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Queen of Fashion

Was the doomed Marie Antoinette merely a frivolous aristocrat addicted to bizarre 18th century frippery? Or did she have a deeper side?
Francis Phillips | 29 April 2007
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Queen of Fashion
By Caroline Weber
Aurum | ISBN-13: 978-1845132057 | 352 pages | US$27.50/£18. 99

Caroline Weber, professor of 18th century French literature and history at Barnard College, Columbia University, has subtitled her book: "What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution". On the dust jacket is, perhaps, the most famous image of the French queen that has survived for later generations: posing sideways in decolletage with an extraordinary hairdo, a pouf a la Belle Poule, displaying a French frigate that won a key victory against the English in June 1778. By a cruel irony of fashion, this was the very hairdo sported by the pop star and one-man extravaganza, Elton John, for his 50th birthday. Apparently he was annoyed that his headpiece was too high for a normal car, so he had to travel to his birthday venue by furniture van.

This anecdote is not a digression. What the author has done, with her meticulous research into every aspect of Marie Antoinette’s toilette, from the time of her arrival in France as future Dauphine in 1770 (she became queen on the death of Louis XV in 1774), until her death on the guillotine in October 1793, is to depict a woman of iconic frivolity, someone who saw fashion as "a key weapon in her struggle for personal prestige, authority and… mere survival." There are many similar remarks throughout the book. Underneath the scholarship I detect a certain feminist agenda that has selected Marie Antoinette as a feisty precursor of the Sisterhood, someone seeking power and identity through her dress in a hostile, largely male, world. Is this an accurate or adequate interpretation?

Certainly the young dauphine and queen had much to contend with at the French court. She was only 14 when she left her family and Austria forever, the chief actor in a dynastic alliance arranged by her formidable mother, the Empress Maria Theresa; the Viennese court she had left was a place of homeliness and informality compared with the rococo rigidities of Versailles, still dominated by the rules of etiquette laid down by the Sun King, Louis XIV. Her young husband, the future Louis XVI, was shy, clumsy and undemonstrative, preferring food and hunting to the company of his new wife. Surrounded by envy, gossip, intrigue, scandal, courtly corruption and conspicuous spending on a grand scale, it was not surprising that the young queen, graceful in her movements, modest in her comportment and possessed of great charm, should seek to establish herself as her rank demanded. If she could not break the conventions of her life, she would impose her own style upon it.

Her mother had spent 400,000 livres on her trousseau, at a time when the entire wardrobe of a working-class French family averaged 30 livres. On her marriage she received jewels worth two million livres. Her household at Versailles comprised 100 officers and valets, 200 servants to supervise meals, six equerries, nine ushers, two doctors, four surgeons, a clock-maker, a tapestry-maker, 18 lackeys, a fencing master and two muleteers as well as "a small cadre of priests". The author substantially documents the colossal extravagance of Versailles and its aristocratic hierarchy. She suggests that Madame Pompadour, mistress to Louis XIV, had enunciated those prophetic words, "After us, the deluge." If Marie Antoinette had had the political acumen of Catherine the Great, the holiness of Elizabeth of Hungary or the bourgeois ordinariness of Queen Victoria, it is just possible that the French monarchy might have averted the tragedy that befell it. As it was the Queen, possessed of Hapsburg pride and shielded from the wretched lives of the common people, together with her hapless consort, a man kindly disposed but chronically indecisive, were doomed. Apparently she never made the remark that became her most damning epithet: "Let them eat cake."

Weber successfully describes the dazzling outfits that the Queen wore, in season and out of season; the relentless public life she was forced to lead, even while dressing; and her love of fashion. One is reminded of the late Princess Diana, another young and beautiful woman and fashion icon, married to the heir to the throne and alternately loved and hounded by the public. Elton John even performed at her funeral. But there the comparison ends. What the author does not convey, because she does not understand them, are Marie Antoinette’s more serious and abiding character traits: her faithful love for her husband at a debauched court; her emotional closeness to her children; her love for France; her bravery in captivity and at her trial; above all, her dignity in facing a deliberately humiliating death at the hands of the revolutionaries. Essentially the book peters out in 1789, when the royal family was forced to return to Paris from Versailles and to live in gilded captivity in the Tuileries palace. Though these final years, from 1789 to 1793, show the Queen at her noblest, they are the least interesting for Weber because the lavish court costume drama is over for ever. Indeed, her treatment of Marie Antoinette’s time in the Temple, where she lived before being taken to the prison of the Conciergerie after her husband’s death, is almost perfunctory.

The Queen’s last letter, written to her sister-in-law, Madame Elizabeth, in the early hours of 16 October 1793, the day of her execution, is referred to without comment, yet it is easily the source of our keenest insight into the mind and personality of this tragic woman. In it Marie Antoinette declared her love for her family, to whom she was forbidden to say goodbye; she humbly asked "God’s pardon for all the mistakes I have made"; desired forgiveness for her enemies (who had mercilessly slandered her moral reputation); finally, every inch a monarch and the daughter of an emperor, she expressed the hope that she would be able to die with courage.

The last glimpse posterity has of her is the quick sketch made by the revolutionary artist, David, as she was taken by tumbrel to the scaffold. The graceful and charming woman is shown prematurely aged by suffering, her hair white, dressed in a plain white smock and bonnet, with her hands tied behind her back. Yet her posture is erect and she sits with an aura of pathetic dignity and calm. She was much more than a "queen of fashion".

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.

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