If you’re going to be a writer, you have to be a reader. I know something is distinctly off kilter if I’m not able to sit down with a book and absorb it like Litmus paper. The book that has re-engaged me is the ingeniously titled Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber.
Weber maps the Austrian Queen of France’s rise and fall through the prism of what she wore: from French-made court dress imposed on her as a fifteen-year-old bride to the martyr’s white smock and mob cap she saved for the guillotine in 1793. For a woman who rarely had a voice in history, Marie Antoinette defined herself by fashion.
The trajectory of Marie Antoinette’s life was not, as largely believed, from flaunting, extravagant queen of Versailles to convicted prisoner. From the moment she set foot in Versailles, Marie Antoinette was a prisoner of the system of protocol and etiquette imposed by her grandfather-in-law King Louis XV to distract and control the aristocracy.
In the first seven years of her marriage to the future King Louis XVI, the union was unconsummated. She had the enmity of Louis XV’s mistress Madame DuBarry to contend with plus the poison spread by the king’s three ‘ugly sister’ spinster daughters. Without an heir in the cradle, Marie Antoinette was vulnerable.
Interesting that the young dauphine chose to rebel through fashion: refusing to wear the whalebone corset de la Reine and taking to furious horse riding astride wearing men’s breeches, tunics and plumed tricorn hats. As Queen without an heir in 1774, Marie Antoinette defended her position at the side of King Louis XVI with her perception of sartorial splendour.
The Queen’s pannier gowns designed by Rose Bertin expanded into high and wide Rococo swags exploding from a tiny waist. Her towering pouff hairstyles constructed by Monsieur Léonard were topped with Panache sprays of ostrich plumes, pearls, galleons and birds. Marie Antoinette bedecked herself in the diamonds of the crown of France and spent hundreds of thousands of Livres acquiring more.
When Marie Antoinette finally did have a child in 1778 (a daughter), her popularity was low and rumours ran wild that Louis XVI wasn’t the father; rumours that were compounded because a Dauphin wasn’t born until 1781 by which time the Queen’s affection for Count Axel von Fersen was the talk of Versailles.
And all this before the poor girl had even reached thirty. By 1785, Marie Antoinette abandoned the high Rococo style in favour of the simple, romantic muslin Robes a la Polonaise that she and her ladies the Duchess de Polignac and the Princess de Lamballe wore at the Petit Trianon and the hamlet the Queen had constructed with its model farm and sheep perfumed and tied with ribbons.
Of course she couldn’t win. The court and the public professed themselves scandalised that a Queen of France could be painted by Vigée Le Brun in a muslin milkmaid’s gown and a straw bonnet. This was considered ill-becoming of a queen consort. The deshabillé of the robe a la Polonaise seemed to confirm rumours of licentiousness with lovers both male and female.
The trap that Marie Antoinette couldn’t seem to avoid began to close in 1785 when the Queen was embroiled in the scandal of a fabulous diamond necklace ostensibly secretly delivered to her in the gardens of Versailles. It was a scam and the perpetrators were imprisoned but nobody believed the Queen: a woman who played milkmaids while secretly buying diamonds as the French poor starved.
While being portrayed in pamphlets as a licentious harpy, Marie Antoinette was ultimately caught between a weak husband, inept courtiers and an explosive political situation that would have engulfed the French monarchy with or without her. When the mob descended on Versailles in 1989 and escorted the royal family to the Tuileries palace in Paris, the three staterooms filled with her gowns was left behind and ultimately destroyed.
From the Tuileries to the Temple and finally to a Conciergerie prison cell, Marie Antoinette’s fabled wardrobe was torn to pieces. All that’s left of it now is a bodice here, a stocking there that are treated like religious relics. Nothing remains of the queen of fashion but portraits of her former days of glory.
Marie Antoinette’s decapitated body was buried in a pit none too far distant from the guillotine in the Place de la Concorde. It was only exhumed in 1814 and buried in the Basilica Saint Denis beneath a marble statue depicting her in prayer wearing the Napoleonic costume then in fashion.
It is a tribute to the queen of fashion that she had an afterlife in many films and television adaptations of her life. The 1938 MGM film starring Norma Shearer featured costumes by Adrian of an extravagance that only old Hollywood could conceive. It was Versailles meets the Ziegfeld Follies and none the worse for that.
Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) had the distinction of allowing leading lady Kirsten Dunst to film on location at Versailles, the Trianon and the Petit Hameau. The costumes were soufflé light compared to Rose Bertin’s original robes of state for Marie Antoinette. But they reflected the youth of the Dauphine infused with a contemporary Galliano-style fashion sensibility.
The mark of a great book such as Weber’s Queen of Fashion is that it inspires further research. This evening I will return to the Shearer and Dunst Marie Antoinette films with fresh eyes and a keener sense of curiosity. Until next time…