December 29, 2020


December 29 (1721) is the birthday of Madame de Pompadour, magnificently bouffanted and one of the most stylish women of eighteenth-century France. 

n. a woman’s hairdo in which the hair is swept up high from the forehead, usually over a roll
n. a man’s hairdo in which the hair is brushed up straight from the forehead­­
­—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

The somewhat absurd hairstyle beloved by French courtesans and Elvis impersonators alike is the namesake of Madame de Pompadour, former mistress of King Louis XV.

Madame de Pompadour was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson in Paris in 1721. By all accounts she was extraordinarily beautiful, intelligent, and well-educated. She also had a bit of a stage mother who ensured that she would learn to play the clavichord, paint, get married, become friends with Voltaire, and charm the pantaloons off the king, all before her twenty-fourth birthday.

Within a month of their meeting, Louis XV had established Jeanne-Antoinette at Versailles as his mistress. He wooed her with an estate at Pompadour and gave her the title of marquise (more hoity than a countess, but not as toity as a duchess) so that she could appear in his court. Six months after seducing the king, the new Madame de Pompadour legally separated from her husband and began a lifelong crusade to have things named for her.

Despite being loathed by the upper crust for her bourgeoisie background, she became a trusted advisor to the king, and it was she who recommended the hiring of her dear friend 
√Čtienne de Silhouette to be France's new Controller-General (see silhouette). Outside of politics, she was a devoted patron of the decorative arts, and the unrivaled center of the Parisian fashion scene. Her support of porcelain manufacturing led to the creation of Pompadour pink, a specific color for fine ceramics. Handbags, silks embroidered with sprigs of flowers, and even richly plumed birds (Xipholena punicea, the pompadour cotinga) all bore her name. Though she was only his mistress for five years, legend has it that, after she died at age forty-three from congested lungs, a grieving Louis XV commissioned his craftsmen to create the oblong marquise or navette cut for diamonds to remind him of the delicate shape of her mouth.

Well after her death, a purple-uniformed regiment of the British Army in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was nicknamed The Pompadours owing either to purple being her favorite color or—depending on the discretion of your source—the color of her underwear. Urban legend has also suggested that the classic French Champagne coupe may have been modeled from her breast—Marie Antoinette is another contender for this distinction—despite being designed several decades before either’s bosom sprung into public consciousness.

But it was her hair that brought her infamy. Though she classically wore it in loose rolls around her face, the style that became associated with her name eventually involved sweeping the hair upward to hang high above the forehead. And it was not simply for the ladies. As early as 1885, no less than the Atlanta Constitution newspaper recommended it for the gents:

“The pompadour is the most convenient way possible to wear the hair. It is cool, and simply running your fingers through it when you get up dresses it for the day.”

Elvis surely agreed.