** Note: I’ve decided to start a new blog series of Book Reviews where I review non-fiction works that relate to fashion history. Have a suggestion of a book I should read and review? E-mail me at email@example.com or leave a comment below. Thanks!
Marie Antoinette is a subject of endless fascination for me (I’ve read both the Antonia Fraser biography about her, and own the 2006 Sofia Coppola movie it inspired), which is why I was pleasantly surprised to discover Caroline Weber’s fabulous work, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution through this YouTube video. Published in 2006, Weber’s fascinating book is exhaustively researched and surprisingly the first to focus solely on Marie Antoinette’s clothing choices and the role they played in her arranged marriage at 14, life at Versailles, and death at the guillotine in 1793.
From the moment Maria Theresa – Marie Antoinette’s mother and the Empress of the Hapsburg empire – set out to arrange the marriage between her youngest daughter and Louis Auguste (the future Louis XVI), the Queen-to-be’s fashion and personal style were pivotal considerations. Indeed, one of the emissaries involved in the deal commented on the state of Marie Antoinette’s teeth, to which Maria Theresa responded by having her daughter undergo 3 months of dental work (which was not pleasant thing to have done in the non-anesthetized 18th century!). After leaving Vienna for France, Marie Antoinette was literally stripped down naked and re-dressed in all French-made clothing during the hand-over ceremony (famously depicted in the 2006 film), which Weber very effectively shows cemented for the Dauphine the incredible importance of appearance at Versailles and what was expected of her in her new role.
Forced into an utterly foreign world at the age of 14 where every move she made was watched (including her morning toilette, which was a court ritual), Marie Antoinette quickly learned that her clothing choice was one way to instill a sense of autonomy and semblance of political power (Weber later illustrates how this backfired during the Revolution, as Marie Antoinette’s personal style convinced the French that she was the one pulling Louis XVI’s puppet strings and effectively ruling France, when, in fact, she had no real political power at all). For example, in the early 1770s, Marie Antoinette for a brief time refused to wear the grand corps, an especially rigid pair of stays (corset) that was decorated with diamonds and reserved for members of the French nobility. This so shocked the people at Versailles that an annulment of the marriage (and thus an end to the the Franco-Austrian alliance) was considered. Eventually, with proding from Maria Therese (she sent many stern letters to her daughter), Marie Antoinette agreed to wear the corset, although this episode was never forgotten by courtiers. In addtion, Marie Antoinette also took up equestrian hobbies and donned male riding gear, (much to her mother’s chagrin) both to assert her independence, as well as provide a much needed respite from the exhausting social engagements of the French court.
Her initial refusal of the grand corps, cross-dressing, non-consummated marriage, and status as a foreigner meant Marie Antoinette came to be despised at the French court, despite an initial very warm welcome. That being said, Weber argues that despite the hatred many of the French people felt for Marie Antoinette (they often called her Le Autrichienne and thought she was a Hapsburg spy), they still had an overwhelming desire to mimic her fashion choices. This was seen first with the pouf hairstyle of the 1770s and then the gaulle (later known as the chemise a la reine) in the 1780s, which fashionable women all over France and even abroad instantly sought to copy. Fortunately, dressing like a member of the nobility was made infinitely easier during Marie Antoinette’s reign, as she decided not to impose the previously held restriction that dressmakers employed by members of the royalty were not allowed to take on other customers. This effectively meant that actresses and prostitutes could – gasp! – dress like they were a duchess or queen, thus blurring the rigid class lines between nobility and commoner (not surprisingly, Marie Antoinette got a lot of flak from courtiers at Versailles for this, despite the fact that they were also going to Rose Bertin to purchase goods and quickly adopted the “simplistic” and non-regal chemise a la reine as everyday dress). Unfortunately, this would come back to bite her in the arse during the infamous Diamond Necklace Affair, as the prostitute hired to impersonate Marie Antoinette was dressed in a chemise a le reine (Cardinal Rohan stated during his testimony that he believed the prostitute he met with to discuss the necklace was Marie Antoinette because of this clothing choice).
Perhaps not surprisingly, the chemise a la reine and other simplified modes of dress that Marie Antoinette popularized in the 1780s would eventually come to be the standard outfit for the French Revolution. Indeed, one of the things I found most interesting was the French people’s hypocrisy towards Marie Antoinette’s clothing choices that they themselves later adopted. They criticized her during the 1780s for her dissemination of the chemise a la reine, as it was made using imported cotton fabric, thus significantly hurting the domestic silk industry (based in Lyon) which relied heavily on orders from the nobility for silks to fashion into court dresses. Yet, during the Revolution, one was considered unpatriotic if they didn’t wear a simplistic dress made from imported cotton! Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until Marie Antoinette and her family were imprisoned in the Tuileries at the start of the Revolution that she reintroduced her silk gowns into everyday use, as a way to show the French people that despite their insistence that there was no longer a monarchy and commoner and royal were equals, the fact that they couldn’t purchase high-end silk gowns meant that they actually were not, and should not pretend to be.
Weber also effectively illustrates how much of the hatred Marie Antoinette endured from the French people after 1775 was as a direct result of the sexually-challenged Louis XVI not taking a mistress. During previous reigns, royal mistresses bore the brunt of the wrath of the French public, as they were the ones lavished with excesses of clothing and jewellery (in fact, the necklace at the heart of the Diamond Necklace Affair was actually commissioned by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry). Louis XVI during his reign gladly allocated these resources to Marie Antoinette, who employed a so-called “Ministry of Fashion” (essentially her hair stylist Monsieur Leonard and dressmaker Rose Bertin), which was heavily criticized during the 1780s when there was so much political and economical turmoil in France.
While I immensely enjoyed this book, there were a few things I didn’t particularly like. Weber has some very interesting notes about her sources, but these are listed as end notes rather than footnotes, so I had to keep flipping to the back of the book to read those (if you’re less of a nerd than I, this probably won’t bother you). In addition, Weber spends a majority of the latter half of the book delving into some of the grittier details of the French Revolution (which makes sense as she is, after all, a French studies professor at Barnard). Some of these details I felt weren’t necessary to the telling of Marie Antoinette’s story of personal style, although they were interesting.
Despite these few reservations, I cannot recommend this book enough! While a knowledge of French and 18th century fashion terms is helpful when reading this book, it certainly is not necessary, and there are some fabulous images (in color!) included that help to illustrate Weber’s points. This book is definitely not a biography of the ill-fated Queen, but nor does it purport to be. Instead, Weber shows through amazingly detailed and meticulous research that Marie Antoinette was the true definition of a fashion icon and, unfortunately, ended up paying the ultimate price for this status.