The Original Style Queen
Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution By Caroline Weber New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006, 412 pp., $27.50, hardcover. Reviewed by Lori Marso
The French see Marie-Antoinette in extreme terms: she is either revered or reviled. Either way, she is larger than life, as are the fashions associated with her name. However, as a young girl, though surrounded by, and with access to, a garish abundance of wealth, Marie Antoinette was treated as no more than a pawn in a high-stakes geopolitical alliance. Her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, married her off in 1770, when she was fourteen, to the French Dauphin Louis August. Her freedom was negligible and her role well defined: to produce an heir for the French court. But the equally young Louis, who became King Louis XVI in 1774, was unable to consummate the marriage for seven years, placing the young queen in a perilous position. Unable to seal the political union between Austria and France and surrounded by enemies of Austria within the Bourbon Court, Marie Antoinette’s strategy became “to combat her enemies with style,” says Caroline Weber. Her delightfully written, well-documented and erudite account of the interplay between politics and fashion in the lead-up to the French Revolution is a scholarly work that reads like a novel.
The queen’s fashion choices were neither consumerist enjoyment nor girlish whims—contrary to the impression you may have gotten from Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette. Instead, Weber convincingly shows that Marie Antoinette carefully cultivated her sartorial sense. During the eleven years before she gave birth to a boy, she dressed to enhance her symbolic power. The directions her style took were often contradictory, from high fashion that intensified her royal image to outright defiance of her rank and gender. She developed a penchant for a manly style of riding breeches that mimicked the costume of her ancestor, the Sun King, Louis the XIV, and wore gaulles, simple white linen frocks, to match her unregulated lifestyle at the Petit Trianon palace (a gift from her husband in 1774, where she retreated from the elaborate rituals of Versailles). Yet at the same time her elaborate pouf hairstyles sometimes reached three feet in height. Unfortunately, says Weber, “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.” Though usually so far apart, aristocrats and commoners could join forces on one issue: their hatred of the queen.
Marie Antoinette’s style demonstrated to her enemies inside and outside the court that she could do exactly as she pleased, and it served her well in the early years. However, as revolutionary sympathies gripped the nation, her rebellion in dress was interpreted as a rejection of the feminine norms of her rank, as well as a sign of narcissism and lack of sympathy with the people. Because of her early defiance of gender roles, she was accused of “lesbianism, monstrousness, and a brazen thirst for power.” Even her feminine styles became suspect. The rage for trimmings, ribbons, bonnets, and feathers among the women of Paris, for example, was seen as a threat to the institution of marriage, as women reported that they “were just as happy [buying] poufs as [getting] a husband.” Along with women’s dowries, moral values were deteriorating. As women powdered their poufs, the people starved.
Moreover, the styles threatened the king’s manliness. Among many wonderful illustrations and portraits that Weber includes in her book is a 1791 cartoon that depicts the royal couple’s failed attempt to escape to Varennes from their prison in Paris: Louis XVI, dressed in a feminine smock, stands behind his wife and combs her hair. According to the queen’s detractors, her early defiance of royal gender roles caused the king’s downfall, leaving him with “nothing better to do than to tend to the hairstyle of his reckless, domineering wife.”
As Marie Antoinette frolicked at the Petit Trianon, reading Rousseau and playing with her daughter, she no doubt inadvertently helped to undermine the distinctions among the social classes. But the queen, a staunch royalist “by conviction as well as by birth…neither grasped nor sympathized with egalitarian notions.” When the sympathies of the people became all too clear, she opted to accentuate her royal standing. For the opening of the Estates General, she “planned her outfits…with tremendous care, abandoning her more personal whims of style for the time-honored conventions of queenly pomp,” says Weber. Yet by this time she could do nothing right in the people’s eyes. She was reviled for her royal splendor as thoroughly as she had been for her gaulles and breeches.
Pamphleteers depicted her as the most dangerous woman in the country. Her extravagance was said to have led to the nation’s financial straits and her connection to the Austrian court was always suspect. Weber points out that the “public’s growing mistrust for Marie Antoinette was fueled largely by anxieties about a feminine shadow government secretly ruling France.” And in fact, by 1788 she had accrued some real political power and regularly influenced the king’s decisions.
In October 1789, a contingent of mostly lower-class Parisian women marched to Versailles to demand that the royal couple guarantee them bread and sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Their direct confrontation with Marie Antoinette demonstrated the distance that had arisen between them and their queen. The women, who had earlier adored her and the glorious vision of royalty she embodied, now hated her for having escaped their female plight: ignorance, poverty, sexual bondage, and slavery to their reproductive lives. Adding insult to injury, Marie Antoinette defiantly refused to wear the Revolution’s tricolor rosette. The marchers swore they would make cockades from her innards.
Feminists of the time had difficulty figuring out whom to support: the lower-class marchers with their just demands and their complaints about aristocratic excess, or the vilified queen, who had brazenly stepped out of her role. Both the British Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and the French Germaine de Staël, in her three-volume Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, commented extensively on the significance of both the women’s march and Marie Antoinette’s trial and execution. Wollstonecraft and Staël supported the revolution’s early goals; nevertheless, they depict Marie Antoinette sympathetically as a woman thrust into the public eye, struggling to negotiate the often conflicting feminine roles her position demanded.
Both Wollstonecraft and Staël were invested in expanding the political roles of women. Although they sympathized with the Parisian women and their exercise of their newfound power, they also recognized that the demonization of Marie Antoinette did not bode well for women’s political aspirations. Indeed, by the time of the queen’s execution in August 1793, almost all possibility of women’s formal political participation had been crushed by the patriarchal Jacobins. The moment Marie Antoinette became a symbol of the dangers of the “political” woman, women’s full participation as citizens began to wane.
Weber makes no such explicit political connections and cites neither Staël nor Wollstonecraft; she fails to link Marie Antoinette’s manipulation of gender norms to the citizenship rights of French women. However her meticulous historical research and lively narrative offer original insights into Marie Antoinette as an active and courageous political player. In contrast to authors who see the queen merely as a victim of revolutionary excess, Weber depicts a Marie Antoinette who is keenly aware of her sartorial choices and the power they afford her. Though ultimately she could not control the way she was perceived, she was highly conscious of crafting her image.
To the end, Marie Antoinette used clothing as a weapon. After the execution of the king, the captive queen, now dubbed by the revolutionaries the Widow Capet to deny her royal standing, ordered a black mourning gown. She wore her widow’s weeds for ten months, until she herself was taken to the guillotine. Forbidden to dress like a widow for her execution, she concocted what “just may have been the most brilliant fashion statement of her entire career,” says Weber. Led to her death in an open cart, Marie Antoinette dressed completely in white: the color “of the pages on which her story has been—and will be—written again and again and again.”
Lori Jo Marso is professor of Political Science and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Union College in Schenectady, New York. She is the author of (Un)Manly Citizens: Jean Jacques Rousseau’s and Germaine de Staël’s Subversive Women (1999) and Feminist Thinkers and the Demands of Femininity: The Lives and Work of Intellectual Women (2006), and co-editor (with Patricia Moynagh) of Simone de Beauvoir’s Political Thinking (2006) and (with Michaele Ferguson) of W Stands for Women: How the George W. Bush Presidency Shaped a New Politics of Gender (forthcoming 2007).