857, a racetrack, the Hippodrome de Longchamp, was built near the ruins of the convent, providing the promenade with something it had been missing for several decades: a destination.

The Races at Longchamp, 1866 by Édouard Manet (The Art Institute of Chicago)

Once again, Parisians paraded to the village of Longchamp in splendid open carriages, showing off the latest fashions. The couturier Jeanne Paquin even sent models to mingle with the spectators, to advertise her business. The ancien régime institution became an equally vital part of the Belle Époque.

Grand Prix at Longchamp, After the Races by Steichen, Edward,Aperture Publications, 1907 (Photogravure)

In 1948, horseracing aficionado Jean Cassegrain founded a Parisian pipemaking business, taking its name and stylized racehorse logo from Longchamp. Longchamp Paris is a now a major fashion house, cementing the longstanding association between Longchamp and luxury.

Kate Moss for Longchamp Paris Ad (2008)

Today, the Hippodrome de Longchamp is the site of the Grand Prix de Paris every June, and “going to Longchamp” remains a major event in the French social calendar, when elite Parisians show off their haute couture and eye-catching hats.

© Le Journal des Femmes / Agathe Azzis

It has inspired imitators around the world, including Royal Ascot, the Kentucky Derby, the Melbourne Cup, the Grand National, and Saratoga Springs–events at which the fashion is as much of a draw as the racing. How many of those well-heeled denizens of the turf realize that they are participating in a sartorial ritual older than horseracing itself?


Further Reading:

Abigail Adams, Letters of Mrs. Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Wilkins, Carter, and Co, 1848)

Marquis de Bombelles, Journal, ed. Jean Grassion et Frans Durif (Geneve: Librairie Droz, 1977)

Imbert, Metra et al., Correspondance secrète, politique & littéraire (London: John Adams, 1787)

Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955-2002)

J. G. Lemaistre, A Rough Sketch of Modern Paris. . . .Written during the last two months of 1801 and the first five of 1802 (London: J. Johnson, 1803)

Baroness d’Oberkirch, Mémoires, ed. Suzanne Burkard (Paris: Mercure de France, 1989)

J. Pinkerton, Recollections of Paris in the years 1802-3-4-5- (London, 1806)

Leigh Eric Schmidt, “The Easter Parade: Piety, Fashion, and Display,” Religion and American Culture 4:2 (1994): 135–164.

James Sherwood, Fashion at Royal Ascot: Three Centuries of Thoroughbred Style (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011)

L. V. Thiery, Guide des Amateurs et des Etrangers Voyageurs (Paris: 1788)

Nancy J. Troy, Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion (Boston: MIT Press, 2004)

Nancy J. Troy, “The Theatre of Fashion: Staging Haute Couture in Early 20th-Century France,” Theatre Journal 53:1 (2001): 1-32.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Souvenirs, ed. Claudine Herrmann (Paris: Des femmes, 1986)

*Image from My Fair Lady via Seze Blog.

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  • Ellen May 05, 2011 07.15 am

    Love it! I feel so much more prepared for the Derby party I’ll be attending this weekend!

  • For the Season of Fashion and Horses « Enfilade
    May 6, 2011 - 1:41 am

  • BlueRose May 22, 2011 05.14 pm

    It sounds like it was the beginning of the catwalk runway and fashion shows 🙂


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