Fashion under the Reign of Charles IX. 1560 to 1574.

Fahion history, Renaissance, Spanish court dress, 16th century
History of Fashion. Charles IX 1560 to 1574. Henry III 1574 to 1589

Fashion under the Reign of Charles IX. 1560 to 1574.

Content: The wars of religion — The fashions of Italy are brought across the Alps, and are welcomed in France — Effects of the expeditions into Italy — Articles from Venice and Genoa are very fashionable — A cloud of sugar-plums, and a shower of scents — Effeminate style of dress — Charles IX. and his Edicts against extravagant display — Fashion rebels against sumptuary laws — Women of high rank, bourgeoises, widows, and spinsters — Wedding dresses — Observations of a Venetian ambassador — “Corps piqué” — Drawers—Pain — Cosmetics — Breast mirrors, girdle mirrors — Court dresses — “Arcelets.”

Elisabeth of Austria , portrait, François Clouet, Renaissance
François Clouet: Elisabeth of Austria 1571. Official portrait of the young wife of Charles IX when she arrived in France.

The wars of religion.

Hitherto we have seen only the brilliant side of the Renaissance, so to speak, and its multiplicity of arts, fetes, and ceremonials conducive to splendour and display. Let us now glance at the darker side of the picture, at the shadows cast by the religious wars, and let us note the results of more than one disaster.

The name of Charles IX. immediately recalls to our recollection the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and fills us with horror and dismay; that of Henri III. brings before our minds the League, with its grotesque and sanguinary incidents, and its fatal termination by the dagger of Jacques Clément. At the same time, both reigns afford us matter of a highly interesting nature in connexion with our subject.

Huguenot, war, Alphonse Neuville, Reformers, Meaux, Renaissance, France,
Burning of reformers at Meaux. The “Cenacle of Meaux” was founded in 1521 by Lefèvre d’Etaples.

Above. Source: A Popular History of France by M Guizot (Dana Estes and Charles E Lauriat, c 1885). Illustration by Alphonse Neuville.

In no other way can these reigns be attractive to us; nor will the horrors of those times ever be repeated, but the fashions of the sixteenth century have, on the contrary, already reappeared in a certain measure, and at different periods. They will revive completely, perhaps, at some future day. There is nothing more present, sometimes, than the past, especially in matters of dress, as every Frenchwoman knows. Why then should not our fair contemporaries once more attire themselves in the fashions that were so becoming to their predecessors?

Renaissance, costume, period, Charles IX. 16th, century, fashion, Valois,
Epoque de Charles IX

When foreign fashions were likely to add to their attractions, Frenchwomen have never refused to adopt them. They have alternately worn pretty articles of dress from Spain, or copied the costumes of our fair English neighbours, to which they imparted an elegance all their own. They have seldom cared for the severe German style, but from Italy they have frequently borrowed some of her Southern graces, offspring of that sunny land and deep blue sky!

The fashions of Italy are brought across the Alps

Thus, in the sixteenth century, did Italian fashions cross the Alps with Catherine de Médicis. Heaven only knows whether the fine ladies of the court were most interested in the bloodshed of the fatal night of August 24, 1572, or in the quantity of Milanese silks imported about the same time. I have not the heart to blame them for turning away from such frightful episodes.

Gentleman, Renaissance, costume, period, Charles IX. 16th, century, fashion, Valois,
Gentilhomme de la cour du 16e siècle. Charles IX. Gentleman of the court of the 16th century. Charles IX.

But wherefore this love for the products of Italy, for the perfumed sachets of Venice, for the gold filagree-work of Genoa? Until that period Frenchwomen appear to have been unacquainted even with the names of the countries which form the shores of the Adriatic, and suddenly they become versed in all the minute details of the costumes of those countries!

This must not surprise my readers. Only that I fear to be tedious, I would remind them that little things may spring from great, as well as great things from little, and I would enter upon a lengthy historico-philosophic dissertation.

Catherine, de'Medici, Charles IX, Alphonse, Neuville, Renaissance, Valois,
Catherine de’Medici and Charles IX by Alphonse Neuville.

Articles from Venice and Genoa are very fashionable

Let it suffice to state that the filagree-work of Genoa, and the perfumed sachets of Venice, found their way into France as a consequence of the fatal expeditions of Charles VIII., Louis XII., and Francis I. into Italy. From Italy also came cambric handkerchiefs embroidered in tent-stitch with red silk.

I need not dilate further on this subject, but I will add that we may fix the period of which I am speaking as that of an invasion of France, by fashions of Italian prodigality, and sudden and striking effect.

Charles IX. was entertained one day at dinner by a gentleman from the south. Towards the end of the banquet the ceiling suddenly opened, a dense cloud descended, and burst with a noise like thunder into a hailstorm of sweetmeats, followed by a gentle shower of perfumed water.

Francesco Primaticcio, Lady, Renaissance, costume
Portrait of a lady in the time of Charles IX by Francesco Primaticcio.

We may judge from this instance how childish were the splendid customs of the age, and understand the edicts by which the king vainly endeavoured to curb the folly of his courtiers, who vied with him in magnificent extravagance, and ruined themselves by their efforts to rise to the height of the times, and to shine in galas and private entertainments.

Elisabeth, of Austria, Queen, France, fashion, Renaissance
Elisabeth of Austria, Queen of France, consort of Charles IX

We must begin by stating in a general way that the new fashions for women were immensely popular, and influenced those for men in the highest degree. Gentlemen adopted an effeminate style of dress, which unfortunately was perpetuated and developed in no small measure by their immediate descendants.

fashion history, Renaissance, court, dress
Lady of the court of Charles IX, 1579.

Charles IX. and his Edicts against extravagant display

Charles IX., however, openly professed his contempt for extreme attention to dress. Outside political affairs he cared for nothing but the pleasures of the chase, and locksmith’s work, in which he greatly delighted. He could not endure that men should wear busks to their pourpoints, nor dress like Amazons at tournaments; nor would he even tolerate the costly fancy of sending to Italy or the East for silks, ostrich feathers, perfumes, and cosmetics.

fashion history, Renaissance, costume
Epoque de Charles IX.

In the very first year of his reign, on April 22, 1561, he drew up an edict at Fontainebleau, from which we extract the following passages:- “We forbid our subjects, whether men, women, or children, to use on their clothes, whether silken or not, any bands of embroidery, stitching or pipings of silk, gimp, &c., with which their garments, or part thereof, might be covered and embellished, excepting only a bordering of velvet or silk of the width of a finger, or at the utmost two borderings, chain-stitchings or backstitchings at the edge of their garments… .

“We permit ladies and damsels of birth, who dwell in the country and outside our towns, to wear gowns and cottes of silk stuff of any colour, according to their estate and rank, provided always, they shall be without ornamentation. And as for those who belong to the suite of our said sister, or other princesses and ladies, they may wear the clothes they now have, in whatever silk or manner they may be embellished, … and only when they are in our suite, and not elsewhere. We allow widows the use of all silken stuffs, except serge and silk camlet, taffety, damask, satin, and plain velvet. As to those of birth living in the country and outside our towns, without any kind of embellishment, nor other bordering than that which is put to fasten the stitches… .

Nor shall women of whatever sort wear gold on their heads, unless during the first year of their marriage, &c.” Such a king as that would, methinks, find much cause for prohibitory edicts at the present day! What a fidgetty kill-joy!
What a despiser of fine clothes!

Dame, Belleville. Marie Touchet  Comtesse  d'Entragues,
Marie Touchet Comtesse d’Entragues (1549-1638). Dame de Belleville. Mistress of the French King Charles IX.

Charles IX. issued four edicts on the same subject. On January 17 and 18, 1563, he forbade vertugadins of more than a yard and a half in width, gold chains, gold work whether with or without enamel, plaques, and all other buttons for ornamenting head-dresses; and in 1567 he regulated the dress of all classes, permitting silks only to princesses and duchesses, prohibiting velvet, and allowing bourgeoises to wear pearls and gold in their rosaries and bracelets only. The above edicts are to be found in great awkward folio volumes, amid dry judicial regulations. They form part of a mass of materials for the historian of the maimers and customs of France.

Do my fair readers imagine these sumptuary laws were obeyed? Do they not feel that many women would prefer paying fines to the mortification of not dressing according to their inclination? I leave them to decide the question, and I proceed to describe feminine attire in the reign of a prince who ventured to say to Fashion, “Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther.”

Charles IX , Huguenot, Battle, Moncontour,
King Charles IX of France having a parlay with two Huguenots before the Battle of Moncontour near Poitou, France.

The Battle of Moncontour was on October 3, 1569 in the third Huguenot war (1568-1570) between the Catholic troops of Charles IX. of France and the Huguenots.

What an extraordinary ruler was Charles IX.! He offered battle to Fashion, a more absolute sovereign than himself!— to Fashion, whose cause was that of millions of women! Moreover, he infringed his own laws, by giving permission to the ladies of Toulouse, in 1565, to wear “vertugales.”

Fashion gained the victory. Gowns with high collars were retained, and pleased the Huguenot ladies without being distasteful to the Catholics; while gold and silver were diversified in a hundred ways on various dress-stuffs, or brocaded, or mixed with lace, or twisted, or placed in bars or stripes on silk or velvet. The prohibitions were simply ignored.

Women of high rank, bourgeoises, widows, and spinsters.

Women of high rank, wore head-tires of black velvet, or “escoffions”— coifs of plaited gold or silk ribbons, often ornamented with jewellery. They wore masks, and held them in their hands. Bourgeoises, whose means did not allow them to run the risk of a fine, contented themselves with cloth hoods, abstained from silk, and carried no mask; but their cottes, cotillons, and gowns might be shaped according to their pleasure, and were consequently the same in form as the garments of noble ladies. Almost every bourgeoise made use of cloth stuffs or camlets, and of black muffs, for only ladies of rank might use those of various colours.

For a certain length of time, widows wore veils out of doors, high gowns, a camisole, and a turned down collerette without lace. When in mourning for a father, a mother, or a husband, long sleeves were worn, bordered with white fur or swans’-down.

No jewels, of course, nor trimmings of jet or steel. For two years the hair was concealed. On becoming widows, even queens were bound to remain in seclusion for forty days. The historian De Thou accuses Catherine de Médicis of having set aside this obligation.

Wedding dresses

Unmarried daughters walked behind their mothers in the streets, followed by their servants. When journeying into the country, they rode on a pillion behind a man-servant. The hair of married women was sometimes worn flowing loosely on their shoulders, confined on the brow by a pearl coronet. The wedding-gown of a girl of the people was generally of cloth, with bands of black velvet, and open sleeves, hanging to the ground and lined with velvet; that of young ladies of rank depended on the taste of the wearer, whose thousand and one caprices were amenable to no law. Nor would those high-born brides have wanted for protectors of their own sex, had they infringed any of the edicts.

Observations of a Venetian ambassador

It is to a Venetian ambassador, an observer of French fashions towards the time of Charles the Ninth’s death, that we are indebted for the above interesting details. He adds: “French women have inconceivably slender waists; they swell out their gowns from the waists downwards by stiffened stuffs and vertugadins, the which increases the elegance of their figure. They are very fanciful about their shoes, whether low slippers or escarpins. The cotillon (underskirt), which in Venice we call carpetta, is always very handsome and elegant, whether worn by a bourgeoise or a lady. As for the upper dress, provided it is made of serge or ‘escot,’ little attention is paid to it, because the women, when they go to church, kneel and even sit on it. Over the chemise they wear a buste or bodice, that they call a ‘corps piqué,‘ to give them support; it is fastened behind, which is good for the chest.

The shoulders are covered with the finest tissue or network; the head, neck, and arms are adorned with jewels. The hair is arranged quite differently from the Italian fashion; they use circlets of wire and ‘tampons,’ over which the hair is drawn in order to give greater width to the forehead. For the most part their hair is black, which contrasts with their pale complexions; for in France, pallor, if not from ill-health, is considered a beauty.”

Our Venetian performs his task admirably. There is nothing omitted from his description of the French ladies of the time; he is gallant, too, in the highest degree. He moved in the best society, among the fine ladies of the town and court.

Corps piqué, Drawers, Pain, Cosmetics, Breast mirrors, girdle mirrors

The “corps pique” mentioned by him was much like the corset or stays of the present day, and tightly compressed the waist of women who were determined, at any cost, to be slender; and all the more determined that the men, as we have said before, vied with them in slenderness of waist. They compressed their waists in an incredible and unbecoming manner, quite unworthy of their sex. On the other hand, women took more than ever to wearing the masculine „caleçon,“ a special kind of pourpoint made with hose.

Catherine de' Medici, Renaissance, Costume
Queen of France Catherine de’ Medici 1519 – 1589

We have already mentioned masks; we must now treat of paint, which was introduced into France, it is said, by Catherine de Médicis. Many of the court beauties coloured their cheeks in the evening with sublimate, rendering it necessary to counteract its corrosive effects the next morning. They used both pomades and cooling lotions for the face. Perfumers manufactured their cosmetics for the toilet, by pulverizing and blending together the claws and wings of pigeons, Venetian turpentine, lilies, fresh eggs, honey, shells called “porcelaines,” ground mother-o’-pearl, and camphor.

All these ingredients were distilled with a small quantity of musk and ambergris. What a mixture! it is like an invention of Mephistopheles. I am not aware whether perfumers of the present day compound such prescriptions, but I do know that to my mind ladies have resumed the custom of painting the face more than is desirable. But to proceed. Jean de Caurres, a writer of the sixteenth century, says that the ladies of his time, when masked, wore a mirror on the breast, and that the fashion was becoming general; “so that in course of time, “he adds,” there will be neither bourgeoise nor serving-maid without one.”


This curious fashion did not last long; that of wearing mirrors at the girdle, in order that women might see whether their headdress was in order, was of longer duration. The mirrors in question were round, with a more or less handsome handle, by which they were hung alongside the aumonière.

Catherine de Médicis, whose shoulders were remarkable for beauty, had her dresses cut as low in the bosom as at the back. Her court imitated her, and many in-made women dared not dress otherwise than their sovereign, to whom also is to be attributed the spread of the fashion ot whaleboned bodices, so fraught with evil to numberless generations ot women. Opposition does not exist among good courtiers.

“Catherine de Médicis,” says Brantôme, “was the first who rode on a side-saddle.”Court dresses were made with immense trains; at balls these were held up by a metal clasp or ivory button. Notwithstanding their weight, lined as they were with ermine or miniver, no lady would appear without one, even at the risk of suffocation.

Let us, however, do justice to the women of the time of Charles IX., and while criticizing certain details of their attire, admit that it was of enchanting grace, and extremely harmonious in design. Can there be any costume in better taste than one in white brocade? What can be more elegant than borderings in coloured stones or glass beads. Then there was the fur mantle that a fine lady threw over her shoulders, when a cool air made her tremble for her delicate health; and the white kid gloves, so common now, so rare at that time, and the lace ruffs; and those pretty white hoods, whence fell a long white veil half concealing the figure, and the “arcelets,” or wire circlets, by which the hair was raised from the temples. And what better finish could there be to a costume of a grave style than those deep red linings, that starched gorgerette, that simple, yet graceful, black hat?

By Augustin Challamel


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