“Claiming that a queen had the right to a private life, Marie Antoinette intended to behave as freely as her privileged subjects, whose society delighted her. Etiquette, for her, was the symbol of a barbarian age; she could not accept that she was not her own person, but belonged entirely to the kingdom of France” (Lever 130).
Marie Antoinette lived in the midst of the 18th century debate about luxury and appearance and how it should be used. Where traditionalists sought to keep adornments and appearance as a status indicator, arguments for fashion as a form of expression also emerged. During the Enlightenment era, a century before the Revolution, France’s economic prosperity allowed many French people, particularly in Paris, to spend money on items beyond the basic staples of existence such as decorative objects, trinkets, and clothing (Maza 215). For almost everyone above the poorest class of society, clothing became more attainable and women in particular owned more bright and decorative garments (Maza 215). Clothing, not without controversy, became “a sign of taste and fashion” instead of an indicator of status, as it had been for centuries (Maza 215).
By the mid 18th century, people in France starting denouncing the bourgeoisie people who started to dress and act like they were part of the nobility (Maza 218). The social system in France was based on a strict hierarchy and an important way of declaring your position in that hierarchy was through your appearance. So, when people in the lower classes began dressing as if they were part of the aristocracy, many were worried this would upset the balance of their social system. This also had implications for the aristocracy and royal family, who were supposed to exhibit the most grandeur in their appearances to assert their position at the top of the hierarchy. Marie Antoinette, then, was expected to be the pinnacle of royal grandeur, but she did not always fill this role in the way the court, and the people of France, expected her to. She lived a luxurious existence, but she also rebelled against the traditional ways of showing status through appearance. In this hierarchical system, fashion and appearance were strictly methods of establishing status. But through hiring her own hairdresser and dressmaker and acting out a simple life at La Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette used fashion as a way to establish her own personal identity in a system where she was supposed to fit into a specific role. In this way, Marie Antoinette marked a major step in the shift towards fashion as an expression of individuality.
When Louis XVI became King of France, he gave La Petit Trianon, a small chateau in the gardens of Versailles, to his wife as a private refuge for her. The Petit Trianon was the perfect escape for the Queen, where she could “ignore etiquette and live with no constraints” (Lever 59). She spent much of her time and money remodeling the building and surrounding gardens, matching it perfectly to her taste. Despite all the expenses incurred during her remodeling of it, at the Petit Trianon, the Queen went to great lengths to do away with courtly etiquette and luxurious living. There, she did not wear her exquisite and complicated gowns, instead donning a simple white lawn dress with a silk ribbon. Instead of the intricate towering hairstyles wore at Versailles, she simply let her hair down and put on a wide-brimmed straw hat (Lever 135). Even when she had guests there, they were not supposed to rise when she entered or halt their activities and conversations. At the Petit Trianon she wanted none of the pomp and ceremony of the Court, she wanted to dress simply, act simply, and be treated as an equal, not a superior. In a way, at La Petit Trianon Marie Antoinette performed the life she wanted but could not have.
“The Queen occasionally remained a whole month at Petit Trianon, and had established there all the ways of life in a chateau. She entered the sitting-room without driving the ladies from their pianoforte or embroidery. The gentlemen continued their billiards or backgammon without suffering her presence to interrupt them. There was but little room in the small Chateau of Trianon” (Campan).
Marie Antoinette tried to create an image of herself that reflected the life she wanted to live. This is clear when looking at her preferred representations of herself: the simple portraits painted by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Madame Vigee-Lebrun, who became Marie Antoinette’s appointed painter, often created for the Queen simple portraits that captured her beauty without all the opulence of other royal portraits. Her painting, Marie Antoinette Holding a Rose, depicts the Queen in a rural setting (hinting at the Petit Trianon) in a blue silk dress trimmed with lace and holding a rose (Lever 129). The Queen loved the portrait because it “represented her as a desirable woman without making any allusion to royal grandeur” (Lever 129). Of course, as the Queen, this image of herself in a rural setting and simple outfit was not the life she lived. She was expected to always embody royal grandeur as a symbol of her status, and her refusal to do so was in itself an expression of her individuality.
Because of the way the queen lived at La Petit Trianon, Madame Campan notes that the “charge of extravagance” against Marie Antoinette was false, and that in fact “she had exactly the contrary failing” and “often carried her economy to a degree of parsimony actually blamable, especially in a sovereign” (Campan). This was not entirely true, as she spent all her money and more on new clothes and jewels and lavish parties. It was not that Marie Antoinette disliked her extravagant lifestyle at Versailles, she simply detested the strict etiquette and rules of behavior and desired a way to establish her own individuality. Madame Campan references here the problems with Marie Antoinette’s personal ideas of fashion and expression: it was not customary for a monarch to have a personal expression, and the fact that she tried so hard to create one only diminished her power as Queen.
“...the entire communication system that she builds on the principles of simplicity and closeness to nature, to the extent that she challenges court protocol and ignores royal traditions, contributed to the solidification of the discourse against her legitimized under the precepts of the Revolution” (Flores 617).
Within the court, Marie Antoinette used fashion to rebel against the court etiquette and “construct a public image that expresses her own identity” (Flores 605). Fashion, then, was a distraction as well as an expression of individuality: She used fashion as a personal statement and especially as a way to individualize herself in an atmosphere where she was supposed to play a very specific role, as the Queen of France, and not step outside of it. Even when her rebellions were seemingly small, like hiring a new dressmaker or hairdresser, nothing went unnoticed by the courtiers, who nevertheless followed her constantly changing fashions and joined in her frivolous occupations. In a time where fashion was a statement of status, Marie Antoinette’s use of it as a statement of personal identity instead was problematic to her image as Queen of France.
The Marie Antoinette film from 2006 directed by Sofia Coppola focuses on her luxurious existence and the pretty, frilly things she surrounded herself with while pairing those scenes of frivolity with scenes of Marie Antoinette being ignored by her husband or ridiculed by the Court, perhaps suggesting this idea that she used fashion and frivolous activities like gambling and partying as an escape. The film also suggests how she used fashion as an expression of her will. For example, in her hairstyles: Marie Antoinette’s iconic hairstyles were than just impractical extravagances; they could also make a statement, even a political one. A “pouf au sentiment” hairstyle expressed the feelings of the wearer but a “pouf a’ la circonstance” commemorated an event (Flores 617). Marie Antoinette once used her hairstyle, a “pouf a’ la circonstance,” to show her support for the French aid to the American War of Independence (Flores 617). In the film directed by Sophia Coppola, Kirsten Dunst wears a depiction of this hairstyle, called the “pouf a’ la Belle Poule,” which shows a French frigate that won a battle against the English during the war (Flores 617).
The 1938 film, Marie Antoinette, seeks to justify her wild spending habits by pointing to the influence exerted on her towards that lifestyle and by stating that she “made pleasure a shield against loneliness and slander,” which is what Axel von Fersen said in her defense in the film. The film blames her turn to partying and gambling primarily on the influence of Philippe, Duc of Orleans. Near the beginning of the film, Marie Antoinette rejects his influence, explicitly stating that she did not like parties and gambling. Once Madame du Barry, the other villain of the film, insults the queen about her lack of an heir, Marie Antoinette accepts Philippe’s proposal to diminish du Barry’s influence in court by extending her own. Under his influence, Marie Antoinette began attending parties and gaming houses while acting flirtatiously and sometimes promiscuously. Once she realized his deception and took the advice of her lover Count Axel von Fersen, though, the film never shows her at another party or gambling table, suggesting that it was only Phillipe’s influence that brought her to that life in the first place.
The famous singer Madonna referenced this aspect of Marie Antoinette’s life in a performance of her single “Vogue.” In this performance, at the 1994 MTV Music Awards, Madonna herself dressed up as the Queen and had her dancers dressed as 18th century courtiers. The lyrics of the song do echo Marie Antoinette’s usage of fashion as an escape and an expression of individuality:
Look around, everywhere you turn is heartache
It’s everywhere that you go
You try everything you can to escape
The pain of life that you know
When all else fails and you long to be
Something better than you are today
I know a place where you can get away
All you need is your imagination
So use it that’s what it’s for
Go inside, for you finest inspiration
Your dreams will open the door
Beauty’s where you find it
The song encompasses the idea of performing the life that you desire. Marie Antoinette used this idea to make the point that the country did not own her, she was capable of her own individual expression and she flaunted that, to the dismay of the court, through her appearance.
Pop artist Katy Perry also uses Marie Antoinette to promote expressing yourself through your appearance and not letting anyone else dictate it for you. She released a new fragrance last year called “Killer Queen” and in the promotion video for it, she dressed up as Marie Antoinette. In the video, she shocked the courtiers around her by literally tearing off the outfit they placed her in and strutting through the halls of “Versailles,” past horrified courtiers, wearing the outfit of her choice and boldly stating “own the throne.”
Fashion as a form of expression has, since the 18th century, eclipsed fashion as a symbol of wealth in many ways. But using fashion as a sign of status has certainly not disappeared. That concept is the reason designers can sell products for hundreds and thousands of dollars that are really worth much less. When buying a Prada handbag or Coach sunglasses, you are also buying a status symbol by stating that you have the money to spend on these luxurious items. So while this system has not disappeared, I would argue that fashion as a method of expression is much more prevalent in modern times. Any outfit you wear makes a statement about yourself, and that fact is inescapable. You can make a bold statement by wearing something not considered a fashion norm, or you can tailor your outfits to align with fashion norms. Either way, clothes and accessories make a statement about the person wearing them.
This was no different in 18th century France. By choosing her own hairstyle and dressmakers who created new styles of fashions for her, Marie Antoinette was basically making a statement that said she was more than just the Queen of France, she was also her own person. She was a person who sometimes enjoyed dressing up in the most luxurious outfits she could come up with, but who sometimes wanted to retreat to her Petit Trianon and wear a simple chemise and straw hat. While we many see no issue with this today, in a time and place where the monarchs represented France and were supposed to be completely public figures, it troubled many that the Queen spent so much time and energy trying to escape the public’s eye and carve an identity that went beyond simply the Queen of France and that had a personal element to it as well.