Versailles etiquette was as complicated and ornate as the furniture and artwork filling the great chambers of the French royal palace. The smallest details of life at court, including personal hygiene, were dictated, regulated, and policed. But more often than not, court etiquette at Versailles was more bizarre than it was dignified.
The palace of Versailles was meant to awe. In 1682, King Louis XIV officially moved his court to Versailles, which had previously been a royal hunting lodge used for entertaining. Louis transformed the structure into an opulent, palatial symbol of French monarchy. With its exceptional gardens, impressive hallways, and larger-than-life artwork, Louis and subsequent French kings used Versailles - which wasn't quite as glamorous as it may seem in retrospect to display their authority. From the Sun King to Marie Antoinette, Versailles was the center of the royal world - and remained so until the French Revolution changed everything.
Versailles was also a world unto itself, with a wild system of etiquette built on hierarchy and rank. The rules at Versailles were clear: every single courtier was there to lend their service to the king and become part of the elaborate court rituals that clearly defined the nobility’s place.
While it is true that Versailles rules were rigidly enforced, 17th and 18th century French etiquette could also be ridiculous. Weird French court etiquette - and not just the king - apparently ruled at Versailles.
Red Heels Were The Most Coveted Shoes At The Court
Courtiers were expected to dress the part. Perhaps the most essential costume piece were high heels for women and men alike. Louis XIV took to wearing red heels. In true Louis fashion, he decreed that only certain nobles could don rouge-heeled shoes similar to his.
Red heels thus became a symbol of nobility long before Christian Louboutin ever started designing his own.
Court Dresses Were So Heavy That Women Practiced Moving In Them So They Didn't Topple Over
Being presented to the king and queen at Versailles was one's official entrance into the royal court. As all things at Versailles, being presented was a major ordeal, and new courtiers were expected to dress the part. Full court dress was highly regulated: women had to wear heavy, long skirts over waists that were shaped by painful, unforgiving whalebone corsets. So inconvenient was court dress, that women actually had to practice moving in the ensemble.
During the all important presentation ceremony, a woman would have to curtsy several times while approaching the royal personage, which was cumbersome enough. But what really required practice was doing the same in reverse. It was highly offensive to turn your back on royalty, so it was necessary to back out of the room, all the while making sure not to trip over the long train of your dress. This could be a make-or-break moment for many women new to the court.
The expense of keeping up with fashion at Versailles was a financial burden for most courtiers, and was yet another way the king could regulate nobles through performance.
The King Observed Rank In Something As Basic As Removing His Hat To Courtiers
The language of rank and respect at Versailles was as nuanced as it was over-the-top. Though it was expected the king would remove his hat when greeting someone of sufficient rank, not all hat removals were created equal. It all came down to the person's station.
According to Tony Spawforth, "Louis XIV would doff his hat for a prince of the blood, lift it for a nobleman, and merely touch it for a gentleman."
Courtiers observed similar rules for bowing to one another, according to rank. Louis XIV was a consummate gentlemen in his daily interactions with women, however, and would always politely greet a lady no matter her station.
It Was Perfectly Acceptable For Lazy VIPs To Receive Visitors From Their Beds
Being someone of a high rank gave a few courtiers certain privileges - like not having to leave your bed to receive lower-ranking visitors. Versailles VIPs would thus meet many visitors while lying in their bed.
By the end of the 17th century, parade beds became popular at Versailles. Richly decorated, these were power objects that displayed wealth, privilege, and taste. The king's bed itself was literally at the center of Versailles, and Louis XIV often received important visitors and courtiers from his parade bedroom.