Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
Marie Antoinette is all the rage. From Sophia Coppola's new movie
to a bevy of recent magazine articles, the infamous queen is making
headlines. But the spotlight is nothing new for her; people have
been interested in her life and activities since she arrived in
France as a 14-year-old princess. One such person is Caroline
Weber, a French professor teaching at Barnard College, Columbia
University who has written a fascinating biography of Marie
Antoinette titled QUEEN OF FASHION.
Weber approaches the queen's life story from a totally unique
perspective: what Marie Antoinette chose to wear (and what was
chosen for her to wear) at various stages in her life. Weber
suggests that her fashion choices reflect her attempts to assert
her identity and to gain power in a culture where she was expected
to be a passive representative of the throne.
Even before she married the future King of France as a young girl,
the Austrian Archduchess was told that her looks and appearance
were of the utmost importance. She had to undergo a makeover that
included extensive, painful dental work and the powdering of her
strawberry blond hair, just for marriage negotiations to continue.
As she was handed over by the Austrian entourage to the French, she
was stripped naked in a room of strangers and redressed in what was
considered to be more appropriate (that is, more French) attire.
Right away the young woman knew that fashion was what she was
expected to be interested in, and she decided to use it to her
advantage. She became a figure that challenged propriety, the roles
of women and the nobility in her society through the clothing and
hairstyles she wore.
Weber convincingly demonstrates how Marie Antoinette, rendered
essentially powerless by social and political norms, managed to
assert some influence, through her appearance, that extended beyond
France's borders. In the beginning the princess (later queen) was
adored. French society was enamored of her, and women especially
found her refreshing and relatable. The nobility and other
traditionalists were less taken by her. However, by the end of her
life she was reviled and demonized, accused of sexual misconduct,
irresponsible overspending and other corruptions. And, as France
found itself heading toward revolution, her foreign birth and
foreign ties were impossible for the nation to ignore.
During every stage of her life in France, Marie Antoinette used
dress to express herself --- even when she was hated, she was
copied. In fact, after her execution by guillotine, the fashion was
for women to wear a thin red ribbon tied around their necks. Her
choices in fashion were often overtly political, challenging to the
social order and always deeply personal. Weber's examination of
Marie Antoinette's life through what she wore is engaging,
eye-opening and immensely enjoyable.
QUEEN OF FASHION is a truly enlightening and entertaining
exploration of history, fashion, gender and power. Weber manages to
balance an academic's eye for detail and research with a
storyteller's voice for drama, tension and narrative. Marie
Antoinette remains, after all this time, a worthy subject for
biographers. Weber's contribution is one of the most unique,
well-written and recommendable additions to the canon.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011