Sunday, February 07, 2010

Is a book about Marie Antoinette’s fashion choices really a book every woman should read?

I recently read both Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey and Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution for the Women Unbound Challenge.

Motivation for reading:
I’ve always been intrigued with all things French, had a vague recollection of Marie Antoinette from my French classes (she was the Queen guillotined for saying “Let them eat cake” right) and was curious to learn more about the French Revolution, so when I saw Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution listed as one of the non-fiction books every woman should read I decided to give it a try. Prior to reading, I read a review recommending readers begin with a more thorough biography such as Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey because Queen of Fashion is not a definitive biography. Despite fears that reading two books on Marie Antoinette might be a bit much, I decided to tackle them both and was ultimately glad I did.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey is a comprehensive biography of Marie Antoinette’s life from birth ‘til death whereas Queen of Fashion chronicles her life through her fashion choices upon her arrival in France ‘til her death. By becoming familiar with her upbringing in Austria, the intricate details of her life at court and those who surrounded her, along with learning the politics of the time I came away with a better understanding of who she really was and what caused her downfall; she was more a naïve victim of circumstance (a scapegoat) than the spendthrift, heartless queen she was accused of being.

It was interesting to note:
~ The Austrian court was much more informal than the French court and allowed young Marie Antonia to basically do whatever she pleased; she learned to play the harpsichord, dance ballet and enjoy games. She had an idyllic childhood with little formal education. When she was tagged to be the next queen of France it was discovered she could barely read or write. This lax of formal training did not adequately prepare her to be the Queen of France; she arrived politically ignorant and inept.

~ Marie Antoinette never really uttered the phrase “Let them eat cake!”

~France was governed by Salic law which banned widowed royal wives from succeeding their spouses on the throne. At the time of her arrival three things were important at Versailles – the King, his mistress and his court. A Queen was nothing.

While reading Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, I couldn’t help but think is a book about Marie Antoinette’s fashion choices really an important read, if so why?

In making my decision I considered the following:

What she was trying to achieve?
She was attempting to make a statement and strengthen her position in a hostile court where as a foreigner and a woman she had no power. Not to mention the fact her husband, the future King of France Louis XVI refused to sleep with her for the first seven years of their marriage. The book describes how almost immediately upon arriving at Versailles M.A. began bucking the rigid court code of dress. She refused to wear the corset, introduced the English-style riding coat and wore trousers while riding. She dressed and played like a commoner at the Petit Trianon. It was only after the fall of the Bastille that she began dressing like a royal.

How radical her clothing choices really were:
If early American feminists were taunted and ridiculed for wearing bloomers in the19th century, can you imagine how shocking it must have been for the future queen of France to wear men’s riding clothes and to ride astride?

What was or wasn’t she thinking?
Her hairstyle of choice the pouf, a thickly powdered, teetering hairstyle that re-created elaborate scenes from current events, was coated with animal fat and a powder mixed from flour. Was she not aware France was undergoing a flour shortage? Her headdresses, when seen by the population on fashion engravings and newspapers, led to the flour wars after her subjects concluded the Queen was taking flour and bread from starving people’s mouths to use for her own adornment.

Also think of the inconveniences-
Carriage interiors were not high enough to accommodate the monstrous three feet high constructions, so women had to travel crunched over crumpling their full skirted silk gowns because their hair would not travel upright.

Not to mention the vermin-
Since the hairstyle was costly, women would keep them for a week or two. The animal fat and flour would become rancid and attract vermin.

By not dressing like a queen she gave her enemies fodder to conspire against her?
At the Petit Trianon - the private country retreat she received as a gift from her husband shortly after their accession - she adopted unstructured chemise dresses that facilitated distinctly nonroyal shenanigans such as picnics on the grass, blind man’s bluff, and frolics among pretty, perfumed flocks of sheep. Conservative courtiers protested that the dresses made their noble wearers indistinguishable from serving wenches. Furthermore, by allowing only a small close knit group of friends including a couple foreigners access to her private palace she alienated important members of the Court. Exaggerated, scandalous images of her life at the Petit Trainon became regular features in underground pamphlets and caricatures.

She maintained an aura of grace and self-possession right up to the end:
Reading the final chapters of her life was heartbreaking; the death of her first son, the murder of her friend Princess de Lamballe, the execution of her husband, her imprisonment, brainwashing her second son to testify against her, her trial whose outcome was decided before it began and finally her own death at the guillotine. Even at the end she controlled her image by wearing a radiant white ensemble.

Who is the Marie Antoinette of our time?
Queen of Fashion’s author Caroline Weber answers this question in an interview on Big Think:
We don’t have anybody like that nowadays because, again, the political context is very different. But I think that we could look at a figure like for instance, Madonna. Somebody who succeeds in capturing the world’s attention time, and time again by refashioning her body, by changing her hair styles, by changing her appearance, by changing her identity through clothes. This is how she sells records and we all know that Madonna has relatively little talent. I think it was the shoemaker, Manolo Blanic, said that he was shocked that somebody with as little of the singing voice as she has good sound harsh and enormous star, and stay such an enormous star. And I think that's a testament to her genius as a chameleon. And this is been talked about by a million people before me, but I link her to Marie Antoinette because Marie Antoinette similarly was able to manipulate the public and stay in the public eye by changing her costume and this really flamboyant way, and doing it constantly.

Which brings me back to my original question: Is a book about Marie Antoinette’s fashion choices really a book every woman should read, if so why?
The book did cause me to think about my own appearance, the clothing choices I make and about such things as:
How much power can you really wield through your appearance? I know it is important to consider the image you want to portray. We’ve all heard the advice: Look the part. Dress for the job you want to have, but in the long run if all you have is your appearance is it enough? Many of the best & brightest women I have worked with don’t care at all about their appearance. Does it hurt them in the long run?

Would I want my daughter (if I had one) to read this book and then emulate Marie Antoinette? Would I want her to emulate Madanna?

Or consider this passage from Sharon Lamb's Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes?
Image protects high school students by giving them a sense of belonging, but it also gave them a premature identity while they are insecure or struggling to forge something unique and personal. While this may be okay for someone who can move beyond image during or after the teen years, others become trapped and stuck in this superficial world. For those who can preserve a self apart from image, the divisions and unhappiness that come with focusing too much on image in the teen years creates too much stress and too much of a diversion from what they could be doing and creating for themselves.
What do you think? Is a book about Marie Antoinette’s fashion choices really a book every woman should read, if so why?


  1. You ask some very interesting questions. Here are my answers.

    Should every woman read about Marie Antoinette's fashion choices? I would have to say yes, they should. Fashion was one of the few usages of power that Marie Antoinette actually had, and she used it as best as she could. The fact that she seemed oblivious to what others were saying or what was happening in the real world remains an amazing lesson of being yourself while being cognizant of your surroundings too. (Like don't wear power suits if everyone wears khakis and sweater sets.)

    I also think of this question from a purely historical perspective. We have so few powerful female historical figures that each deserves to be studied to determine just what made her such a figure. What can we learn from her? What is myth and what is truth behind all the stories about her?

    So, for that reason, I do think it is important to read about Marie's fashion choices.

  2. Awesome review. I can't get past the vermin being attracted to her hair. EW.

  3. Michelle,
    Thanks for your comment. You make a great point, as frivolous as MA may have seemed, she was an incredibly strong woman who made strong personal choices while almost everyone surrounding her was plotting her downfall. Her courage and strength alone are worth our study and admiration.

  4. Akilah,
    Thanks for the comment. I had a hard time getting past the vermin myself.