Pride Month 2021

Wallace Connections

Pride Month 2021


This June, our #WallaceConnections series celebrates #pridemonth2021 in support of the LGBTQ+ community. To honour this, we unpick the cultural constructions that are gender stereotypes, challenging mainstream perceptions of femininity and masculinity.

Félix Zorzo, Curatorial Assistant

A painting of several figures, including Louis XIV
French School, Madame de Ventadour with Louis XIV and his Heirs, France, 1715–20 (P122).

Children’s dresses

A stern-looking governess holds a golden leash attached to a young infant’s back. Their pretty dresses, one in decorous black with silver trimmings, the other in candid white with gold braid, cascade in parallel, one the miniature version of the other.

Nothing here would surprise were it not for the fact that the child is a boy, the future Louis XV of France. His dress is not a sign of gender but of status. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, children used to wear dresses indistinctively of their biological gender up to the age of three. From that age, their clothes would not differ from adult garments but for their reduced size.

A painting of a young boy
Diego Velázquez, Prince Baltasar Carlos in Silver, 1633 (P12).

More than the dress itself, it was the accessories that would reveal the identity of the child. While Louis wears the blue sash of the order of the Saint-Esprit, Velázquez depicted Prince Baltasar Carlos with the baton of general and a red sash over a richly-embroided dress.

A painting of Apollo and several other figures
François Boucher, The Setting of the Sun, 1753 (P486).

Blue is for boys, pink is for girls

In this imposing painting Apollo, god of the Sun, pays an overnight visit to his lover, the sea nymph Thetis. Boucher dressed — or rather undressed — the couple in floating drapery that helps identify each character: his is a warm pink and hers a range of aquatic blues.

A painting of Jupiter and Callisto
François Boucher, Jupiter and Callisto, 1769, (P446).

It is not the only time that Boucher reserves reds and pinks for his male characters, and blue garments for his female figures. In Jupiter and Callisto, the seated nymph’s blond hair and pale skin contrasts with her intense blue shawl, while Jupiter’s darker skin and hair complements his pink cloak. Following pictorial convention, the reclining figure’s redder complexion signals him as a man in disguise; we are not fooled by the Moon tiara symbol of Diana.

During the 18th century, both men and women wore colourful attire, whether blue, pink, green or grey. Occasionally, strong reds were considered more appropriate for men, and blue, the colour of the Virgin, for women. Pinks and light blues were just their soft equivalent for children.

A painting of a group of children
William Hogarth, The Graham Children, 1742. The National Gallery, London (NG4756).

This is apparent in Hogarth’s Graham children from the National Gallery, where Henrietta Catherine, the eldest daughter, appears in a light-blue dress while holding the hand of her baby brother Thomas, himself in a shimmering pink dress.

A painting of several figures, including Louis XIV
French School, Madame de Ventadour with Louis XIV and his Heirs, France, 1715–20 (P122).

Men in high heels

We return to the fascinating ‘Madame de Ventadour with Louis XIV and his Heirs’ this time not to look at dresses but at shoes. The red high-heeled shoes that Louis XIV and his son Louis the Grand Dauphin wear were a symbol of the highest status at the French court.

To the Sun King’s left, his grandson the duc de Bourgogne is not yet part of the powerful circle allowed to wear this statement accessory. On the other hand, his son, in a white dress and plumed headpiece, would eventually wear red-heeled shoes in his coronation as Louis XV.

A portrait of Louis XV
Studio of Louis-Michel Vanloo, Louis XV, c. 1761–71 (P477).

Possibly introduced from Persia in at the beginning of the 17th century, the fashion for high-heeled shoes for men extended to other European courts, eager to follow the trends set by Versailles. A symbol of the ancien régime, it would fall into disuse in the 1800s.

A veneered chest-of-drawers
Chest-of-drawers for Louis XV’s bedroom at Fontainebleau, Nicolas-Jean Marchand, 1755 (F70).

Has it all really changed?

These two superb chests-of-drawers were delivered to the palace of Fontainebleau in 1755, each accompanied by their pair, one destined for the king’s bedroom and the other for the queen’s bedroom. Both pairs were mounted in Chinese lacquer making them look very similar.

But an eighteenth-century contemporary would have easily picked out the differences. Louis XV’s chest-of-drawers is slightly bigger and has more imposing gilt-bronze mounts. While Marie Leszcynska’s is smaller, with delicate mounts that include sprays of flowers.

A laqueur chest-of-drawers
Chest-of-drawers for Marie Leszcynska’s bedroom at Fontainebleau, Nicolas-Jean Marchand and Gilles Joubert, 1755 (F88).

Although with today’s eyes we may consider the intricate decoration of the Rococo as ‘feminine’, it was considered appropriate for men and women alike. Social status played a key role in the design of object, with subtle differences that pointed towards a specific gender.

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