Friday, May 8, 2009

Fashion Victim . . . reviewed by Suzanne

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber
Before Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni Sarkhozy, before Princess Di, there was Marie Antoinette. The Austrian princess was married at age 14 to the heir to the French throne in order to improve relations between their two countries. Initially unpopular with the French people because of her foreignness, her situation remained tenuous for years because she remained childless (not her fault!).

The blond-haired, porcelain-skinned, blue-eyed beauty learned to exercise power over people through her appearance and her clothes. As the author says, Marie Antoinette used fashion as a “high stakes political game.” In a court where the king’s wife traditionally remained subservient and in the background, she became famous - and sometimes infamous - for the outrageous styles she flaunted. She wore pants and rode astride instead of sidesaddle, she refused to put on the restrictive corset royal women were expected to wear and she adopted the "pouf", a construction of fake and real hair, horsehair, scaffolding and decorations that could tower as high as 3 feet above the wearer's head. Her outfits, accessories and hairstyles were copied by women of the nobility and bourgeoisie, sometimes driving their husbands into bankruptcy.

Her styles evolved during her years at court. When her husband completed the small palace, the Petit Trianon, for her as a retreat from the formal court life at Versailles, she adopted simple clothing - white gauzy dresses and straw hats decorated with ribbons and flowers.

By 1774 France was in a perilous economic state - huge deficits amassed to pay for costly wars meant crushing taxes on the middle and lower classes. Bread riots, unrest and criticism of the monarchy became increasingly frequent and violent. The queen's enormous clothing and jewelry bills (she consistently overspent her allowance) added to the economic woes and added fuel to the people's rage (the press mockingly labeled her “Madame Déficit”).

During the ferment of the revolution, she continued to express herself through her clothing. She initially, though reluctantly, wore red, white and blue, the colors that indicated solidarity with the political and social changes that were taking place. Later, she gave them up and defiantly took to wearing white, black and green - royalist colors.

Her last fashion statement, made in preparation for her final public appearance to meet Madame Guillotine, was carefully calculated to create a dramatic last impression.
And so, shedding the ragged black dress in which she had faced her accusers, Marie Antoinette slipped into her plum-black shoes, a fresh white underskirt, and her pristine white chemise. To complete the ensemble, she put on the white déshabilé dress Madame Élisabeth had sent her from the Temple and wrapped the prettiest of her muslin fichus around her neck. She even removed the dangling black ribbons from her makeshift widow’s coif: the result was a pared-down, ruffled linen bonnet as colorless as her hair. Paler than ever…, the Queen became a figure of pure, radiant white.

Queen of Fashion combines two topics I love the most: clothes and French history. The author, an academic historian, managed to make the book both informative and immensely entertaining.

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