‘You spent fifty thousand on shoes!:’[1] power, gender, and sartorial expression in Versailles

By Holly Marsden

Cover Image: BBC Two

Canal+’s historical drama Versailles premiered in the UK in May 2016 on BBC Two. It is set during the building of the palace of Versailles, led by King Louis XIV in seventeenth century France. The is frivolous, dramatic and gripping, portraying Louis in his most power-hungry prime: in an attempt to re-establish his power to the waning and defying masses, the King chooses his father’s old hunting lodge to be a new court of unparalleled opulence. As you can imagine, Madeline Fontaine’s costume styling is equally as extravagant. Clothing during the seventeenth century was a tool for conveying wealth and power, and Louis XIV’s court is the perfect case study to see this in action. Although this blog post is not focusing on queenship as Team Queens usually do, it provides an insight into gender, kingship and clothing in Early Modern France and England.

King Louis’ younger brother Philippe I, Duke of Orléans had a keen interest in clothing, correctly reflected in the series (the titular quote is King Louis confronting his over-spending brother). Contemporaries comment on Phillipe’s gender play through his sartorial choices.The Duke of Saint Simon described the prince as ‘covered with rings, bracelets and jewels everywhere, with a long wig…and ribbons wherever he could put them, reeking of every kind of perfume.’[1] Scholars have long argued that Phillipe and Louis’ mother, Anne of Austria, encouraged his ‘feminine’ gender expression as a child, understanding that he would pose less threat to his brother as second in line to the throne.[2] It is unknown whether this was wanted by Phillipe, and how he personally wished to identify, but it was noted by contemporaries that the Queen referred to Phillipe as ‘my little girl’.[3]

Thus, we come back to clothing as a physical manifestation of power, here being used subversively to strip Phillipe of the ability to threaten King Louis’ position. As well as recognising his keen interest in fashion and the art of dressing, Versailles also portrays King Louis as using this interest against Phillipe, forcing him to dress in what was strictly seen as female courtly dress. In an act of dehumanisation, the second episode of the series shows Phillipe to be paraded through a ball, to be met with a laughing noble who spits ‘you are an embarrassment to your brother.’[4] Phillipe retaliates and beats the man, before confronting the king: ‘you choose where I live and how much money I spend but you do not get to choose what I wear and who I fuck…I’ve been dressed like this since I was three months old, my goal in life was to be less than you.’ This ultimately shows how much of a powerful tool dressing was in the seventeenth-century French court.

Versailles also portrays another facet of Phillipe’s life: that he desired and loved both men and women. In LGBTQ+ History Month, seeing positive representations of men loving men depicted in history is particularly important. Phillipe was born in 1640, and is maybe most known for his military feats, such as leading France to victory against William of Orange in 1679. He had two marriages, to Henrietta Stuart of England and then to Elisabeth-Charlotte, Princess Palatine. One of his long-lasting and predominant relationships was with Phillipe de Lorraine, often referenced in Versailles as ‘the Chevalier.’The twists and turns of their desire is a prominent feature ofOrléans’ storyline which appears to be a fan-favourite, especially if judged by the amount of Phillipe-Phillipe compilation videos on YouTube. Their love is displayed to be passionate and all-consuming, with power play as a key feature.

Power is, after all, a key function of the court favourite is early modern Europe. The Stuart and Georgian monarchs in England adopted many of the practices and fashions set by Louis XIV and his courtiers. Whig politician Lord Hervey, like Prince Phillipe, used clothing to play with gender, whilst also desiring and having relationships with men and women in court. His contemporary and lover Lady Mary Whortley Montagu commented that ‘when God created the human race, he made men, women and Herveys.’[5] Both stories show that Hervey and Phillip were not anomalies, nor where they scorned for their sexual desires. Assuming another perceived gender through clothing and presentation, however, had a different effect, often fuelled but patriarchal notions of masculinity and power. Tudor Queen Elizabeth of England nurtured a king-like status through her refusal to marry and statements of her king-like abilities in order to cultivate greater hold over her public.

Versailles paints an insightful picture of sartorial expression in the early modern European court. It demonstrates how dress was used as a tool to convey majesty and power, and to strip people of power simultaneously. Moreover, what stands out about the series is that it accurately represents the acceptance and acknowledgement of Phillipe’s sexual relationships with men. It must be said, though, that his status as the king’s brother meant that this was a unique experience not shared with the general public, especially considering sodomy was criminalised in France until 1791. However, the show does not attribute gender play to be a marker of non-heteronormative sexuality in the period, nor does it argue that Phillipe’s sexual desires and practises meant that he was not a powerful leader (which has been the case in many homophobic histories of Louis XIV’s court). This non-reductive approach should be adopted by TV writers and historians alike, and these histories should be celebrated and told for centuries to come.

Recommended reading/watching:

Barker, Nancy Nichols. Brother to the Sun King, Philippe, Duke of Orléans. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Greig, Hannah. The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Griffey, Erin (ed.). Sartorial Politics in Early Modern Europe: Fashioning Women. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019.

Hyer, Maren Clegg and Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Refashioning Medieval and Early Modern Dress: A Tribute to Robin Netherton. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2019.

Rohr, Zita Eva and Spangler, Jonathan W. Significant Others: Aspects of Deviance and Difference in Premodern Court Cultures. Abingdon: Routledge, 2021.

Versailles. Directed by Jalil Lespert, Christoph Schrewe, Thomas Vincent, Daniel Roby, Mike Barker, Louis Choquette, Richard Clark, Edward Bazalgette, Peter Van Hees. 2015-2018, Canal+.


 [1] Versailles, “Welcome to Versailles,” episode 1, series 1, directed by Jalil Lespert, BBC Two, November 2015.

Main Text:

[1] Michael D. Sibalis, “Orléans, Philippe, Duke of (1640-1701),” GLBTQ (2015), http://www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/orleans_p_S.pdf.

[2] For example: Louis Crompton, Homosexuality & Civilization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Nancy Nichols Barker, Brother to the Sun King, Philippe, Duke of Orléans (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989); Sibalis, “Orléans, Philippe, Duke of (1640-1701).”

[3] Crompton, Homosexuality & Civilization, 342.

[4] Versailles, “I Am the State,” episode 2, series 1, directed by Jalil Lespert, BBC Two, November 2015.

[5] John Hervey, Lord Hervey, Memoirs of the Reign of George the Second, from his Accession to the Death of Queen Caro line, ed. John Wilson Croker, 2 vols. (London, 1855), p. xiv.

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