French lit professor discusses her new book, a stranger-than-fiction tale of finance and fashion

A chat with Professor Joan DeJean, author of the new book "The Queen’s Embroiderer," a true, sordid story describing the rise of high finance and high fashion during 17th- and 18th-century France.

France Stock Market
A 1720 sketch of the rue Quincampoix, the world's first Wall Street, by Antoine Humblot.

“The Queen’s Embroiderer: A True Story of Paris, Lovers, Swindlers, and the First Stock Market Crisis,” may have an ostensibly dramatic title as is; but, in truth, it’s an almost tame way to encapsulate a true story of deception, murder, and familial betrayal that couldn’t be drafted by even the most imaginative writer of soap operas.

At a glance, if the story sounds complicated, that’s because it is: in a nutshell, the tale, researched and written by Penn Trustee Professor of Romance Languages Joan DeJean, who has written 11 books about 17th- and 18th-century French history and culture, is about the legacy, dealings, and sins of Jean Magoulet and his son of the same name. Magoulet, an acclaimed embroiderer for Queen Marie-Therese and King Louis XIV, gains great wealth and fame in the late 17th century, becoming a fashion icon and sparking an age of high fashion in France. The younger Magoulet, however, mucks up the embroiderer family’s good fortune through bad investments during a time when modern banking and high-risk market play—new in France, at the time—emerge and rip the moral fabric of society. 

What unfolds in the pages of the book is a tangled web of nearly unbelievable happenings: the intentional labeling of teenager Louise Magoulet as a prostitute, so her broke father might rid himself of a heavy financial burden and solidify his marriage to a wealthy woman; the reprehensible actions of financier-also-gone-bust Antoine Chevrot, who was the father of Louise’s lover and eternal roadblock to their marriage; and, stunningly, an unprecedented period of high crime in France allowed to endure by a police department that looked the other way.

Here, DeJean discusses how the book came to be, Magoulet as the first celebrity fashion designer, and what lessons can be drawn from the story of the Queen’s embroiderer. 



How did you first come upon this story?

It was an accident in the archives. I was working on [an article about] shops in Paris, and I had an image of a shop—it was the shop of someone whose title was “The Queen’s Embroiderer,” and I was just looking trying to find documents to see how real the image was. I came across documents that indicated yes, that this man existed as did his shop. But then I also found things quite disturbing: about the deportation of a young woman with the same [last] name to Louisiana. That got my curiosity piqued. That’s how it got started: a small project that got huge.

Is this atypical of your writing process? Do you normally know going in what you’ll be writing about? 

It depends. Sometimes, all goes according to plan. Sometimes you find amazing material by accident.

In this case, once I’d seen the kinds of material involved, I debated about it quite a lot. In the long run, I decided I wasn’t going to pass this chance up. It was too amazing a story to let it go.  But even though I knew it would be a long haul, I underestimated—as usual. I’m sure that’s how we all continue to write our books—by feeling optimistic. [Laughs.]

Speaking to the fashion part of this, are there any elements of Jean Magoulet’s embroideries that have carried over into modern day fashion, do you think?

It’s a great question. I did a talk at the Penn Club in Fairfield a couple of weeks ago, and what I showed them was how outfits featured in the current men’s collections for Dolce and Gabbana, the high-end couture collection, and the women’s collections for Louis Vuitton, are dead ringers for the stuff Magoulet was doing—with less good embroidery. This is no longer an age of workshops and truly great embroidery. But this year, the same styles and the same overwhelming use of embroidery seem to be popping up everywhere. And many of the outfits are overtly copying the styles invented in France in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by designers like Magoulet.

The attention that his embroidery got and how it seems to have bled into pop culture in France, at that time, it has modern echoes to it. It reminds me of how people in the United States tried to emulate Jackie O. What do you think was so grabbing about his embroideries?

I think it was the fact that Magoulet was working for the court. Louis XIV was an incredible fashion king. He really knew how to show off the French fashion industry. Of course, this continues today. There was a big article in the French press yesterday, about French President Macron’s wife, Brigitte Macron, and the brands she wears. She’s advertising French fashion to the world when she travels. And Louis XIV invented this concept.

I found all kinds of contracts in Magoulet’s files from people, asking him to copy a jacket the king had worn, etc. Louis XIV was the star, so whatever he wore was copied. And then copied again, each time less expensively. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see those Dolce and Gabbana looks in fast fashion stores soon.

An H&M Magoulet line is soon to come, I’m sure.

Well, he would have enjoyed that. [Laughs]

It sounds like he was one of the first celebrity fashion designers.

There’s no question. We think of the designer today as the person who sews, the tailor—Balenciaga, Versace, Alaia. But in Magoulet’s day, the embroidery was by far the most expensive part of an outfit—roughly 40 times more expensive than tailoring. So, Magoulet was the designer, the person who determined how an outfit would look and fit. That explains why we know his name. This was the beginning of a true fashion industry in France; in other words, a moment when French designers began to dress no longer just the court, but a far larger public, in France and abroad. For these reasons, we could think of Jean Magoulet as the first celebrity designer.

In research, was it confusing at all to understand the lives of Magoulet versus his son, considering they were both referred to as The Queen’s Embroiderer? Was that tricky to navigate?

For a while I wasn’t sure if it was one man with a very long life, if that’s what you’re talking about. But that quickly became clear. That wasn’t a big problem. What becomes complicated is, in this case, was the family story, trying to figure out which figures in a large family were essential to the story. For example, at first I thought that I wouldn’t have to deal with the brother who was the among the biggest tax collectors in France. But once I realized how essential money and high finance were to this story about embroiderers, I knew the tax guy was essential to the story. There are always moments when you think ‘Maybe I don’t have to do this.’ And then you say, ‘OK, I do.’

These risky credit endeavors, are they inherently bad?

Not at all. I think anyone who loans money knows there’s risk entailed. It depends on how reliable the person you’re dealing with is. It also depends on the financial climate. If things go bad in a big way, people are going to start defaulting. And that’s what happens: at the moment [Magoulet is] making so much money and investing, he couldn’t have known things would quickly get very difficult and that this would mean that people with money would stop paying their debts. 

So, that’s why I think, at another moment, things might’ve worked. Look what’s happening today, everything seems great and if things fall apart in six months, we look back on today and say ‘Why didn’t we know?’ You make what you think are perfect decisions, and they might turn out to be horrible ones even two weeks down the line.

I have a hard time reconciling whether he had bad luck or bad sense.

Oh, I think bad luck. I began with this, asking historians who work on finance at the period, and they said immediately, ‘He was making so much money so quickly that he had no choice but to try to invest it in some way. Only an idiot would have just let his money sit.’ Today we have so many investment options, but Magoulet didn’t have many. He tried everything he could think of. He began conservatively, with real estate. But that was not a way to make a quick profit, and suddenly Magoulet found himself in an age when the notion of a quick profit began to gain traction. And once that happened, he tried everything. He was often among the very first to get in on any new scheme–even signing contracts with the French army to get horses to the battlefield quickly. Now that was not something you would normally associate with an embroiderer!

The telling thing about this book is how awfully he reacted when things did go bust.

Oh, yes. I’ve thought about this a lot. I bet lots of people react awfully when they’re losing everything.  Magoulet was a dreadful man, a monster, but I think real financial disaster brings out terrible things in people. That’s why I spent so much time talking about the climate in Paris, in times of financial disaster. How badly even big nobles behaved and the fact that, for example, when the stock market really crashed, the police were fishing body parts out of the Seine every morning. Suddenly, there was a crime wave the likes of which they’d never seen.

Was it less a surprise when you realized he sold out his own daughter, then?

Oh, it was still a surprise. But I’ll tell you I’ve found, since, at least 50 other people who did it. I decided there must be a certain percentage of human beings capable of doing virtually anything for money. That was the saddest lesson the book taught me.

Anything uniquely French about that reaction?

I would never have suspected it in France because the French were not financially forward. The Dutch and English had much more advanced financial systems. This meant that everything was introduced into France—from a modern bank, paper money, etc., some things that existed elsewhere in Europe and some things that had never been tried—everything got introduced there really fast. Imagine if, say, 10 things like Bitcoin became the law of the land in this country, in three months’ time, how people might react. And at the same time we’d hear, ‘You can’t pay with a credit card or currency anymore. You have to use Bitcoin.’ No one can understand an entirely new system immediately. When this happened to the French, many people just became frantic.

A theme I took notice of was, based on what you seem to find from police records, the ability for aristocrats to escape persecution—which has an unfortunate parallel to modern day.

I think anyone with power in any system has a better chance, right? In France, aristocrats were so far above everyone else socially that they had virtual immunity. Magoulet was not an aristocrat, but he was quite high in the middle-class ranks. I kept reading every police file and thinking ‘When are they going to put two and two together and realize that they are dealing with the same man and that no man, no matter who prominent, should be allowed to get away with so much?’

I was a little confused how the father Chevrot got so entangled in this.

Most of what happened was absolutely comprehensible from his point of view. He was obsessed with social status, and Magoulet’s daughter, the young woman his son wants to marry, had been officially declared a prostitute. He would never have let that marriage take place. 

In addition, he was determined to control his son’s life. His son wanted to be an artist; Chevrot wanted his son to work in the financial industry. So, he opposed all his son’s wishes. This is an old story, after all.

What was the most unbelievable thing you think you discovered during your research?

The most unbelievable thing is probably what I discovered first: that Magoulet declared his daughter a prostitute. That one fact explains why wrote this book. By the end of my research, I came to admire Louise Magoulet tremendously; she was an extraordinary young woman who refused to accept injustice. She kept going forward and trying to make her voice heard.  And she also managed, in various ways to make a life for herself.

Does the love story have a happy ending, without spoiling it?

It can’t have the ending it might have had, but there are many happy ends. One reviewer commented that I had to work hard to find something positive, and I didn’t think of it that way. For me, it was a story of resilience, how young people can be dealt the worst cards—be abused children, declared a prostitute, suddenly lose a life of ease and find themselves on the streets, and still not only survive but accomplish amazing things with their lives. 

I really thought the young people were remarkable. There wasn’t one who knuckled under and just gave up. They all went on and lead lives that could be envied. 

You write, ‘My imagination could never have conceived of many aspects of this story, and I wonder if anyone would have tried to get away with them in fiction.’ With that in mind, I have to ask: Has anyone told you this would make a fabulous HBO or Netflix miniseries?

People keep saying that. We’ll see. I would love Louise’s story to survive. That’s why I wrote this book. I wanted people to know about her story.