"Living Dolls":
François Ier Dresses His Women
Yassana C. Croizat
Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

In addition to portraits and diplomatic reports, Renaissance courts relied on fashion dolls to acquaint themselves with foreign dress. Unfortunately, literature on this subject is scarce and often disappointing. Overlooked by doll historians, a letter written by Federico Gonzaga (1500–40) in 1515 reveals that François Ier (1494–1547) requested a fashion doll from Isabella d'Este (1474–1539). After examining this document within the context of what is currently known about Renaissance fashion dolls, this essay explores what François Ier's interest in these objects suggests about his personality and his relationship to the women of his court.

1. Introduction

As competition among Renaissance European courts intensified, so did the pace at which clothing styles changed. Achieving sartorial supremacy was no longer simply a matter of flaunting wealth, but of following trends in order to set new ones: hence the attention paid to fashion in diplomatic reports. As informative as these eyewitness accounts were, they could hardly be used to accurately reproduce specific articles of clothing.1 Portraiture provided detailed descriptions of fashions and how they were worn, but could only supply a visual approximation of their tactile qualities. The best way to appreciate the economic and aesthetic value of a garment was by handling or viewing it in three dimensions: thus the emergence of fashion dolls. Sent as diplomatic gifts, these enabled their recipients to fully experience foreign dress styles, and thus constituted a particularly effective method of promoting trends. In addition to helping courts circulate their sartorial language abroad, fashion dolls were also esteemed as precious objects in their own right.

Unfortunately, literature on pre-eighteenth-century fashion dolls is scarce and often disappointing. Renaissance dress studies rarely mention them, let alone offer any critical insight into their meaning and purpose. [End Page 94] Some costume historians have even disputed such dolls' existence. Furthermore, although most publications devoted to the history of dolls address the subject, they tend to do so in highly problematic ways. As Juliette Peers remarks in her brief discussion of early fashion dolls, "The same stories have been repeated ceaselessly without further research. The urtext is from the hands of Max von Boehn. . . . His lengthy account is virtually without footnotes and perhaps may even refer to sources lost in the Second World War. Meanwhile his suppositions codified into fact as the twentieth century passed."2 Peers then goes on to cite a number of doll historians — including Antonia K. Fraser and, more recently, Mary Rogers — who have replicated, at times verbatim, von Boehn's account in their studies. However, Peers fails to recognize that von Boehn did some mining of his own. Indeed, much of his discussion on the early history of fashion dolls stems from Esther Singleton's Dolls and from Henri René d'Allemagne's beautifully illustrated Histoire des jouets. In turn, much of the historical evidence cited by these authors appears to have been taken from Léon de Laborde's Glossaire français du moyen âge. Scholarship on Renaissance fashion dolls thus largely rests on the few precious documents Laborde unearthed over a century ago.3

This tendency to recycle secondary texts without conducting further research explains why an important piece of evidence has escaped the attention of doll historians. In 1896 Alessandro Luzio and Rodolfo Renier published a lengthy essay, entitled "Il Lusso di Isabella d'Este," that brought to light a wealth of documents regarding the marchesa's beauty secrets and fashion expertise (fig. 1).4 As proof of Isabella's international reputation as an authority on such matters, the authors cited a letter written by her son, Federico Gonzaga, on behalf of François Ier.5 Dated 19 [End Page 95]

Titian. Isabella d'Este, 1534–36. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
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Figure 1
Titian. Isabella d'Este, 1534–36. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
[End Page 96]

November 1515, it states: "My Illustrious and Exalted Lady, Most Revered Mother and Lady, Monsignor de Moretta has told me that the King wishes My Lady to send him a doll dressed in the fashions that suit you of shirts, sleeves, undergarments, outer garments, dresses, headdresses, and hairstyles that you wear; sending various headdress styles would better satisfy his Majesty, for he intends to have some of these garments made to give to the women in France. Therefore, would you be so kind to send this and as soon as possible."6 In sum, Isabella's elegance was such that the King of France requested she send him a doll dressed in her favorite fashions so that he could have them copied for his court. In her response, the marchesa warned François that he would learn nothing new from the doll she would send him: "To satisfy the wish of His Most Christian Majesty, we will gladly have a doll made and dressed in all the fashions we wear on our body and on our head, although his Majesty will not see anything new, for the styles we wear are equally worn in Milan by the Milanese ladies."7 Given her penchant for creating new fashions, particularly elaborate headdresses, Isabella's seemingly modest reply was probably motivated by a desire to protect her trademark look.8

Publications devoted to François Ier generally ignore these letters, either inadvertently or perhaps because they are deemed too trivial or unmasculine to mention.9 After all, what could the king's desire for a fashion doll [End Page 97] dressed à l'Isabelle reveal beyond his admiration for Italian chic? Why bother to focus on this seemingly minor anecdote when his reign was punctuated by so many significant political, religious, and cultural events? Yet Federico Gonzaga's letter not only constitutes a major contribution to the study of fashion dolls: it also provides key insight into François Ier's personality. After examining this document in the context of what is currently known about Renaissance fashion dolls, this essay will consider what the king's interest in these objects suggests about his relationship to the women of his court.

2. Documentary Evidence of Renaissance Fashion Dolls

Documents traditionally cited as proof of the early use of fashion dolls are far less informative, and far more difficult to interpret, than the letters exchanged by Federico Gonzaga and Isabella d'Este. The earliest of these documents is a payment record from the accounts of Charles VI of France (1368–1422). In 1396 Robert de Varennes, embroiderer and valet de chambre to Isabeau de Bavière (1370/71–1435), received 496 livres 16 sols for "dolls and their wardrobes for the Queen of England."10 The dolls' great cost and their creation by someone intimately familiar with French court dress have led doll historians to conclude that these were indeed fashion dolls. However, doll-related publications addressing this document generally fail to specify the identity of the English queen at this time.11 In 1396 [End Page 98] King Richard II wed the daughter of Charles VI and Isabeau de Bavière, the nine-year-old Isabelle de Valois (1387–1410). The dolls were thus a present from the French royal couple to their daughter, and while they may have been intended to help Isabelle spread French fashions at the English court, they were surely also meant to amuse the young queen.

As for the size of the dolls and their wardrobe, von Boehn and Singleton argue that, given their cost, they must have been made to the English queen's measure.12 If this theory is correct, these were not dolls per se but rather dress-figures or mannequins, raising the question of what is meant by poupée. Derived from the Latin pupa, -ae ("little girl," "doll," "figurine," and "nipple") in the thirteenth century the term referred to a drawing, model, or statuette.13 By the late fourteenth century poupée had also acquired the meaning of "a child's doll." In light of its etymology, the term is probably used here to designate small figures. Instead of having anything to do with size, the large sum paid to de Varennes may sim-ply reflect the quantity and quality of the dolls and their wardrobes. Furthermore, since de Varennes was an embroiderer, we may assume the dolls were made of cloth rather than of wood or clay.

A century later, François Ier's future mother-in-law, Anne de Bretagne (1477–1514), ordered "a large doll to send to the Queen of Spain."14 That it was deemed necessary to qualify the doll as "large" suggests this was unusual, lending credence to the argument that small figures were typically given as royal gifts.15 Moreover, large does not necessarily imply adult-size; the doll could easily have been the size of a toddler, as is the one appearing in a seventeenth-century Dutch illustration of a doll-merchant's stall (fig. 2). Whatever its size, the doll was remade, perhaps because it failed to [End Page 99]

Anonymous artist after Adriaen van de Venne. Dolls' stall, illustration in Jacob Cats, Spiegel van den ouden ende nieuwen tijdt, The Hague, 1632. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Library Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap.
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Figure 2
Anonymous artist after Adriaen van de Venne. Dolls' stall, illustration in Jacob Cats, Spiegel van den ouden ende nieuwen tijdt, The Hague, 1632. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Library Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap.
[End Page 100]

meet Anne's approval.16 The French queen may have felt its garments insufficiently elegant to impress Isabella the Catholic (1451–1504), known to have been particularly fussy about her appearance.

These payment records yield little information beyond the dolls' status as gifts. Federico Gonzaga's letter is far more informative. Not only does he list the various garments and accessories in which François's doll was to be outfitted, he also unequivocally states the king's intention of having these fashions copied for the ladies of his court. In this case, then, the doll was clearly intended to model samples of Isabella d'Este's favorite styles. That Federico asked for a puva (doll) without specifying its appearance indicates he assumed his mother would have known what he was referring to, suggesting that such requests were not unusual. In fact, Isabella d'Este received at least one other similar request, this time from her younger son Ferrante (1507–57), then attached to Charles V's (1500–58) court: "I am troubled by some of the queen's ladies-in-waiting to have a doll sent to them from Italy dressed entirely in the manner you attire yourselves there. For this reason, I implore Your Excellency to commission and send such a doll, with some other accessories for women, such as headdresses, to give to the Lady Donna Magdalena Manricha, one of the ladies of the aforementioned queen."17 Equally ignored by doll-related publications, Ferrante's letter differs from his brother's in one significant respect: it was written on behalf of Eleanor of Austria's (1498–1558) ladies-in-waiting rather than for Charles V himself.18 In this instance, then, the request for a doll came from the women who would be wearing the fashions, rather than from the ruler whose court they graced. Federico Gonzaga's letter thus attests to François Ier's personal involvement in dictating his ladies' attire.

The Gonzaga letters are silent as to the dolls' size, although puva, like its French equivalent poupée, was used to designate small objects. Fur-thermore, since little dolls were commonly employed to promote court [End Page 101] fashions in later centuries, there is no reason to believe this practice was not already in effect by the early sixteenth century.19 Life-sized mannequins would have been far less practical to ship, and would have served only to model clothes, while a miniature fashion doll could be kept as a collectable or be recycled as a toy once it had served its didactic purpose.

3. The Fate of Fashion Dolls upon Their Receipt

References to fashion dolls in royal inventories suggest they were considered worthy of keeping once they had fulfilled their initial function. For example, two dolls sporting elaborate brials (dresses with fitted sleeves) under mantillas (outer garments often lined with fur) were listed among Queen Juana of Spain's (1479–1555) possessions at the time of her death.20 Along with chess games, devotional objects, and other mementos, Catherine de' Medici (1519–89) kept fourteen dolls dressed in mourning and "as ladies" in her personal cabinet at the Hôtel de la Reine.21

In addition to being preserved by adults, used fashion dolls may also have been offered to young girls as gifts. An anonymous portrait of Arabella Stuart (1575–1615: fig. 3) is most often cited in support of this theory, for it shows the two-year-old girl clutching an intricate doll dressed in fashions of the previous decade.22 Lucas Cranach the Younger's (1515–86) portrait [End Page 102]

Anonymous artist. Arabella Stuart, 1577. Chesterfield, Hardwick Hall.
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Figure 3
Anonymous artist. Arabella Stuart, 1577. Chesterfield, Hardwick Hall.

of Marie of Saxony (1562–66) shows the young princess holding an equally sophisticated toy.23 Here, however, the doll is dressed in a mature version [End Page 103] of her owner's outfit.24 Both wear gold chain-link necklaces and crimson velvet gowns with similarly puffed sleeves and ruffled cuffs. While Marie wears a youthful bonnet and apron, the doll is given an elaborate coiffure and ruff, accessories appropriate for a noblewoman. Since Marie's doll is clad in Saxon attire, we may assume it was not a gift from a foreign court, but rather the product of a local doll-maker.

In the later sixteenth century, Native American children also appear to have inherited elegantly dressed dolls from English settlers, who may have brought them to the colonies to facilitate dressmaking. In 1590 the folio edition of Thomas Hariot's A Briefe and true report of the new foundland of Virginia was published in Frankfurt, with engravings by Theodore de Bry.25 The engravings were based on a series of watercolors, executed by John White between 1585 and 1587, representing the fauna, flora, and na-tive peoples of Virginia.26 One of these watercolors depicts the wife of a Pomeiock chief, whose daughter holds a doll clad in English fashions. In de Bry's engraving, which was accompanied by a caption describing Pomeiock women's sartorial habits, the details of the doll's outfit are easier to see (fig. 4). Shown from the back, she is entirely swathed in fabric — even her neck is concealed by a ruffled collar and the brim of her hat — thus offering a striking contrast to the nakedness (inevitably construed by comtemporary viewers as uncivilized, savage, and primitive) of the young girl carrying her. These images suggest that settlers may have handed out such dolls to the Native Americans they encountered, not only as amusing gifts, but also as a means of encouraging them to develop a taste for more proper — that is, European — attire.

Since a number of portraits and prints show girls toting dolls dressed [End Page 104] in exquisite replicas of women's fashions, one may wonder what distinguished these toys from the fashion dolls that were exchanged as diplomatic gifts. The only way to differentiate between the two is by their function, seldom an easy task since dolls were also used to acquaint aristocratic children with foreign dress styles. For instance, in 1492 King Fernando of Spain (1451–1516) sent a Christmas present to his young daughters in Barcelona of three dolls dressed in Valencian fashions. In addition to wearing chemises, underskirts, and velvet and cebtì (Spanish silk) dresses, the dolls were trimmed in trançats, a type of braid-casing favored in Valencia.27 Some forty years later Charles V ordered a doll from Paris as a gift for his daughter, possibly to familiarize her with the fashions favored at the court of his main rival, François Ier.28 Once again, whether these objects differed from the fashion dolls given to adults is difficult to assess and largely irrelevant, since they performed the same educational function.

Theodore de Bry. A Noblewoman of Pomeiock, engraving from Thomas Hariot's A Briefe and true report of the new foundland of Virginia, Frankfurt, 1590. New York, The New York Public Library.
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Figure 4
Theodore de Bry. A Noblewoman of Pomeiock, engraving from Thomas Hariot's A Briefe and true report of the new foundland of Virginia, Frankfurt, 1590. New York, The New York Public Library.
[End Page 105]

That fashionable dress was considered the defining feature of luxury toy dolls may be gleaned from a description of those offered to François Ier's children by the city of Paris in 1528: "To a doll-maker, for a carriage with four wheels gilded in fine gold, with two horses covered in hair, sporting velvet harnesses adorned with bits, knobs, and golden studs with buckles; in said carriage, there was a lady seated on a chair, dressed in a gown of gold cloth open in the front, lined with crimson purple velvet, and in a coat of silver cloth and a black velvet shell, the crimson satin underside of which was embroidered with Cyprian gold, and the hems of the silver cloth were embroidered with pearls. Item, there was also in said carriage another lady of smaller size, equally seated on a chair, dressed in a gown of silver cloth lined with crimson velvet, open in the front, and in a shell of gold cloth, made in the Italian manner, lined with crimson velvet and slashed, and fastened with laces made of silver thread, the edges, hems and underside of which were made in the same manner as above."29

While this payment record provides a detailed account of the dolls' clothing, no other mention is made of their appearance, suggesting that the quality of dress was the main criterion for determining their value. Judging from this remarkably precise description, the dolls' garments were not only luxurious, but trendy too. The smaller "lady" even sported a coat of gold cloth in the "Italian manner," indicating that by this date Parisian poupeliers (doll-makers) outfitted toy dolls with foreign styles. How accurate a copy this coat may have been is difficult to determine, but it is nonetheless interesting to note that both François and his children would have owned dolls dressed à la mode d'Italie.

Of course, such delicate toys were not meant to be vigorously played with, but rather admired and carefully handled. In addition to delighting aristocratic children, they served to instill within them an appreciation of clothing's economic and symbolic value. Dolls not only instructed young girls on how to wear garments, they also showed them that a carefully [End Page 106] contrived attire could project a powerful image even when displayed on an inanimate object. In other words, these dolls would have been instrumental in encouraging girls to rely on their appearance as a primary mode of expression.

4. Extant Dolls

Pre-eighteenth-century dolls are extremely rare and often difficult to classify. Nevertheless, a few delicately outfitted examples survive in an extraordinary state of preservation and are therefore useful for assessing the appearance of Renaissance fashion dolls.

Although a pair of beautifully-dressed dolls identified in the 1870s as examples of French Renaissance craftsmanship have since been dismissed as fakes, others may be securely dated to the sixteenth century.30 Among these is a mechanical doll said to be of Spanish origin, now located in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum (fig. 5). Executed in the second half of the sixteenth century, the doll possesses an internal mechanism that enables it to play a tiny cittern and to move in time with the music.31 Although an automaton, this charming figure nonetheless gives us an idea of what high-quality, sixteenth-century miniature fashions might have looked like. Measuring forty-four centimeters in height, the doll sports a luxurious dress [End Page 107] and a cape made of ochre-colored linen and silk brocade with a patterned red border. An elegant headdress in matching colors completes the outfit and draws attention to the figure's delicately painted features.

Automaton, second half of the sixteenth century. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
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Figure 5
Automaton, second half of the sixteenth century. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Stockholm's Royal Armory harbors another doll in remarkable condition, dated ca. 1585–90 (fig. 6). Instead of painted wood, her head is composed of embroidered fabric and human hair, while her body consists of a wire armature designed to support her outfit.32 She is dressed in the height of late sixteenth-century fashion in a velvet and silk gown trimmed with lace and seed pearls, with matching muff and hair ornaments. Despite her small size (fifteen centimeters in height), this dainty lady wears such [End Page 108] meticulous replicas of contemporary garments that she may well have served as a fashion doll.

Fashion doll (?), ca. 1585–90. Stockholm, Livrustkammaren.
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Figure 6
Fashion doll (?), ca. 1585–90. Stockholm, Livrustkammaren.

Since cloth could easily be affixed to them, wire frames were likely to have been a common feature of fashion dolls. The rest of their bodies might [End Page 109] have been composed of wood and have been articulated, as in the case of the dolls appearing in the portraits of Arabella Stuart and Marie of Saxony.33 Heads and arms could also have been made of wax or papier-mâché, the latter especially popular in France. However, working with these materials would have required special technical skills, while fabric dolls such as the one in Stockholm could easily have been manufactured by court dressmakers without the assistance of professional doll-makers. Fabric dolls would also have been sturdier, lighter, and therefore easier to transport, than their sculpted counterparts.

5. The Manufacture of Renaissance Fashion Dolls

Payment records pertaining to Isabeau de Bavière's and Anne de Bretagne's commissions suggest that fashion dolls were initially ordered from court dressmakers rather than professional doll-makers — hardly surprising, since the former would have had a more thorough knowledge of up-to-date royal dress. When exactly the manufacture of these objects became the prerogative of professional doll-makers has yet to be determined, although in the seventeenth century the export of fashion dolls became a full-fledged industry in France and England.

The situation in Italy is even more obscure. By the fifteenth century Florentine craftsmen had emerged as leading manufacturers of richly dressed religious dolls, but whether they lent their talents to the making of fashion dolls has yet to be established.34 Unfortunately, the Gonzaga letters give no indication from whom Isabella d'Este commissioned her dolls. However, since they were intended to model precise copies of her favorite fashions, she probably ordered them from her personal dressmaker.

It is also worth noting that Parisian poupetiers were listed among the artists employed at Fontainebleau in the royal building accounts for the period 1537–40. A payment record dated 1539 specifies that they [End Page 110] collaborated with painters on "composite works of earth, paper, and plaster" in preparation for Charles V's arrival at Fontainebleau in the same year.35 In his Glossaire, Léon de Laborde affirms that the term poupetier refers here to ornemanistes: that is, to artists who specialized in the making of stucco and papier-mâché decorations.36 Following Laborde's lead, Guy-Michel Leproux suggests that these decorations must have been destined for theatrical representations or for masquerades.37 Yet as we have seen, by the beginning of the sixteenth century the words poupetier or poupelier were clearly used to designate makers of beautifully-dressed dolls. Does this mean, as Michel Manson asks, that the profession of poupetier encompassed the fabrication of dolls as well as of masks and of other theatrical props?38 This seems likely, given that during this period papier-mâché was used not only for the creation of ephemera but also for dolls' heads, as we see in a late seventeenth-century German engraving which shows a doll-maker and his assistant manufacturing dolls' heads in a workshop containing finished masks and other ephemera (fig. 7).39 Could it be that in addition to decorations, these poupetiers made dolls during their stay at Fontainebleau? In his efforts to win over his rival, François Ier may have also hired these artists to create fashion dolls, perhaps in collaboration with royal dressmakers, as gifts for the women of Charles V's court.

6. The Elusive Male Fashion Doll

Extant evidence suggests that dolls were used exclusively for the promotion of female attire. Yet elite menswear was equally subject to sudden, and at times drastic, changes, particularly during the first half of the sixteenth century. Men's fashions also easily competed with, and often surpassed, women's in complexity and ostentation. The slashing trend that spread [End Page 111]

Engraving no. 59 in Christoph Weigel, Abbildung der gemein-nützlichen Haupstä von denen Regenten und ihren so in Frieden als Kriegs-Zeiten zugeordeten Bedienten an bisz auf alle Künstler und Handwerker, Regensburg, 1698. New York, The New York Public Library.
Click for larger view
Figure 7
Engraving no. 59 in Christoph Weigel, Abbildung der gemein-nützlichen Haupstä von denen Regenten und ihren so in Frieden als Kriegs-Zeiten zugeordeten Bedienten an bisz auf alle Künstler und Handwerker, Regensburg, 1698. New York, The New York Public Library.
[End Page 112]

through Europe in the early 1500s is a prime example of this, since it was taken to a far more extravagant extreme in men's garments than in women's.40 Since a fashionable appearance was central to the male persona, we may wonder why men would have refrained from using fashion dolls. We cannot exclude the possibility that such a practice existed for men and that we are simply lacking evidence of it today. Male aristocrats are known to have collected dolls and their accessories by the early seventeenth century, although this pastime may have originated earlier.41 Could it be, then, that the practice of using a doll as a tool for constructing one's appearance was perceived as feminine? Interacting with dolls was considered acceptable for boys and men as long as they did so in a manner that allowed them to function as active subjects: for example, in the acts of playing and collecting. Girls, on the other hand, were expected to learn from dolls how to dress and how to be caring and nurturing, qualities essential for marriage and motherhood.42 In other words, men may have refrained from using dolls to acquaint themselves with sartorial trends because reliance on these objects as didactic devices had feminine connotations.

7. Women as Sartorial Trendsetters

If fashion dolls were used exclusively to promulgate feminine fashions, they are likely to have been more commonly exchanged by women, a theory largely supported by the documentary evidence presented above. As a means of communication between women about women, fashion dolls would have functioned as objects of feminine empowerment. In addition to expanding its sender's sphere of influence, the fashion doll would have acted as a tangible sign of her status as a leader, as someone possessing enough wealth, taste, and independence not only to create new modes of sartorial expression, but to effectively promote them as well. For the [End Page 113] recipient, such a gift would have been perceived as an invitation to share in its sender's sartorial identity, thereby creating a special bond between the two. By acquainting the recipient with novel styles, the fashion doll would also have enabled her to become a trendsetter within her own circle, thus heightening her prestige. Considered within this context, the fashion doll emerges as a conduit for forging a network of female relations based on the exchange and appropriation of sartorial signs of feminine power and cultural sophistication.

A systematic study of how Renaissance women invented, circulated, and used fashions to consolidate their authority has yet to be made. There can be little doubt, however, that being a fashion arbiter was perceived as a mark of leadership and was thus a particularly important trait for women in powerful positions to cultivate. Responding to her daughter's fears of appearing hopelessly out-of-date after a long absence from court, Catherine de' Medici remarked: "it is you who invents and produces beautiful ways of dressing and wherever you shall go, the Court will emulate you and not you the Court."43 Through these words, Catherine was reminding Margot that it was a queen's duty to instigate trends and to act as a model of sartorial elegance. Doing so was a means for her to instill desire — the desire to look, to imitate, and to please — in others and, therefore, to secure a strong following.

No one seems to have understood this idea more than Isabella d'Este, whose beauty secrets were solicited by women all over Europe, women such as the Queen of Poland, Bona Sforza, who once referred to the marchesa as "the source and origin of all the loveliest fashions in Italy."44 As we have seen, even the ladies-in-waiting attached to Charles V's court were eager to copy Isabella's style, and thus requested a fashion doll from her via Ferrante Gonzaga. While such demands may have flattered the marchesa, she was highly selective about with whom she shared her expertise. When Federigo Gonzaga wrote to Isabella asking her to send some of her scented hand-creams to François Ier's first wife, Claude de France (1499–1524), he received three jars along with the following reply: "We are pleased to supply the Said Queen and Madam [the Duchess of Lansone, her sister] with our recipe [for scented cream] but to tell the truth, we do not wish to undertake [End Page 114] this for other women."45 Thus Isabella d'Este reminded her interlocutors that she did not engage in the creation and distribution of cosmetics as a professional enterprise, but rather as a courtesy for an elite group of women. The marchesa may have been willing to share something as personal and unique as her perfumed lotions with the Queen of France and her sister, but diplomacy did not require her to extend the same service to others of lower standing.46 In this manner, Isabella sought to protect her signature scent, to ensure that it would be worn only by the highest members of the royal family and that it would therefore preserve its cachet.

The marchesa's desire to regulate the circulation of her sartorial and cosmetic creations may explain the manner in which she responded to François Ier's request for a fashion doll. Rather than having anything to do with modesty, Isabella's insistence that "his Majesty [would] not see anything new" in the doll she would send him suggests a reluctance to share her fashions under these particular circumstances. Had the request come from the women of François Ier's court, Isabella could have imposed certain restrictions regarding how and by whom her favorite fashions were worn. Since, however, the demand came from the king himself, the marchesa's only option from a political standpoint was to satisfy his wish without constraints, even though this meant relinquishing control over the dissemination of her fashions.47 Thus, by requesting a fashion doll from Isabella d'Este for the purpose of impressing her style on his ladies, François Ier disrupted the pattern of exchange and appropriation of feminine sartorial signs described above. In this context, the doll no longer functioned as an invitation from one woman to another to share in her sartorial identity and its political and cultural meanings. Instead, it became a tool enabling François Ier to project his desires and ambitions onto the women of his court, so that their appearance effectively became representative of his identity.

8. François Ier and Isabella d'Este: The Fashion Doll as Fetishistic Substitute

Writing to Federico Gonzaga, the Cremonese courtier Giovanni Musso remarked that when Isabella d'Este visited Lyon "all the men and women [End Page 115] rushed to their doors and windows and onto the streets and stared in amazement at her Highness's fashions and those of her ladies-in-waiting; and many women from here say that our fashions are much more beautiful than theirs."48 In light of the sensation that the marchesa created wherever she went, it is hardly surprising François chose her as a sartorial model for the women of his court, although he may have had other motives beyond updating their appearance when he commissioned a fashion doll from Isabella d'Este.

François coveted feminine beauty in all its forms. He collected attractive mistresses much in the same way he acquired painted and sculpted representations of beautiful women, such as Raphael (1483–1520) and Giulio Romano's (1499–1546) famous portrait of the Vice-Queen of Naples, Isabel de Requensens i Enriquez de Cardona-Anglesoda (1518).49 Ordering a doll dressed à l'Isabelle would have been a way for François to acquire a component of her beauty, to own a piece of a woman celebrated throughout Europe for her elegance and wit. The king would thus have possessed a miniature reminder of the marchesa's dashing silhouette, and have used it to mould his female courtiers in her image, thereby suffusing his surroundings with her presence. More than a purveyor of foreign fashions, the doll would have served as a fetishistic substitute for a woman the king admired but could not possess.50

To understand how François Ier may have experienced this gift in this manner it is necessary to consider how the relationship between individuals and objects in precapitalist societies differed from the one that has emerged in modern Western economies. As Jones and Stallybrass remark in their discussion of fetishism in precapitalist versus capitalist societies: "Capitalism could, indeed, be defined as the mode of production which, in [End Page 116] fetishizing the commodity, refuses to fetishize the object. In capitalist societies, to love things is something of an embarrassment. Things are, after all, 'mere' things. To accumulate things is not to give them life. It is because things are not fetishized that, in capitalist societies, they remain theoretically lifeless."51 The commodity has become central to the survival of this system because it is precisely what the object is not: readily exchangeable and easily substituted according to the impulses of the market in which it circulates.

In defetishizing the object, capitalism has created an unbridgeable gap between individuals and things, and reinforced the polarity between the living and the inanimate, the personal and impersonal. In prior, and in alternate, systems — those which are not propelled by the exchange of commodities within a fast-paced, self-regulated market — this gap tends to be erased as the fetishizing of the object poses no economic threat and, in fact, becomes an essential component of its value. As Mauss demonstrates in The Gift, his fundamental anthropological study of gift-giving, in precapitalist exchanges, objects are not "indifferent things": they have "a name, a personality, a past."52 Thought to possess a soul, these things are believed to be part of the soul and thus "it follows that to make a gift of something to someone is to make a present of some part of yourself."53 The idea that there exists an inextricable link between the gift and its giver is important because it reinforces the notion that in giving something an individual is literally making a pledge of himself to the recipient, who perceives the act as such. Although based on his observations of Pacific Island societies, Mauss's arguments are equally useful for understanding the gift-giving culture of sixteenth-century European countries such as France, whose economy rested on a system of reciprocity and gift redistribution in addition to bartering and local market sales. In examining the nature and significance of "the spirit of gifts" exchanged in France during this period, Davis shows how belief in the bond between individuals and their possessions was equally embedded within this culture, so much so that "to make [End Page 117] gifts, things must be individual or 'private' enough to be given away."54 Dressed in miniature replicas of the fashions Isabella d'Este created and wore, the doll she sent to François Ier would have been charged with the memory of her personality and body. This gift would thus have been private enough to be worth giving and, therefore, to establish a particular connection between Isabella and the king. In turn, rather than perceiving the doll as a gift from her, François would have seen it as a gift of her: as an extension of Isabella's being.55

9. François Ier Dresses his Women

François Ier's penchant for dressing his female courtiers was partly motivated by political concerns. At the time of his accession, the French royal court was still rooted in medieval traditions. François realized that his success as a ruler largely depended on his ability to transform this dusty relic into a gem dazzling enough to command the respect of allies and enemies alike. Using modern Italian courts as his model, the king set out to create an institution where polished manners and intellectual pursuits prevailed. In addition to enhancing his court's cultural sophistication, François sought to heighten its visual impact through various means, including significantly increasing the number of women in his entourage and taking an active interest in shaping their image.56 Indeed, the king [End Page 118] recognized that a court that included a substantial and alluring female contingent was a powerful diplomatic weapon.57

According to the Venetian ambassador Marino Cavalli, by the end of his reign François Ier was spending three times more on his female courtiers' pensions than on building.58 This hardly seems an exaggeration when one examines the king's accounts, which not only list the extravagant sums he spent on his ladies' wardrobes, but also provide descriptions of the materials used for their confection. For example, a payment record dated 3 October 1538 states "221 aulnes of purple and crimson velvet to make twenty-two dresses for the service of twenty-two ladies, who are: Mainmillon, Myoland, Béatrix Pachecque, Torcy, Le Brueil, Mauvoysin, Monchenu, La Ferté, Lussinge, Tumbes, Boninceroy, Le Boys, La Chapelle, from the Queen's household; Heilly, Tallard, La Baulme, la jeune Maupas, Albanye, Brissac, Magdeleine, Katherine, Marguerite, from the household of My Ladies, in the amount of eleven aulnes for the said Torcy and ten aulnes for each of the others, at a cost of 14 livres per aulne, the sum of 3,094 l."59 The [End Page 119] reader may recognize Heilly as the maiden name of François's second official mistress, the duchesse d'Étampes (1508–80: fig. 8). Torcy was probably larger than the other ladies, since she received an extra aulne of velvet. Additional payment records indicate the gowns were lined with white taffeta and embellished with silver cloth and thread for an additional 1,662 livres.60 Each of the ladies' dresses thus cost approximately 216 livres, roughly the equivalent of a Fontainebleau painter's yearly salary.61 Although generous, this gift pales in comparison to others listed in the king's accounts. For instance, on 7 October of the same year Madame de Canaples, one of François's favorite mistresses, received 1,273 livres worth of gold cloth and taffeta for the creation of two dresses.62 Of course, such magnificent garments required equally dazzling accessories. To complete their look, François provided his ladies with velvet shoes, hats, feathers, furs, and jewelry.

Writing of the Abbey de Thélème's inhabitants, based by Rabelais (1494–1553) on François's courtiers, Lance Donaldson-Evans remarks that they are "in fact vacuous and static fashion dolls like those which were exchanged by the courts of Europe."63 The extent to which François perceived the women of his court as fashion dolls, as objects serving to display his wealth and good taste, is suggested not only by the king's paying for his female courtiers' wardrobe, but also by his personally selecting what they wore.64 In a letter to Isabella d'Este dated 11 July 1516, Stazio Gadio, Federico Gonzaga's secretary, provides the following description of a banquet hosted by the king: "That Sunday, the king threw a banquet and feast and had fourteen ladies dressed in the Italian manner, with rich garments that his Majesty brought from Italy. Twelve of the ladies were in the queen's service and two in the service of Madame de Bourbon; among those of the queen was Mademoiselle de Châteaubriant, Monsieur de Lautrec's sister, dressed in a gown of [End Page 120]

  Attributed to Corneille de Lyon. Anne d'Heilly, dame de Pisseleu, duchesse d' Étampes, undated. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.197). Photograph, all rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Click for larger view
Figure 8
Attributed to Corneille de Lyon. Anne d'Heilly, dame de Pisseleu, duchesse d' Étampes, undated. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.197). Photograph, all rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

dark crimson velvet embroidered all over with gold chains bearing silver plaquettes well placed within the chains, on which were inscribed devices."65 [End Page 121] Thus, in addition to requesting a fashion doll from Isabella d'Este, François brought back garments from his Italian travels and dressed his ladies in them to enhance his banquet's visual appeal. Gadio pays particular attention to the toilette of Françoise de Foix, comtesse de Châteaubriant (1494–1537). As the king's first official mistress, her attire was probably more spectacular than that of her fellow ladies-in-waiting.66

As much as François Ier admired Italian fashions, he despised Spanish ones. In fulfillment of the Treaty of Cambrai (1529) the king grudgingly married Charles V's sister, Eleanor, whose Castilian fashions enjoyed popularity at the French court. Fearful of seeing his entourage drown in a sea of puffed sleeves, the king discouraged his ladies from wearing Spanish dress unless they were native to that country.67 François may even have been responsible for convincing Eleanor to abandon her sartorial roots.68 Eager to assert her nationality, the queen elected to wear Spanish attire for her first French triumphal entry and in her early official portraits.69 However, [End Page 122] As Wilson-Chevalier argues, images dating from the later thirties and early forties, such as Léonard Limosin's enamel portrait of 1536 (Ecouen, Musée de la Renaissance), reveal that by then Eleanor's appearance had acquired a distinctly French flair, as she is shown wearing the type of headdress, high collar, and flattened hairdo favored in her adopted country.70 Given that seeing the Queen of France parade about in Spanish dress must have been a constant reminder of his defeat at the hands of Charles V, François is likely to have urged this transformation. The king may not have had a choice in marrying Eleanor, but he could hasten her assimilation and help curtail the spread of Spanish influence at his court by encouraging her to adopt French fashions.

In flaunting his elegantly groomed women at court, François not only sought to impress his guests, but to entice them as well. Displayed among lavish goods, painted, perfumed, and fashionably dressed, these women acted as reminders that beauty and the funds necessary to sustain it were within the reach of those who proved their loyalty to the king.71 While surrounding himself with alluring female courtiers may have been a tactical move on François's part, it also satisfied his personal desires.72

The king's need for women attracted much criticism from his contemporaries, such as Jean de Saulx-Tavannes's famous declaration "Alexander sees women when he has no business to tend to, François tends to business when he has no women to see."73 Such an accusation is hardly surprising, given the lengths to which the king went in order to indulge his [End Page 123] amorous pursuits, including reorganizing the court's routine so he could schedule more time in the company of women.74 According to the Bishop of Saluzzo, François Ier systematically housed his hunting expeditions in small châteaux, knowing that court custom required that women had priority over men when it came to sleeping accommodations.75 Having forced his potential competitors to find lodging elsewhere — preferably several miles away — the king was free to spend an evening enjoying the undivided attention of lavishly attired women.

François's decision to increase the number of women in his entourage and to dictate their appearance was thus clearly motivated by profoundly personal as well as political concerns. In a monologue describing man's capacity to love, a character from L'Heptaméron (1558) declares: "a child, depending on his age, loves apples, pears, dolls, and other little things, the most his eye can take in, and perceives wealth as the act of accumulating little pebbles, but as he grows older, he loves living dolls and accumulates the possessions necessary for human life."76 Whether or not Marguerite de Navarre had her brother François in mind when she wrote this, he appears to have perceived certain women of his entourage as poupines vives (living dolls) for him to dress up, parade in public, and amuse himself with in private.

The extent to which François viewed his petite bande (band of ladies) as a collection of playthings may be gleaned from a story related in Brantôme's Recueil des Dames (1587).77 As entertainment, the king reportedly called upon his magician, Gonin, to make his most beautiful female courtiers suddenly materialize, naked and posed.78 Brantôme may not be [End Page 124] the most reliable source, but — given the king's penchant for risqué subject matter and staged illusions — it is highly likely he would have orchestrated such an event.79 By displaying his women in this manner, François would not only have provided his guests with a provocative and amusing spectacle, but also demonstrated the scope of his authority. On a whim, the king had the power to divest these women of the very sartorial splendors he had bestowed upon them, and by doing so, strip them of their social significance. The sight of these vulnerable female bodies would, therefore, have served as a reminder to all that François could erase identities just as easily as he created them through gifts of titles, land, and money. Having used their clothed bodies to promote his wealth and power, François would thus have appropriated their nudity for the same purpose — and, in doing so, taken their objectification to a new level.

Compelling women to surrender their bodies to a collective voyeuristic gaze meant obliging them to transgress rules of feminine propriety and, therefore, to temporarily relinquish their place in civilized society.80 In exposing and marginalizing his women in this manner, François would have further proven the extent to which they were his possessions, to do with as he pleased. In addition to shaping their appearance and manners, he could violate their modesty by publicly flaunting what lay beneath their sartorial armor, in the way a child might undress a doll and eagerly reveal its anatomical secrets (or lack thereof) to his playmates.81

10. Conclusion

At the same time François Ier was engaging in such conduct, he was also accepting the political council of, and affording significant authority to, [End Page 125] certain women of his entourage. The king was particularly attached to his mother, Louise de Savoie (1476–1531), and to his sister, Marguerite de Navarre (1492–1549). Despite their markedly different personalities, they were equally devoted to François and influenced his views on a wide range of subjects, including politics and religion. So involved was Louise in national and foreign policymaking that her detractors dubbed her the "King of France."82 Marguerite, an accomplished author and deeply devout woman, was often at her brother's side, counseling him in matters of the state and of the heart. Even when her evangelical sympathies placed her — and, by extension, François — in a precarious position, he invariably sided with her when she came under attack, despite that doing so provided his enemies with grounds for questioning his commitment to the fight against heresy.83 François equally adored his official mistresses, first Francoise de Foix, comtesse de Châteaubriant, and later Anne d'Heilly, duchesse d'Étampes, described by a foreign visitor as the "the real president of the king's most private and intimate council."84 In addition to offering these [End Page 126] women lavish gifts of jewels, titles, and land, François encouraged them to play significant roles at court. The duchesse d'Étampes not only sought to steer François's artistic choices — favoring Francesco Primaticcio (1504/05–70), she vehemently fought for Benvenuto Cellini's (1500–71) dismissal — she also succeeded in obtaining the political advancement of many of her protégés and in securing the demise of her most troublesome adversaries.85

François's willingness to yield considerable power to these women suggests he was sensitive to the notions of gender reciprocity and complimentarity evoked by Marguerite de Navarre and authors engaged in the literary debate known as la querelle des femmes (The Women Question).86 However, although he afforded certain women of his entourage a prominent voice in various matters, including those of state, the king granted his ladies little autonomy when it came to elaborating their toilette. That he took the initiative of requesting a fashion doll from Isabella d'Este demonstrates the extent to which he regarded the construction of women's physical identity as a male prerogative. In dressing his ladies according to his preference, François Ier treated them as living dolls — and, in doing so, not only satisfied his fantasies, but also asserted his right to govern one of their most valuable assets: their appearance. [End Page 127]

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