marie antoinette combats her enemies with style -- 1/30/18

Today's selection -- from Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber. Marie Antoinette was betrothed to Louis-Auguste in order to secure an alliance between France and Austria. After seven years of marriage she was still childless, and her primary purpose, to secure the Bourbon dynasty by producing an heir, was a failure. With little to no political power and few supporters, she began carving out her own place in French society through her sartorial choices. Possibly "an instinctive maneuver," possibly "deliberate strategy," Marie Antoinette's wardrobe became the sole expression of her autonomy, identifying her as "a woman who could dress, spend, and do exactly as she pleased":

"From the moment the fourteen-year-old Austrian-born Archduchess Maria Antonia arrived in France to marry the heir to the Bourbon throne, matters of clothing and appearance proved central to her existence. For the future and, later, reigning queen, a rigid protocol governed much of what she wore, how she wore it, when she wore it, and even who put it on her person. ...

"Even before she left her native Vienna for the court of France in the spring of 1770, the young princess received an intensive crash course in the Bour­bon approach to looks, dress, and public image. She was redesigned from tooth to coif, and a renowned French dance instructor trained her to move gracefully while wearing high heels, hoopskirts, and a hefty, cumbersome train. Her appearance, her elders ceaselessly reminded her, would make or break her success as a French royal wife.

"Yet from her earliest days at Versailles, Marie Antoinette staged a revolt against entrenched court etiquette by turning her clothes and other accou­trements into defiant expressions of autonomy and prestige. ... Initiating a lifelong series of bold stylistic experiments (which one aristocratic contemporary described as constituting 'a veritable revolution in dress'), she challenged received wis­dom about the kind and the extent of the power that a French royal consort ought to possess.

"Traditionally, such power was severely curtailed by a principle known as Salic Law, which excluded women from the line of royal succession. Except in cases where a widowed queen acted as regent for a son still too young to rule on his own, the role of the French king's wife was restricted principally to her ability to bear royal children. But for the first seven years of her marriage to Louis Auguste, who became King Louis XVI in 1774, Marie An­toinette found this avenue closed to her. Because of a combination of de­bilitating psychological and sexual reticence, her young spouse refused to consummate their union, and this put Marie Antoinette -- married off to ce­ment a political union between Austria and France -- in a profoundly uncom­fortable position. ... Marie Antoinette's own place at Versailles would not be secure unless she gave the Bourbon dynasty an heir. Until that day, the many French courtiers who deplored the alliance (designed to reverse a centuries-old enmity between the two nations) would not hesitate to push for her replacement by a more fertile princess.

"Isolated and unloved by these scheming factions, the Austrian newcomer was thus faced with two options: concede defeat and return to Vienna in dis­grace, or find another means of establishing herself in France. ... Marie Antoinette began to combat her enemies with style. Through carefully selected, unconventional outfits and accessories, she culti­vated what she later called an 'appearance of [political] credit,' even as she faced continual failure on the procreative front. From the male riding gear she sported on the royal hunt to the white furs and diamonds she favored for sleigh rides, and from the monumental hairstyles she flaunted in all of Paris's most fashionable haunts to the intricate disguises she donned for costume parties at Versailles. ... [T]hese ensembles, too often dismissed as mere instances of the Queen's ill-advised frivolity, identified her as a woman who could dress, spend, and do exactly as she pleased. ...

"Marie Antoinette's sartorial posturing represented a striking departure from established court cus­tom. For a French consort to modify the conventions of royal appearance, or to seek attention or empowerment on her own terms, was virtually unheard of. But this is exactly what Marie Antoinette did, in ways that became even more daring after she acceded to the throne in 1774. ...

"'By one of those contradictions that are more common in France than anywhere else,' wrote a contemporary observer, "even as the people were criticizing the Queen for her outfits, they continued frenetically to imitate her. Every woman wanted to have the same deshabille, the same bonnet, that they had seen her wear.' ... Marie Antoinette established herself as a force to be reckoned with -- as a queen who commanded as much attention as the most dazzling king or mis­tress, and whose imposing stature had nothing to do with her maternal prospects. ...

"But more often than not, her rebellion in dress generated or exacerbated grievances among both contingents, to the point where the nobility and the populace, worlds apart on so many political issues, reached an explosive consensus about their hatred of Marie Antoinette. Like Claudius, the illegitimately enthroned 'king of shreds and patches' thought by Shakespeare's Hamlet to personify the whole of the rot­ten Danish state, this queen of poufs and feathers came to emblematize the worst aspects of royal privilege -- and the best reasons for revolution."



Caroline Weber


Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution


Henry Holt and Company


Copyright 2006 by Caroline Weber


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