Cinq á Sept

edwardian underbust corset

Cinq à sept (“five to seven”) (pronounced “sank-ah-set”) is a Quebec French term for a time in the afternoon intended to be spent with friends or colleagues, enjoying light pre-theatre meals, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

In France, however, the term cinq-a-sept is an expression used to describe a visit to one’s mistress, derived from the time of day Frenchmen would make such a visit. While the French may lay claim to the term, it was the Edwardian upper-classes of England who excelled at bringing ‘Love in the Afternoon’ so to speak.

Stories abound on this most famous and practical of pastimes when a significant tranche of the upper classes enjoyed the unspoken, but highly popular ritualistic rounds of adultery.


It’s been said that

“along with hunting, shooting, fishing,

and charitable works,

adultery was one of the ways

in which those who did not have to work for a living

could fill their afternoons.”


It’s also interesting to note that the very term “adultery” was carefully chosen to include not only men who were married but only those women who were married as well, for it was the wedded females, rather than her single sisters who were most likely to pass the hours between five and seven (the cinq a sept) in the pattern set by Queen Victoria’s pleasure-loving son, King Edward VII, and his coterie of fun-seeking friends.

The choice of this hour of the day was purely practical. After all, it took considerable time for a lady to unbutton and unlace her layers of corsets, chemises, and underskirts, let alone button and lace them up again. So what better way to take advantage of this time of daily undress when madame was exchanging her afternoon attire for her more regal and sophisticated evening wear than by accepting visits from their lovers just after tea where they might meet in darkened perfumed rooms, filled with blooms in the late afternoon.

Hence the practice was born and borrowed by the King himself. If he took mistresses among his friends’ wives, then so could and would those of his minions with both the time and inclination. Of course, married women were far safer since they had no interest in trapping a man into marriage and in the off chance that the lusting couple were to become pregnant, the child could easily and effortlessly be incorporated within the existing family with no one the wiser.

If you’re familiar with the phrase — “an heir and a spare” — you now know its origins. A married woman and dutiful wife was expected to wait until she had produced two sons for her husband (“an heir and a spare”) before risking the introduction of another’s gene pool among those who might inherit his property–thus “adulterating” the bloodline. One can’t help but admire the Brits for their fastidiousness in such matters.

As long as a high-society married woman followed these rules of property protection and maintained absolute discretion, she could do whatsoever she pleased, blithely moving through the highest levels of society with head held high and morals unquestioned.

In the oft-cited words of the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, “it doesn’t matter what you do in the bedroom as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.” Wisdom for the ages.




~ by eaesthete on 07/07/09.

2 Responses to “Cinq á Sept”

  1. Fascinating. Really. Who would have had any idea that the hindrance of clothes would dictate new rules of behavior? And in the highest of circles? More, please.

  2. You’ve put it well. Thank you!

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