On Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, by Caroline Weber
News flash! She never said “Let them eat cake,” in case you haven’t heard. But she is famous for having said that more than anything. Centuries after our fascination with Marie Antoinette continues: The clothes, the hair, all the partying—and desserts—the way her style, and lifestyle, which were followed by all, ultimately brought on a revolution and the ending of a monarchy.
In Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution, Caroline Weber tells the story of Marie Antoinette—after her marriage to Louis Auguste, the dauphin of France while his grandfather Louis XV was the king—through her choice of clothes and hair. As the daughter of Austria’s Empress Maria Theresa, she was wedded off at age 14 to cement the alliance between Austria and France. It seems the first instance when she must have noticed that “you are what you wear” was when she journeyed to France to marry her husband, and was stripped off of everything she wore at the border, and was dressed in all French clothing before setting foot in French soil. She enters a country where for the longest time Austria was the enemy, and till her death she is called l’Autrichienne, the Austrian, in a way to imply the other, the enemy; especially by those who were jealous of her in the court and by the public who was suffering more and more with each day.
Weber tells a sympathetic story of Marie Antoinette who turns to clothes to express herself, and wants to make her presence known. She wears men’s riding clothes, and rides her horse astride instead of aside as women back then did, and even has her portrait drawn à la Louis XIV, the Sun King. As she doesn’t produce an heir for years, neither her position and nor the French-Austrian alliance is guaranteed, so she orders dresses with the widest paniers, and has her hair done with the highest pouf (with the help of flour). Traditionally French kings had wives who bore them heirs and that was the power of those women. The kings also had mistresses, favorites who were called maîtresses-en-titres, and by having the sexual favor of their king also held power. It was these favorites, like Madam Pompadour and Madam du Barry, of Louis XV, who dressed and styled flamboyantly, while the wives, the queens, maintained more conservative looks. But in the case of Marie Antoinette, since Louis Auguste showed no interest in sex and she didn’t have a child for years, and since her husband didn’t have a mistress either, she took on their way of dressing too.
Marie Antoinette had a marchande de mode, the infamous Rose Bertin, who owned her store named Grand Mogol on the Rue Saint-Honoré, who in today’s terms would be called a stylist. Everybody wanted to be styled by Rose Bertin who was always with Marie Antoinette, which was why the people called her the "Minister of Fashion". Léonard Autié, the future queen’s hairdresser also became quite famous as he developed her famous pouf, which at one point in time was three feet high. Everything that Marie Antoinette did, what she wore, how she wore her hair was followed, and copied by everybody else. There existed these “poupées de mode, or 'fashion dolls'—precursors to both the store mannequin and the runway model—outfitted in doll-sized versions of the latest Parisian styles”, and later Marie Antoinette kept with her a notebook with swatches of fabrics of all her dresses to look and decide what to wear.
At age 18, her marriage finally gets consummated and she becomes a mother. When she is 19, King Louis XV dies and her husband who assumes the throne and becomes King Louis XVI, gives her a house, the Petit Trianon, where she can be with her children and close friends and even her husband, away from the eyes of the aristocracy living in Versailles, and she starts wearing dresses with white muslin (gauze), called galle complete with the milkmaid bonnets. In a way, a royal’s dressing like a commoner becomes the first time when class can’t be distinguished by the clothes one wears. A democratization of fashion in a way. Women’s class identifiers change. But she is criticized for this of course. Instead of French silk, consider all the industry and the jobs it sustains, the move of her use of muslin and all who follow her, a British import, further upsets the people. She later returns to her usual way of dressing in perhaps a subdued way, but by this time, people are in despair and disgruntled, her expenses are enormous, and everybody talks about her. She starts limiting herself, only in her way though. From 1787-on her expenditures are reduced as she has her dresses repaired, changed and altered instead of giving them away after wearing them once.
The situation gets worse of course as the French king financially supports the American Revolution to stick it to the British, forgetting about the conditions in his country as a revolution is coming closer to his own home by the day. Marie Antoinette is further criticized for wearing mourning clothes in Black, the color associated with the Habsburg dynasty, first when her mother in Austria dies, and then after her daughter and her son die. She is seen more and more un-French and is targeted with the hate of the rest of the members of the royal family and the aristocracy who themselves are out of touch of people’s misery and suffering.
Caroline Weber is a Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Barnard College Columbia University and her book Queen of Fashion was a fun and easy read. I thought I already knew more than the average person but as it turned out I had so much more to learn. The research she did is most impressive. Her notes and references are long and tell as much as the book’s narrative and want you to read even more on her subject. I got a sense that Weber came to think that this very interesting character in history was in a way a victim too. Yes, she has many—many—faults and does many mistakes, but I wondered why is the Queen, the woman, the foreigner, blamed for the suffering of the people and the mismanagement of a government? All the people who, now, know of Marie Antoinette, and that is everybody, do they also know of her husband’s name, the sovereign, the king who ran the country? Louis, hmm, what number? After reading the book, I watched two films I had seen before with a new understanding: One is the 2005 Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette in which Kirsten Dunst’s character is quite similar to Weber’s telling, yes, she loves to dress, to party, and eat cake nonstop but is also nice and misjudged at times, and then the 2012 French film directed by Benoît Jacquot, Les Adieux à la Reine, with the talented Léa Seydoux, and Diane Kruger, who plays Marie Antoinette on the three days following July 14,1789.
The French Revolution took years to start. And on July 14, 1789, with the public’s storming of the Bastille, the revolution that takes 10 years to end, starts. More years of fighting, struggle, and suffering. I guess what I am trying to say is, I read much about the events of the French Revolution like the Reign of Terror, the Revolutionary Wars and Napoleon's appointment as Consul but I had read nothing about the details of the last years of Marie Antoinette. I learned about them in Weber’s book: Marie Antoinette, after her days in Versailles, is taken with her family to Paris where they stay in the Hotel de Ville. In her days there she gains the sympathy of the public with her wearing the cockade bearing the three colors of the Revolution probably thinking a parliamentary monarchy like that of Britain would save her family. As this won’t be possible she must have assumed, she orders new clothes and plans an escape that falls short and she is jailed in Temple, awaiting her end, separated from her husband, and then her daughter and son, the dauphin of France.
It is there, after hearing of her husband Louis XVI’s execution, already very sick and bleeding and living in the filthiest of conditions, she goes back to wearing only Black. Until the day of her execution by the guillotine, when she wears a clean White dress and a White bonnet, in a way going home, in style, to Petit Trianon, where she had all the power.
With thanks to ZB for taking the photo, and SY for allowing us to taking it in his home..