Fashion in the Sixteenth Century French Court

Living at court was expensive. Henry III demanded high standards of dress from his courtiers, and from his mignons. It was a requirement that every gentleman must possess at least thirty suits, the jacket short and pointed, and never wear the same clothes two days running. These must be of the finest silks and satins and bright of colour. The cloak or mantle must be placed just so over one shoulder, and allowed to fall from the other. One sleeve of the doublet should be worn loose at the wrist, and the other tightly buttoned. When on horseback, cavaliers were expected to ride with a drawn sword in their hand. Gloves of scented leather were popular, and Henri’s mignons favoured the tall ruff, so stiff that it crackled, a fashion which soon became the object of much satire and caricature.

Ladies wore the skirts of their dresses open in front to display a richly coloured petticoat. The sleeves were full and often attached separately, and the gown cut daringly low in the neck. It was the fashion to wear a blond peruke, which Margot would do on grand occasions, atop which would be a cap adorned with plumes and jewels. More often she wore her dark hair naturally curled down her back.

Catherine de Medici had introduced the fashion of ruffs, but in her later years it was her daughter Marguerite de Valois who was considered the leader of fashion.

This is a description of her in my book Hostage Queen (paperback out now) as she prepares to meet the Portuguese ambassadors who have come to consider her as a possible bride for their King.

Pride and fear of the Queen Mother ensured that Margot look her best for the ambassadors. She bathed in warm scented rose oil, and Madame de Curton patted her dry before smoothing more fragrant unguents over her soft skin. The law strictly forbade any artisan or common bourgeoise to wear silk, which was permitted only for those of noble birth as it signified social prominence and power. Margot’s own chemise and petticoats were of the finest, costing more than some people earned in an entire year, as was her boned corset that cinched in her tiny waist, and the high lace edged collar that framed her beautiful face and her lovely bosom, so firm and white it billowed delightfully above the neck of her gown. The mere sight of it was meant to entice Guise to kiss it.

It was for him that she dressed this evening, her would-be lover whom she wished to impress, not the Portuguese ambassadors.

Margot had a natural talent for style and was already becoming a leader of fashion at her brother’s court. She knew how to adapt a gown, a dainty cap or ornament into something charming and desirable. The ladies and maids of honour would emulate the design, hoping to borrow some of the wearer’s beauty.

Her gown this evening was of cloth of crinkled gold tissue, the richest and most costly in her wardrobe. Diamond pendants in the shape of stars hung at her ears and adorned her throat. Her hair, which was dark and not considered to be a fashionable colour, suited her perfectly, enhancing her chestnut eyes. She had Madame de Curton twist and curl and arrange it high upon her head in the style favoured by her beloved late sister, the Queen of Spain. A touch of colour to her cheeks and lips and lashes, and she was ready.

Margot, however, was very nearly eclipsed by the dazzling magnificence of her own brother. Anjou was resplendent in a doublet and hose in a delicate leaf green, threaded with gold and silver, a white lace ruff of immense proportions about his slender neck. His dark hair was brushed up into curls behind his cap, and he smelled divinely of violet water.

The Portuguese ambassadors marvelled at the sight of such a fop, seeming more Italian than French with his olive skin and long eyes, and so very effeminate. He had clearly taken as much trouble over his toilette as many of the ladies.

His favourites, or mignons as they were called, loved adornment, and happily advised the valets, or made comments as the King’s hair was curled with hot tongues till it smoked with the heat, then dusted with violet scented powder. One plucked his eyebrows, leaving a clearly defined arc above each elongated eye, while another prepared a paste of rose water and cypress oil to apply to his cheeks, forehead, and neck. Last of all, the chief valet knelt before the King, gently tugged on his beard to open his mouth, then after rubbing a white powder on to his gums, took some false teeth from a tiny cedar wood box and fitted each one wherever there was a space. With his beard washed with perfumed soap and water, and neatly brushed, Henri was at last ready.

In the court of sixteenth century France, style was everything.



‘Drive across the runway but remember to give right of way to aircraft.’

We’d decided to drive down to Gibraltar for a few days break, and these were the directions for crossing over to the Rock from Spain. We certainly weren’t going to argue with a 747. Caught in a traffic jam it took us an hour before we reached customs and they just waved us through. Where all the cars went after that I’ve no idea as it really is a quiet little town with narrow streets, and very much one foot in the past.

The name Gibraltar comes from the Arabs who invaded Spain in the VIII century. As Tarik was the leader of the invading army, the rock has been known as Gibel Tarik - the mountain of Tarik, ever since. Over the years the name has changed to become Gibraltar. It became a British garrison in 1830 during the War of the Spanish Succession. Spain made two attempts during the 18th century to recapture it, without success. The first was in 1727. Another attempt was made during the American Revolution when Spain joined forces with France in the war to take the Rock. The Great Siege lasted nearly 4 years from 1779 to 1783, defended by a force of 7,000 commanded by the Governor, General Sir George Eliott. Maybe there's an idea for a novel in there somewhere.

As Gibraltar remains in British hands to this day, it is very much a place with an identity crisis: Spanish houses with their pretty iron balconies abutting Palladian architecture. A Victorian police station, red telephone boxes, the Royal Mail, and policemen in English uniforms speaking Spanish.

Irish pubs, Macdonalds and Pizza Hut, tapas bars and smart marina restaurants. M & S, Next and Dorothy Perkins opposite Moroccan silk shops and expensive Spanish jewellers. It’s all here, just take your pick. And whatever you buy can be paid for in euros or sterling.

I have to say the weather was not good. In what might be termed our taste of Britain weekend we weren’t banking on the rain too, but yes, it absolutely threw it down all Friday and much of Saturday. Undaunted we had a great time.

On New Year’s Eve we ate at 14 On the Quay, a smart restaurant on Queensway Quay. I had melon followed by rib eye steak while David had prawns then beef strogonoff. The food was excellent and reasonably priced. We might have stayed on for desert and cava but an unnecessarily loud disco started up next door, so we bailed out. We returned to our hotel in time to watch a selection of magnificent firework display from our balcony, all going on at once from different roof tops as well as the waterfront, as if vying with each other for excellence. Most impressive.

New Year’s Day, a Saturday, was closed. Yes, all shops and tourist attractions on Gibraltar were closed due to holidays. This happens throughout the year apparently, so if you visit please do avoid Sundays and bank holidays. We did manage to bribe a taxi driver to take us up the Rock, (426 metres high) and saw the apes, remembering not to feed them or go too near. There are several family groups, 300 animals in all, who are free to roam over the entire Rock.

There are siege tunnels, and underground shelters which were used during the war, guns, a cave and various other tourist sites to be seen, when open.

And the views are panoramic over southern Spain. Absolutely magnificent.

There’s the naval base, of course, now much depleted, sailing trips out to see the dolphins diving; the Trafalgar war cemetery and I believe some beaches on the far side which we didn’t explore. And if you do get rain there are cinemas and a museum for indoor entertainment. But there isn’t much to do here, so a short break is probably all it deserves. Everyone should go to Gibraltar once in a lifetime. It’s a fun experience, if only for those old red telephone boxes. But if you drive across, do watch out for Easyjet.