The History Of The World’s Most Famous Bed Curtains

11th Apr 2022
The History Of The World’s Most Famous Bed Curtains

Curtains are a vital part of nearly every house to keep in the heat, keep intrusive eyes out and help with interior design efforts to create warm, inviting and visually striking rooms whether the drapes are open or closed.

Whilst there are so many types of design studio curtains to choose from, from light silk drapes to thick velvet blackout curtains, one type of drapery that is nowhere near as common as it used to be is the bed curtain, which used to cover each side of a four-poster bed.

When it comes to bed curtains, the person most associated with them is King Louis XIV of France, and the complex history of his love of drapery is an important part of the history of curtains as a whole, particularly as they migrated away from the bedroom and towards windows.

The Sun King is an exceptionally important figure in the history of curtains of all styles, and his somewhat impulsive actions when it came to drapery would influence curtain styles for hundreds of years.

Here is the history, the rise and the fall of the bed curtains.


Why Have Curtains Placed Around Your Bed?

One question that emerges from any discussion about bed drapes is how and why one would place curtains around the bed, and the answers to this have practical, political and aesthetic reasons to them.

The practical aspect is caused by the nature of the beds used by the upper class. Whilst four poster beds have been traced as far back as the 3rd Century AD, by the 16th Century they had become an essential part of any aristocrat’s house.

The four posts allowed for an upper panel and rail to be fitted, onto which at least one pair of elaborate curtains were placed, although in some cases curtains were fitted to every post of the bed, particularly in later French examples.

The practical reason for this is that due to the lack of window glass in the 16th century, many larger buildings were draughty and bitterly cold at night. As a result, drawing curtains would provide some level of protection from the elements. They also can provide some modicum of privacy when closed.

However, the biggest reason for the drapery is that in many courts, the bed was the most important piece of furniture, and was a symbol of status for the owner more than it was a practical place to sleep but a place to receive guests.

The bed was usually quite low to the ground, but with posts that reached high up into the room, allowing for long, elaborate and often imported fabrics to frame the bed itself, making it a central point in the court for the inner circle of the inner circle of a monarch to congregate.

And nowhere in the 16th Century world was this more apparent than in the court of Louis XIV.


The World’s Most Famous Bed

The Palace Of Versailles was the epicentre of French politics, and the King’s Chamber was the epicentre of this epicentre, where only the Sun King’s inner circle were allowed at his strictest invitation only, and the frequently changed and adjusted drapes were a critical feature.

They were opened during an elaborate waking up ceremony, he would have private meals there and they were closed during an equally elaborate going to bed ceremony, and the embroidery seen on these bed draperies was among the finest and most ornate ever created.

Many of these curtains were created by the famous Gobelins workshop, which was by that point owned by the royal family and almost exclusively worked on royal commissions.

These included hangings with mythological scenes, depictions of biblical events and more allegorical designs, most of which were made from velvet or satin.

The reason for all of this is that in the early days of bed curtains the main design inspiration was taken from churches, where elaborate, ornate curtains were used to cover the tabernacle, the storage box that was used to hold the Eucharist.

As during this period of history many kings (especially King Louis XIV) believed themselves to have a divine right to rule, they found it appropriate to use religious designs as inspiration, such as tapestries, tabernacles and depictions of scripture.

Much of this design itself came from traditions such as Opus Anglicanum, a style of embroidery and tapestry that was most commonly associated with the Catholic Church.

Somewhat fittingly, when diplomats, ambassadors and other important guests from other countries visited King Louis and either found inspiration or were gifted examples of these drapes, that religiously inspired style returned to the royal courts, albeit through a somewhat opulent lens.

What makes the King’s Chamber and the bed curtains so famous, however, is just how often they would be changed and altered due to impulses and whims.

In total, Louis XIV had 413 beds and an incalculable number of drape sets, several of which were given to dignitaries and important guests as presents, such as one to his surgeon for completing medical procedures successfully, and one to the ambassador of the Swedish Empire.

The tradition would also spread through rather less generous means, such as skilled Huguenot craftsmen fleeing persecution and taking their fine crafts with them, including the development of tassels and fringes on curtains, spreading the design philosophy across Europe and creating the start of modern curtain traditions.

Louis XIV ruled for over 72 years, the longest of any monarch in history, and he would die in the same bed from which he had ruled for decades. Whilst his great-grandson and great-great-great-grandson officially would rule from the King’s Chamber, they did not sleep there, instead choosing one of the smaller rooms next to it.

The tradition of constant impulsive changes of draperies would start to disappear as Louis XV’s long reign and Louis XVI’s controversial reign would be defined by expensive wars, corruption and financial crises that would serve as the impetus for the French Revolution.

Ultimately, curtains would become used more for window coverings than bed coverings over the following centuries, and the four-poster bed would become far less common.