Queen of Fashion
“In other words, by becoming the “Queen of fashion,” by imposing the ways in which other women appear, and by building a setting in which she makes the rules, she forces the court to recognize her power” (Flores 611).
Under Louis XIV, fashion and luxurious living at Versailles became an integral way of showing wealth, status, and power, especially for the monarchs themselves (Flores 614). So, as Dauphine and then Queen of France, Marie Antoinette was expected to dress lavishly, according to a strict set of guidelines, as a symbol of the monarchy’s strength. This “aristocratic pride” depended on flaunting your status and wealth through fashion that was dramatic and colorful and meant to stand out (Thomas 88). In this endeavor, Marie Antoinette lived up to her status as Queen, but the way she went about expressing herself through fashion did not follow the strict expectations the court had of her and her individual style provoked a lot of hostility towards her.
Within months of Louis XV’s death, Marie Antoinette began to execute her grand plans for Versailles, including loosening of court etiquette, remodeling of her Petit Trianon, and throwing lavish biweekly parties. She was uninterested in hearing about the expenses these schemes were costing, even when rebuke came from her mother and brother in Austria (Lever 67). Along with these expensive projects, Marie Antoinette also developed a love of fashion. Dressing extravagantly was expected of her, as Queen of France, but her methods of obtaining her new fashions were not ideal to many courtiers. Instead of using one of the court-recognized dressmakers, Marie Antoinette brought in Rose Bertin, “a milliner who became celebrated at that time for the total change she effected in the dress of the French ladies” (Campan). This selection did not come without controversy, especially once Marie Antoinette gave Rose Bertin permission to enter her apartments.
Entrance into the queen’s apartments was very restricted, so according to court etiquette, this was no small matter (Thomas 92). Madame Campan even notes that this decision to let Rose Bertin into her private household “was followed by evil consequences to her majesty” (Campan). Madame Campan also claims that it was the introduction of Rose Bertin that started Marie Antoinette’s love of fashion (Campan).
Once she became Queen, every day when she woke up Marie Antoinette chose her outfit for the day from a book of samples from her wardrobe (Thomas 94). This book appears in the film Farewell, My Queen, when Marie Antoinette excitedly looks through the book, adds new fabric pieces, and decides what fabrics she wants a dress made out of. This scene, when she happily flips through her book of fashion, is one of the only ones where the Queen is genuinely happy. Most of the dresses posted in the book were creations made by Mademoiselle Rose Bertin, and the Queen constantly requested she make her a new gown. Madame Campan notes the amount of dresses the Queen had made a year in her memoirs:
“For the winter the Queen had generally twelve full dresses, twelve undresses called fancy dresses, and twelve rich hoop petticoats for the card and supper parties in the smaller apartments. She had as many for the summer; those for the spring served likewise for the autumn. All these dresses were discarded at the end of each season, unless, indeed, she retained some that she particularly liked” (Campan).
Though it had no effect on the state’s budgetary deficit, Marie Antoinette did have a sizable amount of debt after her first year as Queen, in large part because of the lavish gowns sold to her by Mademoiselle Bertin (Lever 70).
The Queen also rebelled against court expectations when she hired the hairdresser Leonard to create her towering iconic hairstyles instead of the titled hairdresser appointed to the position and authorized to touch the royal head (Thomas 90). In addition, the hairdresser she chose, Leonard, was male when traditionally a Queen’s hairdresser was supposed to be female (Thomas 90). While this seems to be a very minor infraction, it was small steps like these that won the Queen a lot of enmity in the court for flaunting her dissatisfaction with court etiquette.
Among the public, these hairstyles provoked ridicule in 1775, but by 1789 they produced disgust and hatred (Thomas 91). The public, as seen through the pamphlets circulated on the subject, saw Marie Antoinette’s love of fashion as weakening the monarchy. As they saw it, Marie Antoinette controlled her husband, and the common people who styled her hair and made her clothes also had her ear (Thomas 95). This “desacralization, through fashion, of the royal head was like a first, fatal step in the fall of the monarchy” as people of common descent, like the queen’s new hairdresser and dressmaker, could allegedly influence their monarchs (Goodman 105).
Even when her actions brought heaps of controversy with them, Marie Antoinette was still the Queen of France and all the aristocratic ladies at Versailles continued to follow her fluctuating fashion trends, no matter how outrageous. For example, the intricate hairstyles that became taller and more extravagant during the Queen’s reign:
“Fashion continued its fluctuating progress; and head-dresses, with their superstructures of gauze, flowers, and feathers, became so lofty that the women could not find carriages high enough to admit them; and they were often seen either stooping, or holding their heads out of the windows. Others knelt down in order to manage these elevated objects of ridicule with less danger” (Campan).
Clearly, these hairstyles were making every day life cumbersome for the aristocratic women, and creating them was no easy task. Hairdressers had to stand on ladders to complete their chef d’oeuvres and women could not even pass through certain doors (Thomas 89).
Marie Antoinette spent all her money and more chasing these new fashion trends, and the courtiers felt pressured to spend copious amounts of money trying to keep up with her. Another of the queen’s expensive habits was her love of jewelry. In one instance, Marie Antoinette purchased diamond girandoles that she did not have the means to pay for, as well as two bracelets that together cost about the same as a Paris mansion (Lever 105).
"All wished instantly to have the same dress as the Queen, and to wear the feathers and flowers to which her beauty, then in its brilliancy, lent an indescribable charm. The expenditure of the younger ladies was necessarily much increased; mothers and husbands murmured at it; some few giddy women contracted debts; unpleasant domestic scenes occurred; in many families coldness or quarrels arose; and the general report was,—that the Queen would be the ruin of all the French ladies" (Campan).
When she could not pay off her debts, her husband would often pay them off his own private money (Lever 105). This caused accusations, some coming from her mother Maria Theresa, that Marie Antoinette was acting more like a “favorite,” like Madame du Barry or other royal mistresses, instead of like a Queen (Lever 105). The Queen also developed a love of gambling while the court was being held in Fontainebleau. She would often gamble all night long into the early hours of the morning and loose a significant amount of money doing so (Lever 102). It became understood that to become part of her inner circle, one had to be prepared to spend a lot of money, both gambling and keeping up with her constantly fluctuating fashion trends (Lever 102).
Marie Antoinette’s reputation for excessive spending has seeped into modern interpretations of her life. While modern takes on Marie Antoinette’s life tend to be more sympathetic to her, it is impossible to ignore completely her love of all things fashionable and the debts she incurred procuring them. For example, the novel Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund cleverly starts out her chapter on Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker, Rose Bertin, with an account of the bread riots occurring in Paris. In this way the author, without directly accusing her protagonist of anything, contrasts the dire situation in the city with Marie Antoinette’s frivolous dress purchases. Even as they discuss the fabrics and jewels the Queen will wear to the coronation, the dressmaker mentions that one of her seamstresses stole a crust of bread from her, claiming it was for her starving neighbor (Naslund 216-217).
In 2006 Sophia Coppola directed a film about Marie Antoinette, titled Marie Antoinette, that portrayed two major themes of her life: her excessively luxurious life at Versailles and her disdain for court etiquette and all other aspects of the court. It shows how she lived a life of excess in the palace, always gambling, purchasing expensive clothes, and surrounded by courtiers, but then shows how she wanted to escape from it all at the Petit Trianon, given to her by her husband. Even when some courtiers began complaining that they had not received an invitation to La Petit Trianon, she responds that the Trianon is supposed to be her escape from the protocol of Versailles, and she refuses to follow it there. It seems at first glance to be a contradiction: the extravagant queen who wanted to live a simple life. Looking closer, though, Marie Antoinette used her love of fashion as a way to escape the restrictive atmosphere of the court. It was through fashion she displayed her individuality, which a queen was not expected to have, and only in the Petit Trianon that she could be herself, as she was recorded saying several times during her life.
Undoubtedly, the film directed by Sophia Coppola depicted the extremes of what popular culture envisioned Marie Antoinette’s life to be. The settings are glamorous and visually stunning as are her outfits and hairstyles. The film shows the audience a life that is the height of luxury, past the point of excessive. A few of the taglines for the film make this point very neatly. First, “Let Them Eat Cake,” is a quote Marie Antoinette is famous for but never actually said. Second, “The Party that Started a Revolution,” singlehandedly blames her luxurious lifestyle for the outbreak of the French Revolution. And third, “The story of a Queen who lived like a Rock Star,” emphasizes her opulent, decadent, gluttonous lifestyle, likening it to that of a rock star.