The ranting of priests against the “poison” of plunging necklines in Louis XIV’s France provoked a backlash that secured enduring freedoms in Western fashion, according to a study.
The research reveals that a Catholic secret society orchestrated a sophisticated campaign against décolletage from the 1630s-1660s. Professor Paul Scott, the author, argues that women’s resistance in the face of the concerted vitriol and victim-blaming has been forgotten but established lasting norms of acceptable dress.
According to Scott, a professor of French at the University of Kansas, décolletage is first mentioned in France in the medieval poem Le Roman de la Rose and was popular across social classes by the early 17th century. The attempted clampdown began in 1634, after an edict was issued by the Vicar General of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement targeting women who “reveal their bosoms excessively”.
According to the papers of its secretary, the Comte d’Argenson (1623-1700): “The organisation urged its members to warn any confessors they knew to correct this abuse, both in their preaching and by refusing absolution to those who did not wish to comply, especially if they were so imprudent as to approach the altar rails in this state.”
The aim: to check “this unbridled licence which disrespected God and men.”
So what was this compagnie? Scott said: “It was a very secretive ultra-Catholic group whose mission was to reform French society along Catholic principles, but to do it from within. One of the things that really marks it out is that it was a lay organisation, not controlled by clergy. It was often thought of as a conspiracy theory until its documents and registers were found in the 19th century. Then it was finally demonstrated that this organisation existed and was very organised. It held regular meetings, had motions, put social actions into effect, and was active right across France until the late 1660s. Once the queen mother died in 1666, the organisation lost its protector.”
In 1634, however, the call to arms was widely taken up. Scott, whose paper is published in The Seventeenth Century, said: “It was a very clever campaign and it explains how within a few months, we have different printed treatises. All the members of this very secretive organisation were also encouraged to suborn all the priests they knew — parish priests and others — and say, ‘This is a terrible problem and it will affect what I give in the collection plate every Sunday — please do something about it.’”
The treatises and sermons that followed vary in their vituperative content, but typically blame women for inflaming men’s lust and inspiring sin. One leading theologian, the Abbé Boileau, wrote: “… a beautiful bosom almost never inspires anything but sensual feelings and unseemly thoughts, either because it cannot show modesty, restraint, or reserve as a face could, or because it conjures up only corporeal and carnal thoughts, which weigh down the mind and firmly anchor it to sensuality.”
Parisian priest Pierre Juvernay was emphatic: “I say to you that a girl or woman revealing too much of her bosom, particularly in front of several men, as (for example) while walking through the streets, or at church, or in any other place whatsoever, categorically commits a mortal sin.”
The clerics drew on biblical and classical references. Boileau said that, in leading men into sin, women showing cleavage were not merely “the very image of guilty Eve”, but in fact surpassed her because “… Eve, criminal though she was, was ashamed of her nakedness and did not hesitate to cover it.”
Should men be driven to commit sexual assault by the sight of décolletage, it was considered by the moralists to be the woman’s fault. The Capuchin friar Louis de Bouvignes suggested that, by showing her bosom, a woman could expect to be “constantly examined and re-examined” by the lustful glances of sensual men who would seek to carry her off like birds of prey.
“A beautiful bosom almost never inspires anything but sensual feelings and unseemly thoughts”Abbé Boileau
It wasn’t only dissolute rogues that would be tempted, in Bouvigne’s view. He recounted the tale of a pious young man undone by “immodest” dress at mass. “He saw an uncovered bosom, which so filled his imagination that, after much resistance, instead of receiving communion, he gave in to temptation, and at the same time committed a mortal sin inside the church.”
In fact, the whole fabric of society was said to be at stake. Juvernay asked: “And certainly, what do we think is the cause of all of these wars, plagues, and famines that we often see in France, if not the sins that reign there, usually originating from this cursed exposure of the female breast?”
Scott said the campaign was partly a product of the Counter-Reformation — the Catholic Church’s response to the threat from Protestantism. It could also be read as a veiled critique of the court, where the Sun King was seen to be spearheading a culture of excess. While Louis XIII was said to have spat a mouthful of wine onto a woman who dared enter his presence showing cleavage, his son positively encouraged the trend, as evidenced in court portraits.
Altogether, Scott has identified around a dozen polemical treatises and hundreds of printed or manuscript sermons of the period attacking décolletage. He believes the treatises were intended to arm parish priests and the occasional paterfamilias with an arsenal of arguments. Through broad clerical involvement, he said the campaign would have affected many women in their daily lives. “Being confronted in church, especially from the pulpit, was a pretty public denigration of a popular fashion. And from what we can glean this was a very common thing.”
Women’s resistance is not recorded directly, but can be inferred. Scott said: “There is an acceleration in the intensity of these works, both in terms of arguments and in their quantity, as the century wears on. That sense of urgency implies that this was very much thought of as a battle.”
It was a battle in which clerics were personally invested. Many admitted their own susceptibility to the supposedly corrupting effects of bare bosoms. Scott said: “It occurred to me that when they were giving a sermon from the pulpit, they had a bird’s eye view. If half your congregation has décolletage, you couldn’t help but notice. In the confessional too, the priest was looking down at female penitents and would notice. So they were being confronted by this on a daily basis, all the time. Perhaps they felt that their own spiritual lives were are under attack.”
Nevertheless, Scott notes the “supreme irony” that moralists’ tracts did exactly what they purported to prevent, in obliging a largely clerical readership to imagine women’s naked bodies and dwell on their sexuality. Is it possible, then, that their tracts were intended to be titillating? Scott says: “I think it’s unintentional most of the time. It would really imply hypocrisy if it wasn’t.”
In any case, feelings ran so high that in 1670 the diocese of Tours declared: “We forbid women and girls of any social class, on pain of excommunication, to enter church and try to receive the Sacraments in this state of immodesty and indecency…”
Yet by then, according to Scott, the battle was lost. Or, rather, the décolleteuses had won. The Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement had ceased its operations after the queen mother’s death and décolletage was more popular than ever.
In his paper, Scott writes: “Despite a concerted and persistent campaign to shame them into eschewing it, women held on to décolleté and turned it into a permanent feature of dress. Since it was not uncommon to conceal money in their bosom, either in a fabric pocket or directly, a practice enabled by décolletage, the fashion also symbolised a form of financial independence.”
As with other style trends developed or popularised in France, décolletage was emulated elsewhere in Europe and farther afield. Scott said it has endured tenaciously in the Western fashion canon, even if it has been shunned on moralising grounds at certain times and in certain places.
So, is the contemporary Western acceptance of low-cut styles rooted partly in the resistance of Frenchwomen almost 400 years ago? “I don’t think partly,” said Scott. “It’s a direct lineage.”
He said the campaign had been overlooked because historians had tended, wrongly, to dismiss the tracts as the work of extremists and eccentrics. Equally, they had not identified the large number of printed and manuscript sermons on the subject.
While women’s resistance left a positive longterm legacy, he believes the rhetoric deployed against them sowed toxic seeds. “The common element that links the majority of these tracts and sermons is that it’s always the woman’s fault. We had an exhibition here a few years ago called, ‘What Were You Wearing?’ — the actual clothes people were wearing when they were victims of sexual assault. I suggest that arguments we are still having today were set in place in this 17th-century debate. Given that this was a concerted campaign with a lot of literature and sermons, it really formulated a rhetoric of victim-blaming that still endures.”
The campaign didn’t stop suddenly, but fizzled. Scott said: “It became much more sporadic and there was a resignation that this fashion may be here to stay. As time went on, there was more focus on using modesty scarves at certain times, although there was the paradox that by wearing them you weren’t only covering up, but also drawing attention to your décolletage.
“The debate changed focus in the 18th century to what constituted modest touching between men and women. Theologians went into great detail about what areas you could touch with what part of the hand for how many seconds and so on. They earned the moniker mamillary theologians.”
On a similar note, Scott believes the aftershocks of the décolletage debate inspired the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus when, in 1758, he created the taxonomic classification of “mammal”, from the Latin mammalis, ‘of the breast’. “It’s arbitrary as he could have chosen shared attributes other than breast-feeding. I suggest he was inspired by 150 years of these debates. Inadvertently, these moralists may have helped to define the term used to describe us all.”
The image at the top of the article is ‘Touch’, by Abraham Bosse, c. 1638-1640. Photo: Musée Carnavalet, via Creative Commons licence CC0 1.0