Never was a reckless morality so gilded with refinement of manners, elegance of dress and speech, variety of pleasures, the charm of women, the flowery politeness of correspondence, the brilliance of intellect and wit. “Never before had there been in France, nor was there in contemporary Europe, nor … has there ever been in the world since, a society so polished, so intelligent, so delightful, as French society of the eighteenth century.”25 The French, said Hume in 1741, “have in a great measure perfected that art, the most useful and agreeable of any, l’art de vivre, the art of society and conversation.”26 It was toward the end of this period that the word civilization came into use. It did not appear in Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755, nor in the Grand Vocabulaire published in thirty volumes in Paris in 1768.
The French felt especially civilized in their dress. Men quite rivaled women in the care they took with their clothes. In the upper classes fashion required them to wear a large three-cornered hat, with feathers and gold braid; but as this disturbed their wigs they usually wore it under the arm. Wigs were smaller now than under the Great King, but they were more general, even among artisans. There were twelve hundred wig shops in Paris, with six thousand employees. Hair and wig were powdered. Male hair was usually long, caught behind the neck by a ribbon or in a bag. A long coat of fancy coloring and material—generally of velvet—covered the inner’ costume, which showed a vest open at the throat, a fluffy silk shirt, a wide cravat, and sleeves spreading into ornate ruffles at the wrists. Knee breeches (culottes) were colored; stockings were of white silk, shoes were buckled with silver clasps. Courtiers, as a distinguishing mark, wore shoes with red heels. Some of them used whalebones to keep their coattails in proper spread; some wore diamonds in their buttonholes; all carried a sword, and some a cane. The wearing of a sword was forbidden to servants, apprentices, and musicians.27 The bourgeois dressed simply, in coat and culottes of plain dark cloth, with stockings of black or gray wool, and shoes with thick soles and low heels. Artisans and household help took on the discarded garments of the rich; the elder Mirabeau grumbled that he could not tell a blacksmith from a lord.
Women still enjoyed the freedom of their legs within the spacious sanctum of their farthingales. The clergy denounced as “she-monkeys” and “clerks of the Devil” the women who wore such hoopskirts, but the ladies loved them for the majesty they gave to their figures even when enceintes. Mme. de Créqui tells us, “I could not whisper to Mme. d’Egmont, because our hoops prevented our being near together.”28 Milady’s high-heeled shoes—of colored leather set off with embroidery of silver or gold—made her feet entrancing if unseen; her bootmakers rose into the upper bourgeoisie by such artistry; romances were written about a pretty foot, which was usually a pretty shoe. Almost as exciting were the flowered heelless “mules” which Milady wore at home. Useful also were the flounces, ribbons, fans, and pretintailles, or ornamental “pretties,” that caught the male’s roving eye or disguised the female’s roving form. Corsets of whalebone molded that form to fashionable shape. Enough of the bosom was shown to certify a cozy amplitude. Coiffures were low and simple; the tower hairdo waited till 1763. Cosmetics doctored hands, arms, face, and hair; but men fell little short of women in using perfume. Every ladylike face was painted and powdered, and strategically patched with beauty-spot mouches (flies) made of black silk and cut in the shape of hearts, teardrops, moons, comets, or stars. A great lady would wear seven or eight of these pasted on the forehead, on the temples, near the eyes, and at the corners of the mouth; she carried a patch-box with additional mouches in case any should fall off. A rich lady’s boudoir table shone with nécessaires— boxes of gold or silver or lapis lazuli designed to hold toiletries. Costly jewels sparkled on arms, throat, and ears, and in the hair. Favored males were admitted to the boudoir to converse with Milady as her maids equipped her for the campaigns of the day. In the aristocracy men were slaves to women, women were slaves to fashion, and fashion was determined by couturiers. Attempts to control fashion or dress by sumptuary laws were abandoned in France after 1704. Western Europe generally followed French fashions, but there was also a reverse flow: so the marriage of Louis XV with Marie Leszczyńska brought in styles à la Polonaise; the war against Austria-Hungary introduced hongrelines; and the marriage of the Dauphin to the Infanta María Teresa Rafaela (1745) restored the mantilla to popularity in France.
Meals were not as ornate as dress, but they required as subtle and varied a science, as delicate an art. French cooking was already the model and peril of Christendom. Voltaire warned his countrymen in 1749 that their heavy repasts would “eventually numb all the faculties of the mind”;29 he gave a good example of simple diet and nimble wits. The higher the class, the more was eaten; so a typical dinner at the table of Louis XV included soup, a roast of beef, a cut of veal, some chicken, a partridge, a pigeon, fruit, and preserves.30 “There are very few peasants,” Voltaire tells us, “who eat meat more than once a month.”31 Vegetables were a luxury in the city, for it was difficult to keep them fresh. Eels were in fashion. Some grands seigneurs spent 500,000 livres a year on their cuisine; one spent 72,000 on a dinner given to the King and the court. In great houses the maître d’hôtel was a person of impressive majesty; he was richly clad, wore a sword, and flashed a diamond ring. Women cooks were contemned. Cooks were ambitious to invent new dishes to immortalize their masters; so France ate filet de volaille à la Bellevue (Pompadour’s favorite palace), poulets à la Villeroi, and sauce mayonnaise which commemorated the victory of Richelieu at Mahón.32 The main meal was taken at three or four in the afternoon; supper was added at nine or ten.
Coffee now rivaled wine as a drink. Michelet must have loved coffee, for he thought that its mounting influx from Arabia, India, the island of Bourbon, and the Caribbean contributed to the exhilaration of spirit that marked the Enlightenment.33 Every apothecary sold coffee in grain or in a drink at the counter. There were three hundred cafés in Paris in 1715, six hundred in 1750, and a proportionate number in the provincial towns. At the Café Procope—called also the Cave, because it was always kept dark—Diderot spilled ideas and Voltaire came in disguise to hear comments on his latest play. Such coffeehouses were the salons of the commoners, where men might play chess or checkers or dominoes, and, above all, talk; for men had grown lonelier as city crowds had increased.
Clubs were private cafés, restricted in membership and tending to specific interests. So the Abbé Alari established (c. 1721) the Club de l’Entresol (a mezzanine in the abbé’s home) where some twenty statesmen, magistrates, and men of letters gathered to discuss the problems of the day, including religion and politics. Bolingbroke gave it its name, and so brought the word club into the French language. There the Abbé de Saint-Pierre expounded his plans for social reforms and perpetual peace; some of these worried Cardinal Fleury, who ordered the disbandment of the club in 1731. Three years later Jacobite refugees from England founded in Paris the first French Freemasonry lodge. Montesquieu joined it, and several members of the high nobility. It served as a refuge for deists and as a center of political intrigue; it became a channel of English influence, and prepared the way for the philosophes.
Bored with the round of domestic toil, men and women flocked to the promenades, dance halls, theaters, concerts, and opera; the rich took to the hunt, the bourgeoisie to fêtes champêtres. The Bois de Boulogne, the Champs-Élysées, the Jardins des Tuileries, the Luxembourg Gardens, and the Jardin des Plantes—or “Jardin du Roi,” as it was then called—were favorite resorts for carriage rides, walks, lovers’ haunts, and Easter parades. If people stayed home they amused themselves with indoor games, dances, chamber concerts, and private theatricals. Everyone danced. Ballet had become a complex and royal art, in which the King himself occasionally pranced a part. Ballet dancers like La Camargo and La Gaussin were the toast of the town and the delicacies of millionaires.