Fashion on the Road to Absolutism: A Case Study of Louis XIV and Peter the Great

“Divergences [from] order partly reflect historians’ use of ‘‘early modern’’ as a handy catch-all term for a confusing period, whose contours shift according to national and thematic perspectives…”[1]

The early modern period was characterized by an air of division: with imperial conflict, religious fracturing and political turmoil, Europe appeared to be plagued with schismatic disorder. Boundaries were being tested as a result of a number of movements (i.e. the Scientific Revolution, the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment) making the trend of questioning the status quo popular. This instability caused a sense of paranoia for leaders in Western Europe. There was already an overwhelming background of foreign conflicts in the Atlantic and, domestically, the situation looked even bleaker. Rulers feared that this social instability would lead to rebellion.

As a result, European leaders across the continent were going back to the basics– absolutism. Absolutism is a form of governing where a ruler, otherwise known as a monarch, has free control over a land. Absolutist rulers held complete sovereignty over a unified region. They made laws, imposed taxes and declared war without approval from governing body. And, most importantly, they ruled by divine right. Historians use the analogy of absolutism being a conceived panacea for the sickness of division. This was true: it was believed that the firm grip of an absolute ruler could restore the harmony. Below is a blurb explaining how absolutism was conceived at the time:

“We have seen that the first idea of power that there was among men, is that of paternal power; ad that kings were fashioned on the model of fathers. Moreover, all the world agrees that obedience, which is due to public power, is only found… in the precept which obliges one to honor his parents. From all this it appears that the name “king” is a father’s name, and that goodness is the most natural quality in kings…”

Jaques- Benige Bossuet

       Fashion played a pivotal role in the rise to power for absolute rulers. Through adornment, rulers were able to both exemplify and demand power over the world that already questioned their influence. Fashion helped rulers, then, make their domains influential to the broad scope of other European nations to assert their power. In this essay, I will present two case studies: Louis XVI, the Sun King, of France and Peter the Great of Russia. These two leaders had a lot to overcome; however, they implemented fashion in their territories to reinforce their political authority domestically and on the grander scale of the whole continent.

Louis XVI is known as the king of fashion for the extents that he would go to infuse sartorial matters into his court in the seventeenth century.[2] Louis had ambitions. He was determined to make France the most influential country in the world.[3] The calculated caliph used style in order to make this goal come to life. At the time, fashion had two, opposing faces according to the French moralists: the orderly goddess of civility who spread prosperity over France or the masked harlot that deceived, corrupted and threatened the natural order of commerce and the state. Critics even went as far to say that la mode was a punishment for the original sin on humankind as people chased after every new fashion only to learn that their fulfillment could only be found in God.[4] Such opposing views made Louis work cut out for him.

louis satire

Louis XIV caricature,1672 Romeyn de Hooghe

Satires in history are comic gold. They also say much about the climate at the time. The above image features a caricature of Louis XVI mirroring a demon essentially saying that the monarch is the devil’s reincarnate. Louis XVI did in fact have a hard time enforcing his absolutist power over France.

       La Mode is the name given to Louis XIV’s reign of fashion. La Mode summarizes the manner of dress that was appropriate for court.[5] The proper dress alone was supposed “to encourage loyalty, satisfy vanity, [and] impress the outside world.[6] Louis promoted the sense of divine omnipresence through La Mode. . Louis went as far as to order the highest members of the nobility to live in his palace at Versailles for a certain period of time throughout the year. Here, he developed the chance to impress his followers with his fashion sense and to immerse them in his glorified life. For example, the presence of substitute portraits throughout his palace of Versailles ensured that all eyes were on him, even when he wasn’t there. The leveé was a ritual established by the king where people paid to help him out of bed and clothe him. Rituals like these were set in place to instill a sense of allegiance within the nobility. If they were immersed in his life they would be able to see Louis as the benevolent, patriarchal leader that he wanted to be perceived. Aside from this, most historians believe that Louis’ motives extended beyond this and were more conniving. Take this scenario into consideration:

Elisabeth Charlotte was to be married to the king’s brother Phillippe d’Orleans. One day before the wedding, the bride’s chaperone, the Princess Palatine discovered that she only had six shifts and night gowns. Now, this simply wouldn’t do in Louis’ palace! The Palatine was immediately informed. Three to four thousand livres were sent out in order to buy all of the garments that were needed to prevent her from being the laughing stock of the French court.[7]

Louis XIV chose fashion as his means of influence because it both demonstrated the wearer’s wealth and took it away, as fashion was inherently expensive, difficult to maintain, and impractical.[8] In Louis’ realm of La Mode, it did not matter what made an aristocrat but it was rather what clothing marked them that was of the most importance. In fact, the spotlight developed over those who did not abide by Louis’ clothing regulations. They would be fined and even sometimes removed from the palace if they did not have the perfect clothing and proper etiquette to support it with. What was more dramatic was the rampant amount of debt that members of nobility were in during their time at Versailles. Louis imposed a vicious cycle on these nobles that crippled them. The fact that he offered the nobles loans once they went poor trying to impress him proves how Louis asserted his dominance by establishing their dependence on the crown. Louis knew that the nobility were among his greatest potential enemies (especially those far from his influence at Versailles). Louis brought the nobility to his domain to play his game that was dictated by his rules.

la mode

A color print of nobles in the palace at Versailles in la mode. As you can see clothing was flamboyant and at times uncomfortable. cat=KAT13&product=P012889&sid8C7206B11AE9452E813C63DC513C7BDE=001234e363927f370ed7ea96705b5312

Louis also had ambitions to expand the Parisian empire through fashion. As early as 1675, he passed a law to create the Parisian seamstresses’ guild – groups of women who could make and sell women’s and children’s clothing, endorsed by the king. It was the first step towards the establishment of haute couture of the 19th century, and today’s French fashion industry.[9]Jean-Batiste Colbert, Louis finance minister, proposed the idea for the king to impose crippling taxes on foreign goods. Colbert embodied Louis’ intention to expand French fashion and, thus the French economy. Colbert and Louis developed the plan to limit foreign imports such as silk, lace and taffeta from Western Europe, and expand domestic exports. Louis would then take the money from taxed and invest it back into France and promote domestic production of foreign goods within the country. While Louis XVI had ambitions for France to be the export capital of the continent in terms of couture, the country pushed even further into foreign territory to pursue new fashion ventures in colonial America. As fur became a popular in garb within Western Europe, the beaver fur trade booming. France was at the forefront of the fur trade in North America, leading to the French-Iroquois War. The economical shift from dependence on foreign imports to domestic exports reverberated.


A portrait of Louis and his family with his personal seamstress guild. Louis and his family are being dressed as members of the bourgeoisie to flee to Varennes in the wake of the French Revolution.

The flight to Varennes

     What was it about clothing that made it the appropriate stimuli for Louis to assert dominance? Historian Jennifer M. Jones suggests the clothes do actually make the man. She stated that no matter how Louis dressed, “whether it was Apollo, the king of light, in his ballet troupe, or his troops military uniforms, costumes permitted him and his courtiers to imagine and enact their fantasies of power… virility and [conquest and ultimately] Versaille’s hegemony at the center of the world.”[10] Louis, himself admired fashion and “how it could make a person appear elegant and powerful, both physically and symbolically. For Louis, fashion was not just something for the body; it was his way to impressively clothe and present his country to the rest of Europe.”[11]


On an ending note for Louis, this is a portrait of the sun king dressed as Apollo for a performance in his dance company.

The French baroque: Louis XIV and rare deep-voiced flutes

     The second ruler who will be discussed in this essay is Pyotr Alexeyevich, or Peter the Great. Peter the Great ruled the tsardom of Russia for the end of the 17th century and the beginning ot eh 18th century. Although Peter differed from Louis XIV, the leading example among rulers for the rest of Europe at the time, there were still some similarities in the fact that he was not only trying to assert his own dominance as a ruler but also the dominance of his realm, Russia.

peter-the-great-2-sized                            mask

Portrait of  Peter the Great (left) and mask of the tsar: an accurate portrayal of his face (right) created Italian artist named Bartolomeo Rastrelli using a wax molding.

     Russia at the time was not even considered a component of Europe among the majority of the population at the time: they differed vastly from their counterparts in Western Europe. Not only did the country manage to avert keystone societal changes from European movements like the renaissance, scientific revolution, reformation, enlightenment but they were culturally backwards as well, according to Europeans. Russia did not celebrate the same heritage as its western counterparts: a majority of Western Europe had Roman heritage while Russia had a history of Mongol domination. Russians also practiced Orthodox Christianity while the rest of Europe practiced Roman Catholicism. Russian Cyrillic scrip was very different to the Latin alphabet that composed European languages. Most importantly, dress set them significantly apart. Men wore long sleeved gowns and women wore dresses that were not as gaudy as their western counterparts and characteristic headdresses. Elaborate patterns were notably different as well. Many of these fabrics that composed traditional clothing came from the Orient as Russians were in close proximity to them. However, these prints were nothing like Western European clothing.

Generally, Russia had been a medieval state up to this point. Essentially the things that made them different were what the Russian citizenry embraced. During Peter’s reign, Russia went under a transformation otherwise known as the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was sparked by the controversial Tour of Europe that Peter the Great underwent after he took power in 1689. His primary goal was to forge alliances with the Christian powers of Western Europe in order to aid him in his ongoing war with Turkey. [12] Peter, however, ended up realizing the need to adopt other European techniques (such as ship building for naval operations) and more importantly, European customs in gatherings, entertainment, etiquette and most notably couture. Peter generally did not respect the traditional way of life in Russia. Time and time again, he would mock the Orthodox Christian church, the symbol of the traditional way of life. This was unique for the time because no Tsar ever left Russia voluntarily, let alone developed idea of change based on European style.

peter mocking

The above photo is an illustration of a church event where Peter is wearing the Burgomaster wig at church. Peter was notorious for mocking the Christian Orthodox church.

     It was very clear that Peter had faced difficulties in developing a powerful, absolutist persona. He experienced a harder time enforcing his absolutist power than Louis XIV did. Once he returned from his Tour of Europe, Sophia, his sister led a rebellion against him with a large number of her supporters. Although Peter defeated the anarchists and executed about 1200 of them, resentment was a hurdle that the tsar had to scale.

Nonetheless, Peter the Great took major steps in reshaping the image of Russia in the eyes of western culture. He published a book of manners and etiquette. He regulated the interaction between the opposite sexes and he even set up clothing and hygiene requirements. An excerpt from Jean Rousset de Missy work, Life of Peter the Great (1730) discusses these regulations.

“The tsar… ordered that gentlemen, merchants and other subjects, except priests and peasants, should each pay a tax of one hundred rubles a year if they wished to keep their beards. The tsar issued an ordinance abolishing that costume, commanding all the boyars and all of those who had positions at court to dress in French fashion.” [13]

beard                                 coin

One of Peter’s most To the left is a notorious piece of propaganda puts the tsar’s beard tax into perspective. There is a rumor that once Peter even tricked the members of his court and cut their beards himself! To the right are coins that were used during the time that were used if Russian males chose to pay the tax to keep their beards.

     The greatest question is what motivated Peter to take such drastic measures in revamping Russia to be a westernized state. Clearly, the main goal was to make Russia stand out to its European counterparts as a country worthy of financial and military interaction with other possible allies. Peter’s assertion of fashion in the wake of his rule had a slightly different motive than Louis’ did. Much of it was about military dominance and becoming a world power through leading by example. This can be seen in Peter’s obsession for shipbuilding. He believed that military advanced tactics and technology behind shipbuilding would make Russia as powerful as their western counterparts.

Absolutist leaders such as Louis XVI and Peter the Great both found ways to assert their power over the countries that they ruled and beyond. What is most unique is that they used fashion. Louis strategized la mode a style of dressing for the court that encompassed great rivalry between nobles who were forced to live at Versailles and establish a greater dependence on the king. Along with this, Louis moved to establish France as the clothing capital of Europe by dramatically decreasing foreign imports and increasing domestic exports. Peter’s aims were more military based in his desire to show that Russia was a country worth to be allied with other more advanced European nations. He reformed medieval customs in dress, customs and even hair in order to reveal to other nations that Russia was a worthy country to form alliances with Western European nations. Fashion was an effective outlet for these leaders to asset their power as leaders in the domestic sense as well as leaders within setting an example for the continent of Europe.


[1] Dewald, Jonathan. “The Early Modern Period.” Accessed October 25, 2014.

[2] “Louis XIV’s Use of Fashion to Control and Express Power.” Europe 1600s- 1700s. Accessed October 31, 2014. XIV’s Use of Fashion to Control and Express Power.

[3] “Louis XIV’s Use of Fashion to Control and Express Power.” Europe 1600s- 1700s. Accessed October 31, 2014. XIV’s Use of Fashion to Control and Express Power.

[4] Jones, Jennifer. “Courting La Mode and Costuming the French.” In Sexing La Mode: Gender Fashion and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France. Bloomsbury Academic, 2004.

[5] Jones p. 15

[6] Philip Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), xiv.

[7] Jones p. 25

[8]  Barringer, S. (2012). Louis XIV’s Use of Fashion to Control the Nobility and Express Power. Primary Source, 3(1), 21-25.


[9] “Louis XIV’s Use of Fashion to Control and Express Power.” Europe 1600s- 1700s. Accessed October 31, 2014. XIV’s Use of Fashion to Control and Express Power.

[10] Jones p. 19

[11] Barringer, S. (2012). Louis XIV’s Use of Fashion to Control the Nobility and Express Power. Primary Source, 3(1), 21-25.


[12] Dvoichenko- Markov, Eufrosina. “William and Peter the Great.” Proceedings of the Ameircna Philosophical Society. February 14, 1553. Accessed October 27, 2014.

[13] Jean Rousset de Missy, Life of Peter the Great, c. 1730

Picture References:  In order as photos are displayed

Reinette. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2014.

The Flight to Varennes. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2014.

The French baroque: Louis XIV and rare deep-voiced flutes. (2012, June 26). Retrieved November 12, 2014.

Peter the Great. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2014.

Guided History. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2014.

JSTOR “William and Peter the Great.” Proceedings of the Ameircna Philosophical Society.(n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2014.

Archive. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2014.