Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins
FONTANGE: Through the ages women’s hair has been tortured into shapes of full sails, bird nests with fledglings in them, and even windmills, but no style has ever topped the ‘fontange’ created by Louis XIV’s beautiful red-haired mistress. In the brief time that they were lovers, ‘The Sun King’ made Marie Angelique de Scorraille de Roussilles, duchesse de Fontanges [[1661-1681]], a territory in France. She died all too soon in 1681, when she was only 20, but a year before her death the lovely young women introduced what was probably the most extravagant, expensive hairdo in the history of coiffures. Called a ‘fontange’ after her, this pile of style rose to heights of two feet and more above the wearer’s head, including feathers, bows, and a large assortment of jeweled ornaments in the gummed-linen circular bands that held them in place. So great a nuisance did fontanges become that Louis XIV [[1638-1715]] had to issue a royal decree abolishing them in 1699. To the duchess’s further shame, the hairdo was dubbed a ‘commode’ in England, and FONTANGE itself was adopted as a polite word for a commode, the piece of furniture having come into use in the late 17th century and serving as a toilet among other uses.
The above explanation is a bit misleading. The hairstyle and/or the accompanying wire frame apparatus (and sometimes just the bow that started the whole thing) was known in France as a FONTANGE and also COMMODE. To confuse matters further some sources define the 'commode' as just the cap that sat atop this whole affair. By any of these definitions this ‘commode’ originally had nothing to do with toilet. It was a French adjective meaning ‘convenient.’ And the ‘fontange’ might have been associated with being ‘convenient’ because it began as just a simple bow to hold up one’s hair – but then things kind of got our of hand, as things often do, and continued to go further awry for years after the duchess’s death. Her original invention actually was fairly simple compared to the monstrosity that it eventually became. Here’s what the Encyclopedia Britannica had to say on the subject:
COMMODE: Wire framework that was worn (c. 1690–1710 in France and England) on the head to hold in position a topknot made of ribbon, starched linen, and lace. The complete headgear was known as a “fontange,” or tower. Supposedly, it had its beginning when a favorite of Louis XIV, whose hair had become untidy while hunting, tied it up with a garter ribbon [[the fontange originally being just the bow]]. The admiration of the king made it a fashion with the women of the French and English courts, but the simple bow soon became a complex affair—tall, often fan-shaped, and requiring the wire support of the commode and the addition of artificial curls and dangling streamers.
So the COMMODE, as far as I could surmise after searching through several sources, was originally a bow, and later the wire support (and sometimes just the cap), and still later the entire sordid affair including hair and assorted baubles. And I suppose that at first, at least as a bow and possibly as the frame, it could have been considered a ‘convenience’ (it certainly beat bricks and mortar!). But it seems likely that by the time the ‘commode’ came to also mean the entire two-foot tall, coiffure, it was probably considered to be more of an abomination than a ‘convenience.’
I assume that when the English adopted the word for the hairdo they were just using the word that the French had used and weren’t sarcastically implying that it resembled or was somehow comparable to a toilet. In the late 17th century ‘commode’ also became the name of what resembles an English chest of drawers (i.e. a convenience) and was originally called a ‘commode tombeau’ (convenient tomb) because they had marble tops and some thought that they resembled sarcophagi. But they were probably considered ‘convenient,’ at least compared to whatever had preceded them. From the late 18th century, ‘commode’ was also the term, along with ‘night table,’ ‘night stand,’ and ‘washstand’ for a cupboard usually containing a washbasin above and a chamber pot below – certainly a convenience which beat the hell out of the alternative on a cold night. I found a picture of one of these pieces of furniture in The Journal of American History (1988, Vol. 74, No. 4, page 1221) with the caption:
There was a washbasin on top and a chamber pot visible through the open cabinet door.<“Mahogany washstand or commode, Middle Colonies, 1770-1810. Ingenious washstands combining a variety of functions were status symbols.”>
The New Shorter OED tells us that the COMMODE as “a chamber-pot enclosed in a chair or box with a cover” first appeared in the mid 19th century. And I would assume that here the name also developed strictly from the sense of convenience and bore no relationship to the earlier hairdo or chest of drawers, other than that they all meant ‘convenient’ in French.
However, Facts on File tells us above, that ‘fontange’ was adopted as a polite word for a ‘commode’ (the toilet) and Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary confirms this, but doesn’t discuss how that came about. And, incidentally, no other dictionary I checked, including the OED, attempted to explain this. The only thing that I can imagine, is that sometime after the word ‘commode’ was adopted for toilet, it was noticed that it was the same word that was used for the elaborate hairdo and someone thought it would be funny to call it by the equivalent French hairdo name, ‘fontange.’ Since the word ‘commode’ for toilet didn’t gain wide acceptance until sometime in the 19th century (the OED’s earliest quote, and I was unable to find an earlier one, was from 1851), it seems unlikely that the ‘fontange’ designation for toilet would have developed too much earlier than that. But my view in this paragraph on how the portapotty came to be nicknamed the ‘fontange’ is merely speculation and if any Francophones out there know the real story, please fill us in.
(Oxford English Dictionary, The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, New Shorter OED, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins)<circa 1688 “At last the knight . . . struck off her COMMODE.”—‘Works’ (1775) by Villiers (Duke of Buckingham), page 128>
<1692 “ Wir'd COMODE . . . Cock'd Three Stories high.”—‘Marriage Hater’ by D’Urfey, Prologue, page 55>
<1706 “Stiff COMMODES in Triumph star'd Above their Foreheads half a Yard.”—‘Hudibras Redivivus; or a Burlesque Poem on the Times’ by E. Ward, I. x. page 7>
<1739-52 “The FONTANGE was a structure of brass-wire, ribbons, hair and baubles of all sorts, about two feet high, which made a woman's face look as if it was in the middle of her body. At the slightest movement the edifice trembled and seemed ready to come down."—‘Memoirs’ of Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon> [[Saint-Simon: 1675-1755, writer of memoirs, courtier, and observer of the court of Louis XIV]]
<1851 “Inodorous chamber COMMODES affording great comfort to invalids.”—‘Times,’ 1 April, page 11/4>
Ken G – April 14, 2005