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  • Fashion in the Mercure: From Human Foible to Female Failing
  • Reed Benhamou (bio)

Despite the supposed French obsession with the subject, fashion was not often covered by the periodical press of the ancien régime. Some short-lived reviews such as Le Courrier français (1649), La Muse historique (1658–59), and Le Cabinet des nouvellistes (1728) treated the subject occasionally, but specialized journals were late in developing. Le Courrier de la nouveauté was to have been the first periodical devoted to the matter, but its 1758 prospectus did not attract subscribers, and so that distinction went to the Courrier de la mode ou Journal du goût (1768–70). The Cabinet des modes, launched in 1785 and continued under other titles until 1793, was the only such review to last more than two years. 1

An unexpected, and unexpectedly revealing, source of fashion information is the Mercure (1672–1791), which covered the topic intermittently until 1731. The source is unexpected because the Mercure is better known for its coverage of social and literary events. 2 It is unexpectedly revealing, not only because of the detailed information it provides, but also because this information is presented from radically different perspectives. In the first articles, written by Jean Donneau de Visé for Le Mercure Galant (1672–73), fashion was an amusing diversion, a foible exhibited by men as well as women. In the last, drafted by Antoine de La Roque for the Mercure de France (1726–31), fashion was a disruptive—and essentially female—failing. The contradictory messages reflect the shift in attitudes toward women that [End Page 27] occurred between the 1670s and the early Enlightenment. Because the Mercure, a leading periodical of the ancien régime, was widely read, the tendentious articles written by La Roque early in the eighteenth century may also have contributed to the later redefinition of women in which, Lieselotte Steinbrügge contends, “the sex-specific character attributed to men and women developed and diverged . . . foundations were laid for women’s exclusion from civil rights and higher education . . . and . . . an image of female nature that allowed precisely these exclusions [began] to be considered ‘natural.’” 3


Donneau launched Le Mercure Galant in 1672; La Roque took over its descendant, Le Mercure, in 1724 and renamed it the Mercure de France. Although it is plain that the later journal evolved from the first, their respective editors caused the two Mercures to differ in tone and intent. Donneau, a member of the minor nobility and raised in court circles, was an habitué of salons and at ease with galanterie; a well-regarded novelist and playwright, he wrote in an epistolary style that remains engaging even today. La Roque, son of a Marseilles négociant, came no closer to the court than his service in the Garde du Roi which cost him a leg at Malplaquet in 1709; the author of a single tragedy that closed after one performance, he had the didactic manner of the lesser philosophes. 4 In their fashion coverage, however, both emphasized town wear over court dress, and described the accessories, ribbons, jewels, furs, shoes, coats, sleeves, fabrics, colors, caps, hairstyles, and wigs popular among well-born men and women. Unlike Donneau, La Roque did not treat the decorative arts, or publish special editions on style. 5 Both acknowledged France as the fashion capital of Europe; Donneau thought this natural, La Roque found it embarrassing. 6

Perhaps in an attempt to build readership, both editors directed their articles to women. “I had promised you, Madame, to inform you of all the new styles,” Donneau wrote in 1672. 7 “If this article about fashions can interest members of that fair sex whom we wish particularly to serve, we will take every possible step to please them and deserve their attention,” La Roque said in 1726. 8 He was, here, following the example of his predecessor in more than content, for the beginning of this January editorial, composed immediately after La Roque became editor of the Mercure, is nearly identical to an early “Preface” by Donneau. 9 Unlike Donneau, however, whose writing captured the brittle wit of the salons, La Roque sought more to educate...

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