The Queen's Closet
What Marie Antoinette really wore.
Weber convincingly suggests that Marie Antoinette felt those tools being stripped from her at the remise and the dressing and undressing ceremonies at court; and that she exerted herself to get them back. She began clothing and wielding her body to attract the forms of respect she understood: wonder and delight, shock and awe, the sincere flattery of imitation. Her skimpy moral education had left her unprepared for contempt and disgust.
As we all know, she met with both. The dauphine's sartorial boldness emerged early, and drew swift disapproval. She went riding astride with her husband's grandfather, the libertine Louis XV, wearing a man-tailored habit with breeches; and she even wore the shocking outfit for an equestrian portrait, modeled on one of Louis XIV. After that, the flavor of forbidden sexual adventure, and of poaching on royal male preserves, tainted her reputation and never disappeared.
Later she flouted court etiquette when she drove off her noble dressers, sacrilegiously inviting plebeian Bertin (even plebeian Leonard, the chic male hairdresser) daily into her private apartments to clothe, coif, and advise her behind closed doors. This was even more unseemly because the one court lady for whom ultra-chic fashion was appropriate was the king's mistress—a post then vacant—whereas the queen was expected to look like the king's dutiful First Subject, not his costly Favorite Object.
Still later, she offended French patriots when she adopted Anglophile fashions and spent her time with congenial foreign nobility. At the Petit Trianon—a small palace with its own grounds that served as Marie Antoinette's personal retreat—she introduced thin muslin chemises with sashes, linen caps, or straw hats above lightly powdered fluffy hair, no jewelry. This casual look, worn by countless European ladies, seemed shameless on the French queen, who (naturally) had her portrait painted in it. Her little palace was closed to the public, and her total privacy there (conspiratorial? sexual?) made a scandal of the queen's flimsy foreign clothes and foreign friends.
Most shocking in Queen Marie Antoinette was her extravagance, well-documented in the yearly records of her clothing expenses, in dressmakers' accounts, and in memoirs saying that the queen wore nothing twice. Worse was the expensive toy farm she built at the Petit Trianon, complete with livestock and crops, where her friends played at being milkmaids and shepherdesses. It's still considered her chief crime, but the queen had no sense of its effect. The French treasury was depleted, the deficit increasing, the people protesting against unbearable taxes and shortages, but Marie Antoinette, never taught to consider the people's troubles, had no clue.
While fashion plates wore her face, pamphlets and pornography made her a monster—dissolute Messalina, lesbian predator, traitorous conspirator, snake-haired Medusa, harpy with claws, vampire in foreign muslin spending state millions to mock local rustics, wasting pounds of flour on her hair while the people starved for bread. Once angelic, Marie Antoinette was now plotting with hostile powers, including Lucifer, to undermine the well-being of France.
And when the Revolution exploded and prevailed, she instinctively abandoned new trends. Nervous burghers and nobles, even the king, sported Republican tricolor cockades with modishly simple tricolor outfits. But the queen's cockade was Bourbon white, her rich new dresses were purple and gold, and she got out her diamonds. Everyone could see that Marie Antoinette had no politics, only blind faith in royal privilege. Her fate, more firmly than the accommodating king's, was sealed when the Bastille fell.
Weber occasionally makes too much of Marie Antoinette's power. She repeatedly notes that the modest "Republican" dresses worn by most women in the early 1790s resembled those Marie Antoinette had introduced as avant-garde among aristocrats in the early 1780s, as though the queen personally influenced even the fashion of her enemies. She forgets that fashion runs under its own power, compelled toward desirable new forms. In fact, thin white chemises came into fashion everywhere in Europe around 1780 and stayed for nearly 40 years, no matter who was attaching what significance to them. This probably had more to do with the invention of chlorine bleach in 1774 than with anyone's fashion influence.
But Weber is certainly right to emphasize the queen's undeniable gifts when describing her solitary imprisonment after the king's execution. Visible to curious onlookers, Marie Antoinette wore her one increasingly stained and frayed black mourning ensemble day and night for two long months, even though her daughter had sent her some other clothes. At her trial, its tattered blackness aroused considerable sympathy, and she was forbidden to wear it to her execution—no public mourning for the tyrant.
So, chalk-pale Marie Antoinette rode to her death wearing a brand-new white chemise she had secretly saved, a pretty white fichu around her shoulders, and a pleated white cap on her prematurely white hair (she was two weeks short of 38), while thousands of dazzled citizens watched in stunned silence. The queen showed her unquenchable talent for inspired public display in all her last costumes, a sign of her true self-possession.
Weber is a serious historian, and nearly every sentence of her account is footnoted to one of her many sources, some not tapped before, some conflicting, as she explains. Her writing about the period is succinct and detailed, but what's most welcome is her use of her own feeling for clothes and their importance. This popular subject has been trivially belabored by numerous cultural-studies academics with no personal stake in dress history or in actual garments. It's refreshing to find solid interpretive work and historical responsibility in an impassioned book on clothing's power over perception and self-perception.
Anne Hollander is Slate's fashion columnist.
Still from Marie Antoinette © 2004 Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.