Fashion, Court Life and the World Turned Upside Down

Fashion can say a lot about a person, but in the 17th century, it could also say a lot about a country. Louis XIV and Peter the Great attempted to enforce fashion rules for their nobility in order to unite their countries. Since the nobility is a representation of the King and the country, unified dress was a must. While they went about it in different ways, both rulers used fashion restrictions as a way to exert their power over their respective countries. Despite their attempts, clothing remained difficult to regulate, but it was still relatively reflective of social status.


Peter the Great


Louis XIV

Both Louis XIV and Peter the Great were firm believers in royal absolutism. They wanted complete control of their country without having to be granted approval from any type of governing body. Louis XIV built a royal palace, called Versailles, as a place for public rituals for authority. It was a lavish, luxurious home for him, his court and his employees. By 1682, there were 15,000 people living and working there.1In similar fashion, Peter the Great built the Palace of Peterhof, which was completed in 1725. It became known as “the Russian Versailles”. These elaborate palaces symbolize the wealth and power of these two rulers, which is also reflected in clothing restrictions they install. (Click this link for a Virtual Tour of Versailles )

versailles mao


During Louis’ time as king, he worked to define la mode with distinct French character.2This shows his passion for his country, but also his need to exert his power in almost every aspect of French life. Court fashion was used to display privilege and social hierarchy. In the first decade of Louis’ rule (1661-1670) no official court costume existed. However, the elite did dress similarly to each other. Men wore kilts, short jackets, silk or linen shirts and shoes with high heels and square toes. Noblemen’s shoes had red heels to show their status.1Women wore bodices that were either sleeveless or short sleeved, blouses and long skirts with trains. The trains had a similar purpose to the color of the males’ shoe heel; the length of the train represented a woman’s social status.Bows, ribbons, lace and ruffles were all common ornaments during the 1660s, but in the next few decades, “falbalas” grew in popularity. Falbalas included flounces, tassels, fringe, lace and embroidery.3In the late 1660s, Louis created warrant coats -tailored blue coats, embroidered with gold and silver thread- to be worn by court members living in Versailles. Other court members wore suits of velvet or another high quality fabric.4The coats distinguished the elite court members by displaying their rank.

By the 1670s, court dress began to change.As fashion grew less formal, more freedom existed, challenging the social boundaries of clothing. Women began to wear one-piece dresses called “mantuas” for less formal occasions, which were much more comfortable than their previous stuffy two-piece dresses. A significant factor in this change in dress is Madame de Maintenon, who was the governess to Louis’ illegitimate children. She brought in the “more solemn style of court dress.”3Men also began to wear three-piece suits as a result of a rivalry with the British and Spanish. Both countries had banned French styles of dress, and in response, Louis adopted this English style.5



As time went on, people became more relaxed about dress and it was difficult for the king to regulate. In 1677, the editor of Le Mercure, the first French journal to report on fashion, wrote, “One has never seen in France what one sees these days; there are no longer any general fashions because there are too many particular fashions: one can scarcely find two people dressed in the same manner and everyone dresses according to their fantasies.”6While this sense of individuality may be true, social rank remained the most important factor in what someone wore. In Le Mercure, fashions were labeled to show which social class was allowed to wear them. There was very little about fashion for commoners in the journal, and their dress was not even considered to be in la mode. This exemplifies the importance of clothing for the elite. It displayed one’s importance and status, while the dress of the lower class was just considered “clothes”. 6

Despite his loose grip, Louis attempted to exert his authority over fashion in several ways. First off, he tried to enforce mourning costumes. When a member of the court died, everyone was expected to wear all black for an extended period of time. This took a huge toll on the fashion industry and began to harm the French economy, because no one was purchasing new clothes. Because of this, Louis limited the mourning period to six months at most for the royal family and half the amount of time for everyone else.7

Louis’ sumptuary laws tried to not only set boundaries for status in clothing, but also boost domestic sales of textiles. The laws prohibited certain foreign goods, like luxury textiles, because they wanted to limit imports. By limiting imports, the French had to rely on domestic production of textiles, leading to a more self-sufficient economy. Merchants were also banned for producing certain goods, but they and consumers both found ways around the laws, along with finding new fashions that were not yet part of sumptuary laws.8

While the king was doing all he could to control fashion, people still found their way around the laws. The upper class always tried to distinguish themselves through fashion, but at the same time, the lower classes wanted to imitate them. This leads to an endless cycle of change in fashion.9While clothing continued to display status for the most part, not even this omnipotent force could control la mode.10

After he took control of the throne in 1689, Peter the Great ventured across Europe on what became known as the Grand Tour. He decided upon his return that he would modernize Russia in attempt to make it a more powerful nation. By imitating western countries, Peter hoped to channel their supremacy. Peter’s father had placed a ban on Western fashion in 1675 in order to distinguish Russians from foreigners.11These bans were lifted in the 1690s, after Peter the Great took the throne and enforced major fashion reform. All of the nobility were ordered to shave their beards and European dress was required. Men were expected to wear French and Saxon topcoats, German vests, breeches, boots, shoes and hats, while women were told to wear German jackets, dresses, hats, coats, petticoats and shoes.12 Court members were expected to dress like the French, adding gold or silver to their clothes in order to represent their status.13Absolutely no Russian clothes were allowed. This emphasizes his efforts in copying powerful western nations. He wanted his people to dress like them in order to modernize the country and to try and obtain the power and success that these European countries had.


Palace of Peterhof

Such a drastic change obviously caused annoyance among the Russian population. If someone’s robes exceeded the designated length, police would chop them off in the middle of the street.14Fines were placed on those who maintained their beards, and all manufactured clothing had to be stamped and approved by the crown. Peter went to great lengths in order to exert his power and unify his country with European dress. People complained that they did not have enough money to purchase entirely new wardrobes. When the nobility were away from the court and government offices, they would return to their old Russian clothes, disobeying Peter’s laws.15Peter’s goal was not necessarily to make Western fashion the norm, but instead to make style consistent and reflect social status.16This slightly contrasts with Louis’ desire to drive fashion towards the French culture. Instead, Peter wants to modernize his country and unify them under another culture’s style of dress.

Louis XIV and Peter the Great both attempted to exert their power over almost every aspect of their citizens’ lives, and fashion was no exception. Through various restrictions on clothing, they tried to unify their people, particularly the nobility, under certain types of dress. However, the power of individuality in fashion prevailed, leaving these laws with little power. For the most part, people found their way around the laws and continued to dress the way they wanted to, while social status sustained as the ultimate factor in dress.


  1. Jones, Jennifer M. “Courting La Mode and Costuming the French.” In Sexing La Mode: Gender, Fashion and Commercial Control in Old Regime France, 20.
  2. Jones, 19.
  3. Jones, 21.
  4. Jones, 24.
  5. Jones, 22.
  6. Jones, 28.
  7. Jones, 29.
  8. Jones, 31.
  9. Jones, 38.
  10. Jones, 41.
  11. Hughes, Lindsey. “The Petrine Court.” In Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, 280.
  12. Hughes, 283.
  13. Jean Rousset de Missy, Life of Peter the Great, c. 1730
  14. Hughes, 284.
  15. Hughes, 285.
  16. Hughes, 287.

Works Cited

  1. Jones, Jennifer M. “Courting La Mode and Costuming the French.” In Sexing La Mode: Gender, Fashion and Commercial Control in Old Regime France, 15-47.
  1. Hughes, Lindsey. “The Petrine Court.” In Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, 248-288. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  1. Jean Rousset de Missy, Life of Peter the Great, c. 1730


Louis XIV: 

Peter the Great: