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Revolutions In Fashion: Marie Antoinette

Nov 06, 15 Revolutions In Fashion: Marie Antoinette

Spring 1770, the young Marie Antoinette, born 14 years earlier as Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, is on her way from Vienna to Versailles after spending countless hours with dressmakers from Paris. Her marriage with French dauphine is supposed to seal the Franco-Austrian alliance. And it is time for Marie Antoinette to step out of her tiny silly slippers into the world of gossip, plotting, intrigues and loneliness, but most of all, the world where clothes and fashion play the biggest role, functioning as a compelling and efficient vehicle for communicating political power.

Prior to Marie Antoinette’s arriving at Versailles, there was a long year of preparations, that beside the political negotiation part, included a full makeover for the girl who was about to become France’s most colourful queen. At the age of 13 she had to learn how to be a member of a Royalty of Versailles, how to look splendid, divine and majestic, and how to walk as if you are floating in the air.Her mother, Maria Theresa, knowing that her daughter had to look French in order to become French, hired a small army of French dressmakers and milliners for her little Maria Antonia. While they were working on her wardrobe, the best dentist from France worked on correcting her smile and teeth – an extremely painful procedure that lasted 3 months with no anesthesia – and all that to please the king and his people, complaining about the non-majestic look of the young queen-to-be.

Thus, finally when the king and the court, to their satisfaction, saw a portrait of Marie Antoinette made by the French portraitist Joseph Ducreux after the makeover, the marriage was approved, and the young girl begun her journey in becoming the most stylish queen with a frivolous reputation and a roller-coaster existence.

Marie-Antoinette portait by Ducreux Young Marie-Antoinette (1767)

According to the French law the new Dauphine must let go all her past. After being stripped and humiliated, Marie Antoinette’s clothes and her beloved pug were taken away from her, she only managed to keep the tiny golden watch her mother gave her. Having learned at this very early stage that fashion is a political power, she entered her new life.

At the French court, the young Marie Antoinette was isolated and unloved. She was a foreigner, with her own husband refusing to make an effort to consummate their marriage. Put in an uncomfortable position and alone, she had two choices – to quit or to find other means of establishing in France, and she began to combat her enemies with style.

Louis Auguste, Marie Antoinette’s husband, due to medical problems, was not able to consummate their reunion and was interested in only two things those days: hunting in the parks around the royal residences, and tinkering with locks and clocks at his private workshop. Despite the court’s and her mother’s shame and anger, Marie Antoinette started to take horse riding lessons, with the approval of the king himself. She was willing to join her husband in the Royal hunt, trying to connect to him in a different way.  At first Marie Antoinette was accompanying the hunt in her own carriage, but it wasn’t long when she started to ride a horse alone, wearing breeches and riding like a man, in times when cross-dressing was forbidden. Although Marie Antoinette wasn’t the first one to appear in a masculine look: Catherine the Great, the empress of Russia, did so a while ago, appearing at the first military parade horseback, wearing a male officer’s uniform with a feathered tricorn hat on her head. Marie Antoinette’s appearance was much more scandalous, as in the Versailles “there were only three important things: the King, his mistresses, and his court. The queen was nothing”.

Marie Antoinette’s portrait was taken in that appearance, sitting on a horseback, wearing breeches and a tight fitting jacket that was called a riding coat. Posing in this manner, she was assuming King’s manly authorities to herself, imitating the King of Sun’s (Louis the XIV) signature pose. While her husband, who actually stood to inherit the crown, refused to act like a man and have himself depicted in such a heroic manner.

Marie Antoinette horseback portrait

With her husband still avoiding physical contact with her and her place in the court more unstable than ever, Marie Antoinette began to sneak out of the Versailles, going to Paris, enjoying parties and the love of the crowd there, becoming a celebrity. It was in Paris, where Marie Antoinette met two famous milliners and dressmakers (or fashion stylists as we say nowadays): Rose Bertin and Leonard, who would help her in becoming the Queen of Fashion. Rose Bertin and Leonard weren’t called the Ministers of Fashion for nothing. Making Marine Antoinette’s style and appearance flawless, it was Rose Bertin who introduced to her the “pouf”. The pouf was a hairstyle teased high over a forehead, heavily powdered, and topped with a cluster of nodding white feathers. Marie Antoinette immediately fell in love with the pouf, making it her signature, time after time experimenting with more extreme styles, making it impossible to ignore and presenting herself as the court ruling Diva, the Queen of glamour. Among many other styles, there was a pouf “a la jardinière”, with such implausible ingredients like artichoke, a carrot, some radishes, and a head of a cabbage. Even this ridiculous style was gladly adopted by many. One of the women of the court declared that this style is so simple and so much more natural than flowers that “she shall never again wear anything else but vegetables.” Among the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie, even those women who found such innovations shocking, could not resist following her lead. While this pouf showed Marie Antoinette’s new passion for gardening, Marie Antoinette once even wore a pouf with small figures of her enemies from the court in her hair. She kept walking around as if she had more power than anyone else.

Marie Antoinette and her pouf, showing the support for France joining the American revolutionaries (displaying a French frigate that won a key victory in 1778)

She warned her favourite stylists, Bertin and Leonard, that she didn’t want them to fall behind the times by tending only to her. She approved copying her styles with the only condition that they were made two weeks after her debut. First fashion magazines of that time created an appetite of the public to know what she was wearing to this or another ball or other public occasions. Marie Antoinette even encouraged her stylists to publish articles about their creations she was wearing on the pages of the women’s Le Journal des Dames. Thus, she was representing herself not only in terms of a position in the court, but in terms of a position in a larger society. She succeeded so well at this, that it was about to fail.

On July 22, 1773 her husband finally underwent a medical intervention and consummated their reunion. Shortly after her giving a birth to a child, the King Louis the XV passed away, and it was her husband’s turn to inherit the crown. Marie Antoinette, a foreigner from Austria, became the Queen of France and Navarre. During the coronation of her husband, it was told that her pouf made it hard for people to see the future king, and people started to complain about Marie Antoinette outshining her husband. In a response to that, her hairstyles became even bigger and more extreme and expensive, now making her 3 foot taller than any other woman. On January 1775 she started throwing balls with more and more inventive outfits and themes. Even during the hard times for the French nation, she would not stop wasting a lot of money on fashion and establishing her status as a queen of style.  Her modishness was about to become the reason why her public will turn against her.

Marie Antoinette’s story depicts a sadly human woman desperate to signal her allegiance to an increasingly bitter public. In the face of accusations that her extravagant wardrobe and lifestyle were bankrupting the nation, Marie Antoinette chose to dress more simply and cheaply in taffeta and somber colours. Yet even this choice was ridiculed by nobility and common folk alike, who then complained that she did not appear adequately royal. Now known and described among a broader public more than ever before, Marie Antoinette’s radical indulgences of style again figured forth a host of damning connotations – from sexual depravity to financial rapacity to treasonous, anti-French political loyalties – that damaged her reputation beyond repair, and drastically compromised the stature of her monarchy as a whole. During those times she started to dress more simply, without a pouf, adopting a different style of dress, that is about to become another scandal. On a portrait of 1779 Marie Antoinette appeared in her new favourite Trianon look, wearing a white muslin dress with no corset, so different from the Versailles gown. Accompanied with a plain white bonnet, the gauzy loosely draped gown borne no traces of royal grandeur. The dress was unstructured, and she was also wearing no makeup, which was unusual those times, when women were required to wear a thick pancake makeup. The fabric of this dress was imported from Hapsburg territories, making it even more scandalous. On top of the dress she was often wearing her favourite masculine riding coat.

Marie-Antoinette in white muslin dress Marie-Antoinette white dress with riding coat

This white dress was a revolution, with nothing compare to this level to come in the world of fashion, until Coco Chanel’s little black dress. The white dress was much less expensive and much easier to make, and by the year of 1780 the streets of Paris were full of women wearing the same style. From a prostitute to a princess, everyone adapted this comfortable style, and Marie Antoinette was blamed again for being not royal enough, “looking like a girl from a village, selling lemonade”, or “appearing in her underwear in public”.

Marie Antoinette, the girl who constantly looked for approval, who became the Queen of fashion and glamour, during the next few years turned to be the most hated person in France. When the revolutionaries stormed the Versailles, the only room that was destroyed was her bedroom. Marie Antoinette and her husband were taken to jail, with their kids taken away from them.

Upon learning of her husband’s execution on January 21, 1793, Marie Antoinette made her final statement in fashion, requesting black mourning clothes for her and her family. At that time wearing black was forbidden and illegal, however her request was still approved. Marie Antoinette did not take off this black dress with the notable black widow’s coif made by Rose Bertin for 10 months, mourning the death of her husband Louis XVI. She was defining herself through fashion one last time.

Marie Antoinette before execution in her white dress Marie Antoinette in prison mourning her husband

When time had come to Marie Antoinette’s goodbye with life, announcing the execution, she was informed that she will not be allowed to wear her black mourning dress. So she chose to wear her simple and revolutionary white dress. Plain but pristine white chemise and bonnet that seemed she had saved precisely for that occasion. An amazing finale, showing that Fashion could do very little, as well as too much.

More than 200 years after her death, Marie Antoinette’s style is still mimicked on fashion runways, John Galliano’s Marie Antoinette dress being the best and most accurate representation.

Marie-Antoinette Dior Couture