In many ways, Marie Antoinette created the idea of the “modern princess,” who is expected to be fashionable, charitable, and charming. If not for the time period she reigned in, when luxury was a controversial issue, she likely would have been a celebrated monarch, though without the recognition her name carries today (Thomas 87). Her luxurious lifestyle was one of the main causes of France’s hatred of her, but now we tend to celebrate her sense of fashion and style and sympathize over her violent death. Queens are now celebrated in newspapers and magazines as “ambassadors of fashion,” which is probably why when we look at Marie Antoinette’s life today, we see nothing out of the ordinary about her lifestyle (Thomas 87).
In Revolutionary France, though, Marie Antoinette’s expenditures were blamed for the poverty and famine in the country. While it was true that the Queen spent huge sums on her gowns, jewelry, and her Petit Trianon, these expenses had no real effect on the country’s economy or the people’s suffering as many claimed. Nevertheless, as hardships increased in the country, the more people blamed their decadent queen, contributing to their hatred of her and the eventual trial that led to her death.
The French people were not the only ones who looked on the Queen’s way of living with disgust: she also made a lot of enemies within the Court of Versailles. Even with all her love of fashion and luxurious living, Marie Antoinette found the strict rules of etiquette at the court to be stifling and made every effort to ignore them in her every day life. To do this, she used her appearance as a way to individualize herself and make a statement that she did not belong to the country, as a Queen was expected to, and instead tried to live her life the way she wanted. This was unsettling to many of the aristocrats and many of the early criticisms of the queen actually had their roots within the court, not in the streets of Paris.
During her lifetime, Marie Antoinette was the victim of widespread hatred, in part because of the decadent life she lived while many of the French people were starving and in poverty, and also because of her attempts to individualize herself outside her role as Queen. Today, though, our popular culture celebrates her sense of style and her use of fashion as a method of expression. She has become a fashion icon of history and to most people is instantly recognizable as such.
Her status as a recognizable icon of a luxurious lifestyle has been used by Hollywood several times to symbolically draw parallels between her life and another character’s. For example, a portrait of her appears in the bedroom of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind after she marries Rhett Butler and returns to the aristocratic life she was accustomed to before the Civil War broke out. Her portrait shows up again in the popular television drama Gossip Girl, perhaps trying to mirror its usage in Gone With the Wind. In this case, it rests in Blair Waldorf’s room, a wealthy heiress living in New York. Marie Antoinette’s portrait in these characters’ rooms provides a subtle symbol of luxury and also draws a parallel in their situations: women who were born into vast wealth and use it to claim a certain status.
Films and television are not the only pop culture medium to use Marie Antoinette as a recognizable symbol of luxury. Music artists, in either lyrics or performance, use her celebrity status to make certain points using her as a reference. One famous example is Madonna’s live performance of her single “Vogue” at the 1994 MTV Music Awards, where she had the stage set up like a sitting room in 18th century Versailles. Madonna, with her towering hairstyle and corseted dress, was immediately recognizable as Marie Antoinette. The aesthetics certainly do justice to the line “picture of a beauty queen,” and the setting and costumes create a fantasy-life picture of luxury and glamour. The themes of the song itself also fit with Marie Antoinette’s use of fashion to create an identity.
Echoes of this performance are present in Selena Gomez’s recent music video of her song “Love you Like a Love Song,” where in one of the settings, which span decades and centuries, she is dressed like the iconic queen. She also wears a corseted gown and towering hairstyle while she lounges on a piano, surrounded by marble pillars with a ground seemingly made of clouds. Both of these performances depict Marie Antoinette’s fashion sense and lifestyle as something beautiful, not something to be denounced.
The song “Killer Queen” released in 1974 by Queen references Marie Antoinette by name, comparing her to the “killer queen,” a prostitute, they are singing about. After comparing her to Marie Antoinette (“let them eat cake, she says, just like Marie Antoinette”), they go on to describe her high-class style of living, such as keeping on hand a bottle of moet et chandon, an expensive French champagne with the slogan “sharing success and glamour since 1743.”They also mention her proficiency in “etiquette” and her expensive perfume from Paris, likening her extravagant taste to that of the French Queen.
These examples span the last six decades of American popular culture, proving that Marie Antoinette’s fame has not diminished since her death. The aura of myth that surrounds her has inspired films, television, music artists, and even lines of cosmetics. Clearly, Marie Antoinette has become an accepted part of our popular culture as she, and everything she has come to represent, is easily recognized as a symbol of luxury and fashion.