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Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolutionby Caroline Weber
Designed for his 2000 Christian Dior "Masquerade and Bondage" collection, John Galliano's "Marie Antoinette" dress tells an unexpected story. True to the architecture of eighteenth-century court costume, the gown features tantalizing décolletage, a rigidly corseted waist, a ladder or échelle of flirty bows on the bodice, and a froth of flounced skirts inflated by petticoats and hoops. Its splendid excess evokes France's most colorful queen . . . even before one notices the embroidered portraits of the lady herself that adorn each of its hoop-skirted hip panels. (Plate 1.)
But the two portraits deserve a closer look, for it is they that tell the story. On the gown's left hip panel the designer has placed an image of Marie Antoinette in her notorious faux shepherdess's garb--a frilly little apron tied over a pastel frock, a decorative staff wound with streaming pink ribbons, and a mile-high hairdo obviously ill suited to the tending of livestock. In keeping with the Queen's frivolous reputation, the embroidered ensemble is more suggestive of Little Bo Peep than of lofty monarchical grandeur. On the right hip panel, Galliano offers a depiction of the same woman, also devoid of royal attributes, but this time in a mode more gruesome than whimsical. Here, she wears a markedly plain, utilitarian dress, with a simple white kerchief knotted around her throat and a drooping red "liberty bonnet"--the emblem of her revolutionary persecutors--clamped onto her brutally shorn head. This image portrays the consort trudging toward the guillotine, to lay her neck beneath its waiting blade.
Galliano's opposing vignettes elegantly express the French queen's well-known trajectory from glamour to tragedy, from extravagant privilege to utter defeat. Yet the juxtaposition does more still. Weaving the arc of her roller-coaster existence into the very fabric of a dress, the designer posits what appears to be a direct relationship between Marie Antoinette's frippery and her demise. He seems to imply that her destiny as an icon both of ancien régime frivolity and of revolutionary vengeance--of capricious, entitled masquerade and deadly political bondage--is closely intertwined with the history of her apparel. This is a formulation that I find revelatory indeed, for, like Galliano, I have scrutinized Marie Antoinette's fashion statements. And I have discovered that they were, in every sense, accessories to the campaign she waged against the oppressive cultural strictures and harsh political animosities that beset her throughout her twenty-three-year tenure in France.
This is a work about the role of fashion in the life of Marie Antoinette, whose clothing choices--so influential in the last decades of the eighteenth century--played a part in determining both her own fate and that of the ancien régime as a whole. This is not a tale that other biographers have chosen to recount. From Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century to Stefan Zweig in the twentieth, many chroniclers of her life and times have cast Marie Antoinette as the icon of an exquisite but doomed social order, and not without reason.1 Indeed, her very presence in Galliano's collection and in a host of other contemporary cultural media--from the fashion press to popular film, and from Madonna's performances and posters to a Swiss watch company's recent advertising campaign--confirms her undiminished ability to conjure up both the flamboyance and the folly of a vanished aristocratic world.2
But I think there is more to consider about this icon. In charting Marie Antoinette's fateful course from the gilded halls of Versailles to the blood-splashed steps of the guillotine, historians rarely emphasize the tremendous importance that her public attached to what she was wearing at each step along the way. In a recent anthology edited by Dena Goodman, a group of contemporary scholars explores how "crucial political and cultural contests were enacted on the very body of the Queen."3 In these analyses, Marie Antoinette's sexuality, fertility, and other physical characteristics are shown to have been both pretexts and catalysts for the fierce debates about gender, class, and power that rocked the ancien régime and fueled the Revolution. Yet, curiously, Marie Antoinette's costumes--and what they meant to the people around her--receive little extensive notice in Goodman's volume, except in a few brilliant passages by Pierre Saint-Amand (who rightly suggests that "the story of Marie Antoinette can be read as a series of costumed events") and Mary Sheriff (who analyzes a portrait of the Queen dressed in a particularly unusual ensemble).4 Apart from these two scholars, Chantal Thomas, whose superb book The Wicked Queen identifies Marie Antoinette's modishness as one of the many reasons the French public turned against her, has stood virtually alone in considering "the crucial political and cultural contests" sparked by the Queen's daring fashions.5
It is time for a still more detailed treatment of this issue, because a thorough reexamination of Marie Antoinette's biography reveals the startling consistency and force with which her costumes triggered severe sociopolitical disorder. As Galliano's gown suggests, the interplay between the consort and her public was an incendiary, ultimately fatal one. By examining the sartorial politics that informed her rise and fall, I hope to cast new light on this endlessly analyzed, inexhaustibly fascinating historical figure.
From the moment the fourteen-year-old Austrian-born archduchess Maria Antonia arrived in France to marry the heir to the Bourbon throne, matters of clothing and appearance proved central to her existence. For the future and, later, reigning queen, a rigid protocol governed much of what she wore, how she wore it, when she wore it, and even who put it on her person. Designed to showcase and affirm the magnificence of the Bourbon dynasty, this protocol had been imposed by French monarchs on their courtiers, and on their consorts, for generations.
Even before she left her native Vienna for the court of France in the spring of 1770, the young princess received an intensive crash course in the Bourbon approach to looks, dress, and public image. She was redesigned from tooth to coif, and a renowned French dance instructor trained her to move gracefully while wearing high heels, hoopskirts, and a hefty, cumbersome train. Her appearance, her elders ceaselessly reminded her, would make or break her success as a French royal wife.
Yet from her earliest days at Versailles, Marie Antoinette staged a revolt against entrenched court etiquette by turning her clothes and other accoutrements into defiant expressions of autonomy and prestige. Although, as many scholars have pointed out, she did not evince a sustained interest in politics qua broad-reaching international or domestic policy, it is my belief that she identified fashion as a key weapon in her struggle for personal prestige, authority, and sometimes mere survival.6 Her efforts in this vein became increasingly complex and sophisticated as she grew to adulthood and adapted to the ever-changing political climate around her. But it was quite early on, as an adolescent newcomer to France, that she first made a striking bid to seize control of her sartorial image. Initiating a lifelong series of bold stylistic experiments (which one aristocratic contemporary described as constituting "a veritable revolution in dress"), she challenged received wisdom about the kind and the extent of the power that a French royal consort ought to possess.7
Traditionally, such power was severely curtailed by a principle known as Salic Law, which excluded women from the line of royal succession.8 Except in cases where a widowed queen acted as regent for a son still too young to rule on his own, the role of the French king's wife was restricted principally to her ability to bear royal children. But for the first seven years of her marriage to Louis Auguste, who became King Louis XVI in 1774, Marie Antoinette found this avenue closed to her. Because of a combination of debilitating psychological and sexual reticence, her young spouse refused to consummate their union, and this put Marie Antoinette--married off to cement a political union between Austria and France--in a profoundly uncomfortable position.9 For as her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, never tired of reminding her, neither the Franco-Austrian alliance nor Marie Antoinette's own place at Versailles would be secure unless she gave the Bourbon dynasty an heir. Until that day, the many French courtiers who deplored the alliance (designed to reverse a centuries-old enmity between the two nations) would not hesitate to push for her replacement by a more fertile princess.
Isolated and unloved by these scheming factions, the Austrian newcomer was thus faced with two options: concede defeat and return to Vienna in disgrace, or find another means of establishing herself in France. With the high geopolitical stakes of her marriage placing the first alternative squarely out of the question, Marie Antoinette began to combat her enemies with style. Through carefully selected, unconventional outfits and accessories, she cultivated what she later called an "appearance of [political] credit," even as she faced continual failure on the procreative front.10 From the male riding gear she sported on the royal hunt to the white furs and diamonds she favored for sleigh rides, and from the monumental hairstyles she flaunted in all of Paris's most fashionable haunts to the intricate disguises she donned for costume parties at Versailles, the startling fashions that Marie Antoinette unveiled announced her as more than just an inadequate spouse or the token of a foundering diplomatic effort. I will argue that these ensembles, too often dismissed as mere instances of the Queen's ill-advised frivolity, identified her as a woman who could dress, spend, and do exactly as she pleased.
To some extent, this strategy was not new. The Sun King, Louis XIV--to whom Marie Antoinette was distantly related and whose exploits she studied as a child--had furthered his absolutist pretensions in part by adopting such imposing, awe-inspiring costumes that viewers had little choice but to concede his supremacy.11 He, too, had had a penchant for elaborate masquerade balls, oversized wigs, glittering gems, and hunting gear that connoted dominion over all creatures, great and small.12 More recently, Mesdames de Pompadour and Du Barry, mistresses to Louis XIV's successor Louis XV, had made a show of their unrivaled influence on the crown by spending a king's ransom on gowns and jewels. For them as for the Sun King, dress functioned as a compelling and efficient vehicle for communicating political power.
Yet, because she was neither a king nor a king's mistress, Marie Antoinette's sartorial posturing represented a striking departure from established court custom. For a French consort to modify the conventions of royal appearance, or to seek attention or empowerment on her own terms, was virtually unheard of. But this is exactly what Marie Antoinette did, in ways that became even more daring after she acceded to the throne in 1774.13 Her stature unchallenged by a competing royal mistress--for shy Louis XVI had none--the young queen promptly jettisoned the stagnant and dowdy royal style that had long functioned to evoke the timelessness of the Bourbon reign, and set out in heady new directions. Aided by a burgeoning class of gifted Parisian designers, the forebears to today's superstar couturiers, Marie Antoinette cultivated looks that were playful and coquettish, ephemeral and unpredictable, alluring and modern.
On the more whimsical side, one of her signature vogues was the pouf, a thickly powdered, teetering hairstyle that re-created elaborate scenes from current events (such as a naval victory against the British, or the birth of an exalted French duke) or from imaginary country idylls (complete with windmills, grazing beasts, laboring peasants, and babbling brooks). Less ostentatious but equally novel were the saucy, unstructured chemise dresses that the Queen came to favor as a reaction against the stiff hoops and whalebone stays of standard court wear. Adopted as the unofficial uniform of the Petit Trianon--the private country retreat Marie Antoinette received as a gift from her husband shortly after their accession--these free-flowing shifts facilitated distinctly nonroyal shenanigans such as picnics on the grass, games of blindman's buff, and frolics among pretty, perfumed flocks of sheep. Despite conservative courtiers' protestations that the dresses made their noble wearers indistinguishable from serving wenches, the Queen and her companions reveled in the freedom and comfort their new garb afforded them.
Among the nobility and the moneyed bourgeoisie, even those women who found such innovations shocking in the King's wife could not resist following her lead. "By one of those contradictions that are more common in France than anywhere else," wrote a contemporary observer, "even as the people were criticizing the Queen for her outfits, they continued frenetically to imitate her. Every woman wanted to have the same déshabillé, the same bonnet, that they had seen her wear."14 Propelled to notoriety by the ingenuity of designers to whom the public came to refer as her "ministry of fashion," Marie Antoinette established herself as a force to be reckoned with--as a queen who commanded as much attention as the most dazzling king or mistress, and whose imposing stature had nothing to do with her maternal prospects.
Her celebrity, however, came at a price. Obsessively monitored by those around her, Marie Antoinette's unorthodox styles prompted a backlash among courtiers who strenuously opposed her rise, and who bristled at her defiance of time-honored royal customs. These aristocrats, in turn, reviled her as a reckless Austrian interloper who was blithely overstepping the bounds of her queenly station, eclipsing her husband as the center of her subjects' attention, and degrading his sacred authority in the process. They also charged her and her "ministry of fashion" with depleting France's coffers, which, because of a recent series of domestic and international crises, could ill afford to be tapped for endless bonnets and frocks.
Flowing from the nobles' palaces to the streets of Paris, often by means of vituperative underground pamphlets and caricatures, rumors of the Queen's sartorial exploits also prompted outrage among her lower-born subjects. Outside the privileged world of Versailles, Marie Antoinette's costly attire came to epitomize the vast economic inequalities that condemned so much of the French populace to abject misery. In addition, some of her critics resented her because they retained an expectation that the royal consort should respect the established limits of her position, should retain the air of docile conformity and anodyne polish that previous consorts (such as Louis XV's late wife, Maria Leczinska) had reassuringly conveyed.15 Yet the new queen's provocative garb revealed that she had no intention of doing any such thing.
The resulting paradox of Marie Antoinette's career as a public figure was that despite her intuitive grasp of clothing's potential to express status and strength, she repeatedly misjudged the responses her attire would elicit from her subjects. That she was performing for a twofold audience--aristocrats and commoners--almost necessarily meant that she could not hope to please all of the people all of the time. But more often than not, her rebellion in dress generated or exacerbated grievances among both contingents, to the point where the nobility and the populace, worlds apart on so many political issues, reached an explosive consensus about their hatred of Marie Antoinette. Like Claudius, the illegitimately enthroned "king of shreds and patches" thought by Shakespeare's Hamlet to personify the whole of the rotten Danish state, this queen of poufs and feathers came to emblematize the worst aspects of royal privilege--and the best reasons for revolution.
In their sweeping reform of French society and culture, the revolutionaries who toppled Louis XVI's régime succeeded in obliterating not only a political system based on entrenched and iniquitous caste distinctions, but also the emblems--palaces and prisons, coats of arms and crowns--that gave these distinctions their material form.16 Unfortunately for the purposes of this study, the rebels' destructive frenzy reduced Marie Antoinette's own magnificent clothing collection to, precisely, a pile of shreds and patches. Before insurrectionary forces stormed Versailles in October 1789, the collection filled three entire rooms at the château: rooms that were open to the public, and that granted visitors a firsthand glimpse of the Queen's countless accessories and gowns.17 After the October uprising, the monarchs were forced to relocate from Versailles to the Tuileries, their Parisian residence; a large number of Marie Antoinette's clothes, undamaged in the invasion, were sent on to her there. Yet neither these outfits nor the new ones she commissioned while in Paris survived the Revolution's subsequent turmoil.
In June 1791, during the royal family's abortive attempt to flee the capital, a crowd of marauders reportedly broke into the Tuileries and looted the runaway consort's armoires for articles that, during the revolutionary period, had remained billboards for her undiminished sense of monarchical prestige--and had thus continued to draw the people's ire.18 Fourteen months later, on August 10, 1792, rioting hordes again laid siege to the Tuileries, this time sending the King and Queen into an imprisonment that ended only with their executions in 1793. With the exception of the diminutive, beribboned slipper she lost while fleeing the palace, and of swatches of ruined garments later preserved as relics by the monarchy's loyalists, almost nothing of Marie Antoinette's wardrobe escaped the onslaught intact.19
The fragments that remain--scattered, stained, and harrowing to behold--are woefully unequal to the task of re-creating the Queen's fashions in all their grandiose glory. The history of Marie Antoinette's costuming preferences can, however, still be gleaned from a variety of other eighteenth-century materials: from formal portraits to satirical cartoons, from fashion journals to pornographic pamphlets, and from her contemporaries' recollections to her clothing purveyors' and wardrobe manager's account books. In addition, pieces of this history can be reconstructed from the research of those biographers who, while not focusing primarily on Marie Antoinette's love affair with fashion, pay close attention to the vagaries of her costumes. Antonia Fraser's well-known recent biography has been particularly helpful to me in this regard, for the splendid detail it offers about (and the concern it demonstrates for) the Queen's style of dress. Like me, Fraser went through the none-too-self-evident process of obtaining permission to consult firsthand the few gazettes des atours--marvelous eighteenth-century "look books" containing fabric swatches and shorthand dress descriptions, on the basis of which Marie Antoinette selected her outfits each morning--that have been preserved in France's Archives Nationales.20
Admittedly, determining with utter certainty what Marie Antoinette wore and when is made almost impossible by the distortions and omissions that inhere in even the most "neutral" of historical records.21 And when a subject generates as varied and severe a backlash as this controversial queen's outfits invariably did, the lines between biographical fact and cultural fiction can be especially hard to demarcate. (The same holds true for Marie Antoinette's actions in general; in charting the biographical elements most salient to her sartorial itinerary, I have therefore relied on the scrupulous research of generations of biographers, cited abundantly and gratefully throughout these pages.) Without purporting to resolve these difficulties with respect to Marie Antoinette's clothing, I have tried to address them by documenting my sources as painstakingly as possible, and by highlighting the places where an observer's overriding political agenda--be it anti-Austrian, antifeminist, pro-monarchist, or pro-revolutionary--calls the reliability of his or her claims most acutely into question.22
At the same time, I have made a conscious decision not to exclude from this study the distortions and fantasies that cropped up around the Queen's clothed persona, for these, too, tell us something valuable about how that persona was represented and perceived.23 As Lynn Hunt has demonstrated in her work on revolutionary pornography, wildly exaggerated, often outright invented tales of Marie Antoinette's nymphomania, lesbianism, and other sexual "perversions" not only belied the deep-seated misogyny of republican politics, but were marshaled by the Queen's adversaries to build the legal case for her execution.24 Such fabrications, Hunt has shown, can have real political weight and real historical significance. They have the power to change lives--even to end them.
In much the same way, I take the view that both the ostensibly neutral and the obviously exaggerated accounts of Marie Antoinette's costuming choices highlight these choices' capacity to provoke commentary and generate upheaval on a grand scale. As Michael Ondaatje has written in the voice of another of history's more elusive antiheroes, Billy the Kid, "blood a necklace on me all my life."25 Reviled time and again for her crimes of fashion, Marie Antoinette might well have described herself in much the same way. Indeed, according to the biographer Carrolly Erickson, shortly after the guillotine sliced its own bloody version of a necklace into the Queen's throat, well-born women in Paris began tying "thin red ribbons around their necks as reminders of what they might soon suffer."26 Even in death, the royal consort thus affirmed a powerful link between fashion and politics. But this was a link that, as the nation's most conspicuous and controversial fashion plate, she had spent a lifetime forging. Always imaginative, if sometimes imaginary, Marie Antoinette's wardrobe was the stuff of dreams, and the space of nightmares.
Copyright © 2006 by Caroline Weber. All rights reserved.
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