Women in Power under the Ancien Régime

FREN 303  •  Hélène Bilis

Old drawing of a woman with a very ornate hair style with many colored feathers

An image from the 18th century French almanac Le Trésor des Grâces

For their blended learning project, students in Prof. Hélène Bilis’ French 303 course, “Long Live the Queen: Women in Power Under the Ancien Régime” produced the Scalar exhibit "Between Hairstyle and History: Understanding the Engravings in Marie-Antoinette’s Almanac, Le Trésor des Graces" This online exhibit centers around an almanac published in 1779 Paris that bears on its cover the coat of arms of France’s most famous queen, Marie-Antoinette. Le Trésor des Grâces has much to reveal regarding the cultural and sociological practices of elite Parisian women of the eighteenth-century. The almanac brings into focus the queen’s tastes, which are unquestionably opulent, but have too often been derided as merely frivolous. Rather than assume that Marie-Antoinette’s penchant for intricate and lavish coiffes—the “pouf à la circonstance” or “pouf aux sentiments”—signals a shallow contribution to fashion, the students sought to track down the specifics of what the hairstyles referenced.

A careful exploration of the eleven vertical poufs in Le Trésor exposes the queen’s participation in theatrical trends of the day and her commemoration of historical events through the styling of her hair. Within each entry, students describe what 21st-century readers should note in viewing the colorful prints; they offer carefully researched explanations of the given “pouf;” and they include footnotes, as well as additional links for continued investigations of 18th century French culture.

The success of this scholarly digital project within a liberal arts college would not have been possible without the broad collaborative support FREN 303 from the Blended Learning Initiative and experts across the college’s departments. Le Trésor des Grâces was acquired for Wellesley’s Library with the generous support from Library benefactor and former Wellesley College Trustee, Lia Gelin Poorvu ’56. To enable the creation of the digital project, the almanac was digitized by the Northeast Document Conservation Center; the images were then prepared for use by the class by Marci Hahn-Fabris, digital collections librarian. Students in the class had the benefit of interacting directly with the physical object itself, under the guidance of Special Collections Curator Ruth Rogers, and they had the convenience of having full access to digital surrogates for their own research needs. Students met individually with Laura O’Brien, research and instruction librarian, to perform extensive research into diverse topics including hairstyles and fashion of the French court, theatrical performances, engraving practices, gaming, and book sales during the Enlightenment. O’Brien helped students identify key primary and reference sources for study, which she collected on the course research guide and a Zotero library.

Finally, the exhibit was produced in Scalar by Jenifer Bartle, manager of digital scholarship initiatives, using content created and gathered by the enrolled students and faculty. Tasks involved in the production of the exhibit included: processing, uploading, naming, and creating metadata for each primary and supplementary image; creating, organizing, and making pathways between individual pages of the exhibit; pasting and editing text in source/html mode in order to manage it within the correct CSS-controlled containers; and formatting paragraphs, italics, hyperlinks, notes, citations, French-style quotation marks, etc.

“Between Hairstyle and History” testifies to the ways in with Digital Humanities approaches lead to collaborations beyond the classroom walls and require a range of skills and contributors for building a successful project.