Friday, March 14, 2014

Review: Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution by Will Brasher

Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution

by Will Brasher

Hardcover: 320 pages
Color Insert: 16 pages
Publisher: Lyons Press; First edition (October 16, 2013)
List Price: $26.95
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0762791535
ISBN-13: 978-0762791538
Award: 2013 Adele Mellen Prize for Distinguished Scholarship


Marie Antoinette has remained atop the popular cultural landscape for centuries for the daring in style and fashion that she brought to 18th century France. For the better part of the queen’s reign, one man was entrusted with the sole responsibility of ensuring that her coiffure was at its most ostentatious best. Who was this minister of fashion who wielded such tremendous influence over the queen’s affairs? Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, The Queen, and the Revolution charts the rise of Leonard Autié from humble origins as a country barber in the south of France to the inventor of the Pouf and premier hairdresser to Queen Marie-Antoinette.

By unearthing a variety of sources from the 18th and 19th centuries, including memoirs (including Léonard’s own), court documents, and archived periodicals the author, Professor Will Bashor, tells Autié’s mostly unknown story. He chronicles Leonard’s story, the role he played in the life of his most famous client, and the chaotic and history-making world in which he rose to prominence. Besides his proximity to the queen, Leonard also had a most fascinating life filled with sex (he was the only man in a female dominated court), seduction, intrigue, espionage, theft, exile, treason, and possibly, execution. The French press reported that Léonard was convicted of treason and executed in Paris in 1793. However, it was also recorded that Léonard, after receiving a pension from the new King Louis XVIII, died in Paris in March 1820. Granted, Leonard was known as the magician of Marie-Antoinette’s court, but how was it possible that he managed to die twice? [provided by the author]

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My thoughts

Will Brasher has accomplished the near impossible in his innovative look at the court of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette through the eyes of none other than the royal hairdresser.  When thinking of Marie Antoinette one of the first images that come to mind is the numerous, flamboyant hairstyles she donned.  Indeed, the Queen's hairstyles were one of many outward symbols of the conspicuous consumption of the royalty and nobility of France.  However, I must confess, I never gave a moment's thought to who created these works of art that graced Marie Antoinette's head, but fortunately Will Brasher did.

Marie Antoinette's Head:  The Royal Hairdresser, The Queen and the Revolution is as much an account of the life of Léonard Autié, eventual hairdresser to Marie Antoinette, as it is of the French monarchy and revolution itself.  When Léonard Autié first arrived as a young man in Paris in 1769, he was so short on money that he walked the last 120 miles on foot. His possessions consisted of little more than a few coins, a tortoiseshell comb and “an ample supply of confidence.”  Ten years later, after he created the famous “pouf” hairstyle, he was the hairdresser to the queen of France. A decade after that, during the Revolution, Autié “took on the dangerous role of messenger and secret liaison between the royal family and their supporters.”  Later, forced into exile and financially ruined, he spent a lengthy sojourn in Russia, where he worked as hairdresser to the nobility (and even arranged the hair of Czar Paul I’s corpse).  He was eventually allowed to return to Paris in 1814, and he died there six years later.

Brasher crafts his account from both contemporary accounts and letters but relies heavily on Autié’s ghostwritten memoir, published 18 years after his death.  However, Brasher reminds his reader that Léonard was prone to exaggerate and was one to self-aggrandize, even in his personal journal.  That aside, Autié’s perspective truly illuminates just how out of touch and frivolous the French aristocrats were even on the cusp of the Revolution and provide a fascinating fly-on-the-wall look at the court of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the endless retinue that surrounded them. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser and the Revolution and applaud Bashor's unique and wonderfully inspired approach to one of history's most fascinating women.

About the Author

Will Bashor has a doctorate in International Relations from the American Graduate School in Paris, and he teaches at Franklin University, Columbus, Ohio.  His interests have ranged over many fields, among them the study of international law and business, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and European history.

As a member of the Society for French Historical Studies, he attended its annual meeting sponsored by Harvard University in Cambridge in 2013.

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