Every century and every epoch got their own standards of what is considered handsome and what not. Some of these 17th century might be a bit of a surprise compared to those of our modern times. So, let’s have a look at what was sexy during the time of Louis XIV…
First of all, forget tanning. The ideal skin is as pale and this is not just a beauty standard, but also a matter of wealth. Obviously, the nobility had people who worked for them and were in no need to work themselves, especially outdoor work. Thus pale skin, untouched by the sun, was equal to the luxury of not having to move a finger. Tanned skin was very peasant. To prevent even a hint of sun touching the skin, the noble ladies wore masks when forced to go outside or had parasols at hand. Someone who was quite paranoid of getting a tan, was Monsieur, the brother of Louis XIV. He avoided riding whenever he could in order not to ruin his pale skin with a nasty tan.
Another thing that was very peasant, were muscles. The working class got those by lifting, ploughing, working the fields and such things. While it was handsome to have a body which was not wobbly, defined muscles were not fashionable. Those hinted that the person did perform tasks which were beneath his rank. A hint of muscles and trained body, achieved by rapier practise, dancing and riding, is fine but no muscle-mountains.
For the ladies, the ideal shape was a bit on the chubby side. The ideal face was fair, roundish or oval, with a high brow and a light double-chin. Dimples on chin or cheeks, a sexy plus. While the eyes should be large and either dark or very blue, the mouth should be small and round. Preferably with more roundness to the bottom lip than the upper lip. Teeth are a bit of an issue. The beauty standard of the time said they should be at least somewhat white, the whiter the better, and of equal proportions, but even the most beautiful ladies had ruins in their mouths. In the early 17th century France, during the time Louis XIV made his first love-conquests, blonde hair or light brow shades were all the rage. Curls were considered quite sexy as well, the more the better. The waist should be slim, but the hips rounder, and if there was a bit of a belly that was just perfect. The bosom should be of an average size, not too large, but not too small either. One of the reasons why the teen-Louis XIV did not like his future sister-in-law Henrietta of England too much, was not just that he found her a bit silly, but also because she was way too slim for his taste. The fact that she apparently had a bit of a humpback, was not as unsexy for him as her being way too slim. Louise de la Valliere had one leg shorter than the other and he did not mind. The woman who comes the closest to those beauty standards, is Madame de Montespan in her youth. She had it all and her figure was just perfect.
Something which was very sexy as well, and has to do with pale skin again, is the blue of ones veins. The paler the skin, the better one can see it, especially on the wrists. Thus many ladies always placed themselves in a way that one could see the inside of their wrists and the blue shimmer of the veins. You can see it on a lot of portraits. Wrists and hands in general, were something sexy as well. The wrist should be slim and elegant, the hands pale and should not show any signs of physical work, such as calluses. The same applies to the feet, which should be ideally quite petite.
For the gentlemen, as previously mentioned, a defined and yet not too muscular shape was considered handsome. Although at certain times, and this has to do with wealth again, a light belly was fashionable as well. A belly meant that the gentleman could afford to eat well and often, thus was rich enough to support himself and money was sexy. There even was a time, during which some gentlemen added a bit of padding to their garments in order to achieve the look.
The probably most handsome thing, next to full hair, on a gentleman were his calves. Louis XIV had quite trained calves himself due to his love for dancing and those made a lot of girls swoon. Ideally, the hair should be dark and long, worn in a slight curl. Gentlemen had it a bit easier than the ladies to fit into the beauty standards, because at least for their facial features there wasn’t really one. The Sun King was considered utterly handsome and he was quite manly… but the title of “Most handsome man in France” was long-held by the Comte de Guiche, who was more elegant, and afterwards by the Chevalier de Lorraine, whose face was a little more soft in his youth.
Since standards change with the years, let us look what the School of Venus, a 17th century guidebook on how to sex, says about what was considered sexy in 1655, but it’s a bit on the naughty side of things, so be warned to read the following quotes: “Then will I begin with the woman, and then speak of the man. She must be a young lass of seventeen or eighteen years old, pretty plump, and a little inclined to fat, straight, and of a good stature and majestical looks, having a well proportioned and noble face, her head well set on her shoulders, sparkling eyes, with a sweet and pleasant alpect, her mouth rather of the bigger size than too little, her teeth even and very white, her forehead indifferent, and without frowns, her cheeks well filled up, black hair and a round face, her shoulders large and of a good breadth, a fine plump and smooth neck, hard breasts, that hang not down, but support themselves like ivory apples, an arm proportionale to the rest, a skin neither too white nor too tawny, but between both, and so filled with flesh that it hangs not loose, a hand white as snow and well set on at the wrists, as to her manners, first let her be neatly dressed, modest, yet with lively actions, let her words be good and witty, she must appear innocent and a little ignorant before company, and let her manage all her discourse so, that it may tend to ingratiate herself with the hearers, and make her person the more taking, still to keep herself within the bounds of modesty, and not to give the least encouragement to any to violate it, and if by chance any should offer and uncivil action or discourse to her, she must protest she knows not what they would be at, or what they mean, at public meetings and feasts let her be very demure, let her eat and drink but moderately, for you may know the humours of the lass, as she is more or less affected with pleasures, and inclined to diversions which her words and actions will easily detect, therefore excess is dangerous to young women, but if it be the general frolic of the company, she may indulge herself a little more liberty, especially if she be amongst those who have a good repute in the world, to make her more compleat, she must dance well, sing well, and often read love stories and romances, under pretence to learn to speak well her mother tongue, she ought to have a tender heart, even when she reads of cruelty, though in one of these romances…. come to describe her naked, she must have a fine hard belly well thrust out, for ’tis upon this delightful rock where all lovers are shipwrecked, her stomach must be soft and fleshy, fine small feet turning out at the toes, which shews that her cunt is well situated, her calf of her leg plump, and large about the middle, small and short knees, substantial and tapered thighs, on which must hang a pair of round buttocks, a short rump, and slender waist… ”
“… he must be of a fair stature and a strong able body, not of a barbary shape like a shotten herring, which is proper to women only, let him have a majestic gate, and walk decently, a quick pleasing eye, his nose but a little rifing, without any deformity in his face, his age about five and twenty, let him rather incline to the lean than fat, his hair of a dark brown and long enough to curl upon his shoulders, a strong back and double chested, let him be indifferently strong, so that he may take his mistress in his arms and throw her upon a bed, taking her two legs and flinging them over his shoulders, nay he ought to dance and handle her like a baby, for it often happens, a young spark may have to deal with a refractory girl, who will pretend much modesty, as will not open her legs, so that if he have not strength to force her, he will spend in the porch, and not rub her with his standing tarse, he must have a well fashioned foot, and well proportioned leg with full calves, and not like cat-sticks, and a pair of lusty brawny thighs to bear him up, and make him perform well…..I tell you ’tis a perfection in a man to have a tarse so big that it will scare a virgin, and this in short is the description of a compleat man.”
As you might have noticed, some things in these quotes are not quite fitting to my general description above, but as I said they change with the years and this 1655 ideal did too. What did not change, and is as incredibly sexy today as it was back then, is a fast and quick mind. The French call it esprit, the English wit, and it means a mental sharpness and inventiveness, a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humour. Next to a well filled purse, a bit of a handsome face, this esprit is guaranteed to get heart-eyes from any lady. Personal hygiene is of course sexy as well, although it can not compared to our standards, nobody in the 17th century liked smelly people either… no matter if they had a bit of an odour themselves.