"Caroline Weber's Queen of Fashion examines Marie Antoinette from an arresting angle--her theatrical persona as a fashion innovator. Forced to jockey for position, French courtiers were slaves of fashion, while queens tended to be more modest and reserved. Fashion flash was practiced instead by the kings' semi-official mistresses--a role that Weber demonstrates was borrowed by Marie Antoinette (whose husband had no mistress) and that eventually compromised her reputation and made it easier for scurrilous pamphleteers to caricature her as a whore."--Camille Paglia, The Chronicle of Higher Education
"It is always gratifying to discover how much a fashion statement can mean, and Weber's account of the transition from ancien regime to the Republic from a sartorial point of view is a perceptive work of scholarship that helps to explain the transcendent importance of fashion to French culture."--The New Yorker
"Wickedly enjoyable."--Horatio Silva, The New York Times Style Magazine
"Prodigiously researched [and] deliciously detailed . . . The generously illustrated history by Weber posits that the queen's fashion obsession wasn't about narcissism and frivolity, but self-assertion; even at the guillotine she controlled her image with a radiantly white ensemble. Who knew that in 1909 one could have a dear friend give you a Brazilian shave?"--Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
"Comprehensive, entertaining . . . the fashion segments are fun to read and researched with consummate attention to detail. When the royal couple is finally imprisoned, the author does a splendid job of explaining how their political fall was mirrored in their dress. Her account of the queen's final appearance--all in glorious white--on the ride to the guillotine carries enormous poignancy. A briskly written account of a time when high fashion took death's hand and danced."--Kirkus Reviews
Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende
Leseprobe. Abdruck erfolgt mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Rechteinhaber. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.
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...