When Fashion Set Sail

Guest Post by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

One of the most iconic images of eighteenth-century extravagance is a fashion plate depicting a lady wearing a miniature ship in her powdered and pomaded hair.

Anonymous, Le Négligé Galant Ornés de la Coëffure à la Belle Poule, 1778, Bibliothèque nationale de France, cote cliché RC-B-05642.

But this much-misunderstood hairstyle was not just an eye-catching novelty. It was one of many ship-shaped headdresses that celebrated specific French naval victories and, more importantly, advertised their wearers’ patriotism and political acumen.

Far from being the whimsical caprice of bored aristocrats, these maritime modes were directly inspired by one of the defining political and philosophical issues of the day: America’s struggle for independence, in which France was a key military and political ally.

In 1778, France signed a treaty of alliance with the United States and sent its ships up against Britain’s formidable Royal Navy. The Battle of Ushant on July 27th of that year was the first major conflict between the British and the French. Though the battle was not decisive and both sides would claim victory, the French fleet suffered far fewer casualties, and one French frigate in particular, the Belle Poule, badly damaged the British vessel the Arethusa.

“All Paris was enflamed by the news,” the Vicomtesse de Fars recorded, “and for a month the ladies enshrined its memory with an object of fashion of bad taste, called the coiffure à la Belle Poule. This coiffure represented, more or less, a ship in full sail.” The Journal politique marveled at its “ingenious. . . sails of gauze” and “riggings of silver and gold threads.” A variant of the same fashion plate was published under another title, which made explicit its political context: the “Coëffure à l’Indépendance, ou le Triomphe de la liberté.”

Anonymous, Coëffure à l’Indépendance ou le Triomphe de la liberté, c. 1778, Musée franco-américain du château de Blérancourt

The Junon was another French frigate that distinguished itself at the Battle of Ushant; later that year, it secured its own place in fashion history by capturing the H.M.S. Fox. The Journal des modes de Paris described the coiffure à la Frégate la Junon as “a hat on which is represented a vessel with all its apparatus and tackle, having its cannons in formation,” which could be purchased from the milliner Mademoiselle Fredin.

Anonymous, ‘Nouvelle Coëffure dite la Frégate la Junon’, Gallerie des Modes, 1778, MFA Boston, acc. no. 44.1290.

France’s next important victory was the Battle of Grenada on July 6th, 1779, in which the French fleet—led by Admiral d’Estaing—captured the West Indian island from the British. The battle inspired chapeaux à la Grenade and à la d’Estaing; one satirist took this trend to its logical conclusion and depicted d’Estaing himself perched on a lady’s head.

Anonymous, La Nimphe … parée d’une Frisure à la Grenade sur laquelle elle porte son fameux marin au milieu de ses Triomphe, 1779, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Though minor chapters in the story of American independence, in France these naval battles assumed a psychological importance far exceeding their military significance. Along with other events, places, and patriots who played key roles in the Revolution, they were celebrated in operas, ballets, card games, dances, and, especially, in fashion. At a time when women had no presence in government or the military, hats and hairstyles allowed French ladies to show their support for the American cause.

There is a tradition that these images depict Marie-Antoinette, and some historians have even claimed that they were circulated to publicize her shameful extravagance in the face of a very real military and economic threat.

Detail, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Antoinette, c. 1781, Château de Versailles

While the queen clearly had no objection to wearing elaborate confections on her head, and these may have included ships, there is absolutely no evidence to support either the identification or the interpretation. On the contrary, ship hats formed part of a much wider expression of French support for the American cause. They were worn by many women, if only for a short period of time. Some may have questioned their taste, but in political terms they were perceived as being patriotically anti-British rather than problematically extravagant or anti-monarchist.

France’s fascination with America transcended fleeting fashion to have far-reaching consequences for both countries. Not only did the success of the American Revolution encourage the French people to throw off their own yoke of arbitrary power, but the debt the French government incurred in support of the American cause destabilized the economy to the point that this second revolution was unavoidable.

The French Revolution forever colored our view of the politics and propriety of wearing ships as hats. It wasn’t until after 1789 that the coiffure à la Belle Poule was added to the list of Marie-Antoinette’s transgressions, in heavily fictionalized memoirs of the ancien régime. Thus, the all-American, pro-democracy style was transformed into the sartorial equivalent of “let them eat cake”—another apocryphal but persistent piece of misinformation about the queen, which has persisted precisely because it so perfectly fits our received notions of her selfishness and naiveté.

In recent years, however, the Belle Poule has been celebrated as a symbol of over-the-top luxury for its own sake. Philip Treacy has said that “The Ship,” a hat he made for Isabella Blow in 1995, is his favorite of all his creations.

Philip Treacy, ‘The Ship’, 1995, Philip Treacy, London.

He was inspired by reading a book about the Battle of Grenada.

Ship hats are a recurring theme in haute couture fashion shows, perhaps as a kind of winking acknowledgement that couture clients are modern-day Marie-Antoinettes, having their cake and eating it too. It is not surprising that a designer as nautically-minded as Jean-Paul Gaultier launched his own interpretation of the ship hat in 1998.

Jean-Paul Gaultier, “Galleon” headband, Spring/Summer 1998 haute couture

His “Galleon” headband of red glass beads will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum later this year.

Spanish couturier Josep Font is known for experimenting with fantasy and femininity.


Josep Font, Spring/Summer 2009 Haute Couture

In addition to a ship, his Spring/Summer 2009 collection included motorcycle and guitar headdresses paired with voluminous gowns, fusing the spirit of the ancien régime with modern times.

When Christian Louboutin and Jean-Francois Lesage created a limited collection of 36 pairs of “Marie-Antoinette shoes” in 2009, the queen was inevitably (if incorrectly) depicted wearing a ship in her enormous coiffure.

Christian Louboutin and Jean-Francois Lesage, “Marie-Antoinette” shoes, 2009

In 2011, however, at the height of the recession, Vivienne Westwood skewered these tonsorial tributes to Marie-Antoinette by sending a Speedo-clad male model down the runway wearing a catamaran on his head—a lowbrow and low-budget answer to these elaborate couture vessels, perhaps intended to reclaim the ship hat for the ninety-nine percent, or at least mock it to the point that its elitist elegance would no longer appeal to anyone.

Vivienne Westwood, Spring/Summer 2011 Menswear

Meanings change with the tides. Most recently, ship hats have been co-opted by steampunk enthusiasts and vampire and pirate cosplayers; they naturally evoke The Black Pearl, the ghost ship from the Pirates of the Carribean movies. From these subcultural groups, ship hats have come full circle to the runway again; Treacy resurrected “The Ship” as the deconstructed “Silver Ghost Hat” in his Spring 2013 collection.

Philip Treacy, ‘Silver Ghost Hat’, Spring 2013, Philip Treacy, London.

Is it a literal ghost ship, or a symbolic spectral remnant of more prosperous times? Or simply a striking visual statement in a show that consisted entirely of black models? As they were in the eighteenth century, ship hats are still a powerful barometer of politics and culture.

Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an independent fashion and textile historian and occasional contributor to Worn Through. She has co-authored several books and exhibition catalogs, most recently Seeing Satire in the Eighteenth Century (SVEC 2013). Her work on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French fashion has also appeared in Costume, Textile History, PieceWork, Ornament, Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Dress

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