Montesquieu

Rica to Rhedi in Venice


The whims of the French in fashion I find ama­zing. They have for­got­ten how they were dres­sed this sum­mer, and they are even more una­ware how they will be dres­sed this win­ter ; but above all it is unbe­lie­va­ble what it costs a hus­band to dress his wife in style.

What good would it do for me to give you an exact des­crip­tion of their dress and orna­ments ? A new fashion would come along and des­troy all my efforts, as it does those of their wor­kers, and before you recei­ved my let­ter eve­ry­thing would be chan­ged.

A woman who lea­ves Paris to go spend six months in the coun­try returns as anti­que as if she had buried her­self there for thirty years. The son fails to reco­gnize the por­trait of his mother, so greatly does the cos­tume in which she is por­trayed seem foreign to him ; he ima­gi­nes that it is some American woman1 it repre­sents, or that the pain­ter wan­ted to express one of his fan­ta­sies.

Sometimes the coif­fu­res rise gra­dually, and a revo­lu­tion brings them back down all of a sud­den ; there was a time when their immense height put a woman’s face in the middle of her­self.2 At ano­ther it was the feet that occu­pied that posi­tion ; the heels for­med a pedes­tal that held them up in the air. Who could believe it : archi­tects were often obli­ged to raise, lower, or widen doors, accor­ding to whe­ther women’s appa­rel requi­red this change of them, and the rules of their art were subor­di­na­ted to these fan­cies. Sometimes you see a face spor­ting a pro­di­gious quan­tity of mou­ches,3 and they all disap­pear the next day. There was a time when women had a waist4 and teeth5 ; today there is no ques­tion of those. In this chan­ging nation, wha­te­ver the cri­tic may say,6 daugh­ters are made dif­fe­rently from their mothers.

It is the same with man­ners and the way of living as with the fashions : the French change their ways accor­ding to the age of their king. The monarch could even suc­ceed in making the nation grave if he had attemp­ted it. The prince impres­ses the cha­rac­ter of his mind on the court, the court on the city, the city on the pro­vin­ces. The soul of the sove­reign is a mold that gives their shape to eve­ryone else’s.

Paris this 8th day of the moon of Saphar 1717

The Amerindian woman, with her unvarying feather headdress, is a widely disseminated image at the time.

The Princesse Palatine observes on 14 January 1688 : “At court no one wears a fichu any more ; but coiffures are becoming higher by the day” (Palatine, p. 77-78). La Bruyère wrote that fashion “makes of a woman’s head the base of an edifice several storeys high, the order and structure of which change according to their whims” (Les Caractères, “De la mode”, 12). This fashion disappeared in 1714 but was to return in the 1780s.

See letters 50 and 107.

Flounced dresses made fashionable by Madame de Montespan during her pregnancies, which had returned to favor after the peace of Utrecht (1713), could be combined with a more recent invention (1718), that of panniers, just as useful for hiding growing waistlines ; they are implicitly opposed to the more traditional form, which calls attention to the waist.

“Having teeth” is apparently a sign of youth and beauty, the elderly seeking rather to hide what remained of theirs.

The word can signify “a censor, who reproaches others’ mistakes, and points out their flaws maliciously or too harshly” (Trévoux, 1704), but also a person who judges a work. It is not clear whether Rica is suggesting anyone in particular.