Daily bathing was not the fashion during Marie Antoinette‘s reign over France. French courtiers of the 18th century were all about sponging down the worst where necessary and saving baths for warm weather and emergencies. In fact, bathing was such a luxury that only wealthy nobles had bathing facilities in their own homes. Everyone else had either a bucket and sponge in front of the fire or would make use of public bathhouses, which provided hot tubs of water for a fee.
The French reluctance to bathe stemmed from a centuries-old fear that bathing was unhealthy. Medical experts (to use the phrase loosely) at the Sorbonne in Paris declared that warm water opened pores, increasing the likelihood of catching a disease. This fear of bathing and hot water would persist until the 1800’s – well past Marie Antoinette’s reign.
So why did Marie Antoinette bathe regularly?
Regular attention to her hygiene was something Marie Antoinette learned at a young age. Her mother, the Austrian Empress Maria Therese, firmly believed that taking a daily bath was vital to improving one’s personal hygiene.
While her bathing habit was tolerated, even admired, at the beginning of her reign, Marie Antoinette would come to face slander about her habits when her popularity waned. Suddenly, her practice of daily baths was thought too ‘German’ for a Queen of France. Some people went as far as to spread rumours that she received male visitors in her bath when, in truth, the most scandalous thing she received in the bath was a breakfast tray.
The queen’s bathing routine
Though she had what we would consider a ‘bathroom’, there was no permanent bath fixed into the room. Her bathtub would be rolled into her bathroom by her servants and filled, bucket by bucket, with hot water.
Once the linen-lined bathtub was full, the queen would add perfumes to the water. Marie Antoinette apparently used either a special herbal mixture that included salt, thyme and marjoram, or perfumed sachets of sweet almonds, pine nuts, and lily bulbs which had been designed especially for her baths by her perfumer.
Like everything else in her life, bathing was not a private occasion. The queen would have an audience of servants and her closest ladies-in-waiting, all ready to jump to attendance. Because of this, Marie Antoinette wore a full-length gown of white English linen in her bath for modesty.
If the queen chose to take her bath in the morning, she would often call for her breakfast and eat it there.
Once she emerged from the bath, her First Lady of the Bedchamber would provide her with a sheet, holding it up to shield her while she removed her now-soaking linen gown. The sheet would be used to dry her.
The queen would dress in an open chemise, then her robe and slippers. She would then travel back up to her rooms to be dressed. In her earlier years at Versailles, this would mean a full public dressing ceremony in front of those ladies with ‘rights of entry, though Marie Antoinette abolished the ceremony in her later reigning years. She would have her hair dressed publicly, then curtsey to her audience and retire to her private rooms to dress.