What Marie Antoinette really wore.

The language of style.
Nov. 3 2006 6:49 PM

The Queen's Closet

What Marie Antoinette really wore.

Marie Antoinette. Click image to expand.
Marie Antoinette

As Queen of France, Marie Antoinette attracted enough public loathing to ensure the French monarchy's downfall. That loathing, as Caroline Weber points out in Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, was largely focused on the queen's clothes. After the royal family was imprisoned in 1792, a mob invaded the Tuileries—their palace in Paris—and made straight for the queen's wardrobe, to festoon themselves in her rich garments and then rip into shreds whatever they didn't take. Earlier, at Versailles, another mob had rushed to the queen's dressing room just to smash all the mirrors, leaving the priceless furniture and paintings untouched.

This book's theme is the way young Queen Marie Antoinette took up pointed, disturbing fashions to give herself a visible autonomy and personal force that tradition didn't provide. Weber sees this as a deliberate strategy, although it makes more sense as an instinctive maneuver. French queens had no political role, could never inherit the throne or exercise royal power, and this future queen had arrived at Versailles politically ignorant and inept. She found the court riven with faction, she had few reliable supporters of her own, and her distant imperial mother's advice soon proved useless. Marie Antoinette might well have felt that her personal style was all she could manipulate.

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As the new wife of the crown prince, her one legitimate function was to produce offspring, but the young heir seemed unable to do his part at the beginning. She had her first child only after eight and a half fruitless years; and after four of them, the new queen began to focus her creative energy on clothes. She didn't invent fashions. She promoted radical new ones through her public persona, in the modern, celebrity-culture way—and that's why we like her today, instead of automatically despising her as the last century did. Sofia Coppola's film reflects our present sympathy for an eager-to-please teenager's fashion-addictive responses to unbearable demands, especially when cut off from family love—and we, of course, are safely cut off from the assumptions governing the upbringing of 18th-century royal children.

Marie Antoinette's mother, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, had destined her for this marriage from birth, grooming her appearance and behavior for all levels of French scrutiny. While commoners hailed her angelic blond looks as an augury of better times, the court delighted in her fine grasp of the French tongue, French manners, and Bourbon history. But the empress may have had an unsubtle sense of current French style. Paris had long since ruled European fashion, regularly sending elegant fashion dolls as models to foreign capitals, including the Vienna of Archduchess Marie Antoinette's childhood. The little girl was always dressed accordingly. Weber describes a painting of an imperial family group showing the nonmarriageable oldest daughter plainly dressed, while the 7-year-old future dauphine and her toy fashion doll have on the same formal French dress with a train.

The empress may not have realized that in teeming Paris, avant-garde fashion then went along with refined sexual license, class intermingling, and free political talk, whereas fashion at Versailles remained chiefly an important aspect of court etiquette. Marie Antoinette's first experience of the difference occurred halfway through her journey from home, at the ceremony called remise, or handover.

In a small pavilion situated between French and Austrian soil, a troupe of French ladies stripped the girl naked, while French and Austrian diplomats watched. Then they replaced every atom of the Paris-inspired finery she had worn out of Austria with similar garments and adornments made in France, symbolically transforming her from an Austrian imperial archduchess into a French royal princess with completely new allegiances.

The dauphine found that her court duties demanded unfashionably heavy dresses supported by old-style, extra-long, extra-rigid corsets, accompanied by thick rouge and stiff curls. These items were ritually applied every day by a phalanx of noblewomen, while lesser court ladies watched; and, at night, the whole process was reversed. She rebelled, soon and permanently, risking her mother's anger, the court's disfavor, eventually the people's scorn, and her own neck.

Once queen, she steadily ordered the newest looks from Rose Bertin, the leading Paris couturiere—among them the provocative "robe a la polonaise," with its bosom-enhancing bodice and its billowy, ankle-baring skirts, the whole crowned by a "pouf," a 3-foot mountain of powdered hair decked with plumes, veils, and other objects arranged as saucy references to current events. All this and more she wore at court and in town, with swiftly contagious effect; and Bertin became known as the Minister of Fashion.

Marie Antoinette was not a beauty (she had the Habsburg jaw); but she was an enchantress, effortlessly wearing the wildest fashions with the utter conviction of a star. The fashion she followed was moreover the new commercial mode of the larger society, not the old hermetic style of courtiers using their rich garb to reflect the Sun King's glory. It was soon obvious that her expensive modern glamour was enhancing only herself, not the monarchy.

It hadn't occurred to Maria Theresa that by training her pliable daughter from age 3 to sit, stand, walk, and bow gracefully—and dance divinely—wearing tight stays, long trains, and wide skirts with all eyes upon her, she was giving her the tools of self-creation and self-possession wholly in terms of striking costume and polished movement, as if preparing her for professional ballet or competitive ice-skating.

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