They say that Fortune favors the bold, and this seems to hold true in fashion as well as in life. Some of the most prolific style icons of history were as bold in their actions as they were in their manner of dress.
Agnes Sorel began as the child of minor nobility, serving in her teens in the court of Rene I of Naples before moving on to a position as lady-in-waiting to Marie d’Anjou, wife of Charles VII of France. It was shortly thereafter that she caught the eye of the king himself, who was captivated by her stunning beauty. At the time Agnes was considered to be the most beautiful woman in France. Her sparkling blue eyes, golden hair, fair skin, slender waist, and rumored perfect bosom made her the very picture of idealized beauty in medieval Europe.
It is uncertain when their relationship began but in 1443 Charles made an official proclamation that he was leaving Marie — who was pregnant with their 12th child — to follow Agnes. He named her official lady-in-waiting to the queen and gifted her with the Chateu de Beaute, his family’s own ancestral castle. After the birth of their first child the king also named Agnes maîtresse en titre, the first official Mistress of the King. This position gave her unprecedented influence at court, far above any other mere mistress. Agnes was tremendously intelligent and charismatic, using her assets to gather allies and garner support for a king that until her arrival had been seen as awkward and timid. She surrounded the king with men of wisdom and under their influence he went from a simple figurehead to a strong and decisive monarch.
With each child she bore for the king Agnes’ power and influence grew until she had all but taken over the duties of Queen Marie. In fact she’d even taken over the queen’s royal apartments, the most elegant and well-appointed suites in the castle.
As things go at court, as Agnes’ list of allies grew, so too did her list of enemies. They resented that a mere mistress be given so much power, power which she happily distributed among her family members and chosen friends. They also despaired of her fashionable excesses. She was known for wearing long silk veils that draped down the the floor when she walked, the trains of her dresses so long that they were remarkable even by medieval standards. She appeared often in luxurious gowns that laced up the front to display her assets, a style that until that point had been worn only by prostitutes. These gowns became her trademark, to the point where almost every portrait painted of her shows her with her bodice unlaced and one breast exposed. She was also said to have been gifted with an elaborate necklace featuring one of the earliest examples of a cut diamond, a staggering gift indeed as until this time non-royal women were not allowed to wear diamonds.
Despite her excesses Agnes was known for being a charitable and pious woman. She gave generously to the charities that she supported and was even given Papal Absolution for the sins she committed as a mistress.
Agnes died in 1450 after the birth of her fourth child. While the original cause of death was listed as dysentery modern historians have determined that her death was caused by mercury poisoning. At the time mercury was often used for medicinal purposes and forensic analysis has shown that Agnes had ingested very high amounts of mercury in the days preceding her death so whether she accidentally overdose or was poisoned by one of her many enemies remains unclear.
Agnes was a revolutionary in every way. Her great beauty and fashionable excesses made her a figure to be remarked upon even centuries later. Through her intelligence and charisma she led the way for women like Diane de Poitiers, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry who shaped French fashion as the Shadow Queens behind the glamourous leaders of a country that is still looked to as a fashion capital.