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Madeline Fontaine, the Oscar-Nominated Costume Designer for 'Versailles,' on Dressing Paupers and Kings
September 30, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Creating costumes for the court of Louis XIV at Versailles turns out to involve a lot more than throwing some fancy fabric on the king, queen and an occasional mistress.

Ovation TV launches the second season of the lavish historical drama Versailles at 10 p.m. ET Saturday, and while the king and his court have never looked more resplendent, the woman behind that finery says the trick is recognizing that their attire serves a broader purpose.  

“My work is much more character than fashion,” says Madeline Fontaine, who took the job as costume designer for Versailles after a long career in which her work has ranged from Amelie to Jackie.

Jackie earned her an Oscar nomination.

“Fashion was very present in Versailles,” Fontaine explains. “But in this show, its role is to serve the characters – and not only the royal family.

“The way we dress the lesser characters gives depth to the story. It shows the social conditions and gives a context of who everyone was. The position of all the people is important to tell the story.”

That said, the king is the king, and Fontaine notes that wardrobe was a sign of wealth and power.

“Wealthy people would change clothes several times a day,” says Fontaine, which reminded everyone else they could afford this extravagance and also served the practical purpose of keeping things a little, well, fresher.

“There was very little water at Versailles,” she notes, which made bathing a luxury often limited to the ultra-elite likes of Louis XIV himself.

Many of the court crowd bathed rarely and therefore relied on clothing to perform some the hygienic features we now attribute to water and bathing.

To put it bluntly, there were olfactory issues in the palace, as there were in many 17th century homes. It would be another hundred years before Versailles would be outfitted with bathrooms for general use, and long before most living areas had tubs for bathing.

Wealthy people like Louis XIV would wear linen because it was thought to absorb odors. Louis was said to change shirts several times a day.

“One of the reasons for changing so often,” Fontaine says, “is that it gave people a chance to dry off.

“They also used a lot of perfume.”

That didn’t stop clothing designers from striving for the most luxurious look, and Fontaine notes that by the time of Louis XIV, the French had developed their own distinct fashion style.

“Previously you would see similarities to German fashion and some from the Dutch,” she says. “But Louis XIV looked very different from rulers in other countries. When you see him and the queen of Spain, you see two very distinct styles.”

As happens today, trendy clothing in Louis XIV’s time was also constantly evolving.

“Fashions change from season to season in Versailles,” says Fontaine. “We had to keep changing the things we made. We had to find a way to transition from the beginning to the end of each period.

“At the end of the first season, Louis was wearing a short vest. We had to change to a longer vest.”

At least one thing, however, remained constant: Clothing was designed more for appearance than for ease of wear.  

“Comfort was not the first prerequisite,” says Fontaine with a laugh. “Most of it was not comfortable at all.”

Fontaine has worked on shows from numerous eras in numerous countries, and she says she likes it that way.

“Clothing always tells us something about the period,” she says, “and about the character of the people.

“Every time I get a proposition about a show, I go further into whatever I already knew. Of course, I never know everything. I learned a lot about this era from Versailles.”

One of the things she thinks would be fun in the costume game would be to take a character like Jacqueline Bouvier “and put her in different eras.

“If you could keep her the same age, which of course would not be possible, what would she look like in the ‘20s, the ‘30s, the ‘40s?”

Once Fontaine starts on a show like Versailles, she says, it becomes a collaborative process.

“I work with the directors,” she says, “because they have a vision of what they want it to be. I work with the technical people, the lighting and set designers, and with the actors, because they know what direction they are going.”

So even though Versailles is built around the world of a king, everyone matters.

“We want things that would look good,” she says, “even with a beggar.”

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