Skip to main content

Disdain of Court Life

“All the changes made by Marie Antoinette were of the same description; a disposition gradually to substitute the simple customs of Vienna for those of Versailles was more injurious to her than she could possibly have imagined.” (Campan)

When Louis XIV had the palace of Versailles built and moved the French court there in 1682, he also imposed a set of ceremonial duties and rules of etiquette on the nobility to in order to keep them subservient to the crown. Under this new system, the nobility would be vying for the monarch’s favor to improve their social status instead of trying to gain power independently (Lever 27-28). Since the favor of the monarch decided status, the nobility would remain loyal to him. This etiquette system applied to the monarchs as well, as the royal couple was continuously on display. Almost all of the ceremonies imposed on the nobility involved the royal couple and their daily routine. Also, their residence, the palace of Versailles, was anything but private. It was home to thousands of nobles and was open to anybody, as long as they were dressed appropriately (Lever 28).

The etiquette at Versailles was also costly for the nobility to keep up with. They were expected to live luxuriously, or at least appear to if they did not actually have the means to. For example, women of the nobility had to keep up with changing trends in fashion, along with the Queen, and could not wear the same dress or jewels more than a few times (Lever 29). It was a necessary expense, though, because showing wealth through new and extravagant clothing and jewelry was a way for nobility to display their power and status within the etiquette system (Flores 606).

Since she did not grow up at the Court of Versailles, Marie Antoinette needed to be rapidly taught the strict rules of court etiquette, and she found them tiresome and pointless. Marie Antoinette’s lady-in-waiting Madame de Noailles (who Marie Antoinette nicknamed “Madame Etiquette”) tried to teach the rules of etiquette to her, but she became tired of the lessons and could not understand the necessity of learning them (Lever 30). Madame Campan recorded one instance of this in her memoirs about the etiquette of dressing the queen in the morning:

“When a princess of the royal family happened to be present while the Queen was dressing, the dame d'honneur yielded to her the latter act of office, but still did not yield it directly to the Princesses of the blood; in such a case the dame d'honneur was accustomed to present the linen to the first femme de chambre, who, in her turn, handed it to the Princess of the blood. Each of these ladies observed these rules scrupulously as affecting her rights. One winter's day it happened that the Queen, who was entirely undressed, was just going to put on her shift; I held it ready unfolded for her; the dame d'honneur came in, slipped off her gloves, and took it. A scratching was heard at the door; it was opened, and in came the Duchesse d'Orleans: her gloves were taken off, and she came forward to take the garment; but as it would have been wrong in the dame d'honneur to hand it to her she gave it to me, and I handed it to the Princess. More scratching it was Madame la Comtesse de Provence; the Duchesse d'Orleans handed her the linen. All this while the Queen kept her arms crossed upon her bosom, and appeared to feel cold; Madame observed her uncomfortable situation, and, merely laying down her handkerchief without taking off her gloves, she put on the linen, and in doing so knocked the Queen's cap off. The Queen laughed to conceal her impatience, but not until she had muttered several times, "How disagreeable! how tiresome!" (Campan)

Marie Antoinette’s exasperation with this routine exemplifies her well-known disdain for the strict etiquette of the French Court. Unfortunately, her disdain for court etiquette provoked a lot of hostility amongst the nobility and contributed to her negative image. Today, as seen through portrayals in popular culture, we tend to feel more sympathetic to her dislike of Court life as we also view their ceremonial routines as ridiculous and even humorous.

The same scenario, the ceremony of dressing and undressing the royal couple, is humorously reenacted in the film Marie Antoinette (2006).  In the scene, Marie Antoinette is woken by a large group of women from the nobility, and she must stand naked while they keep passing on her garments to the noble of the highest rank as they enter the room, since only the highest in rank is allowed to dress her. When they finally put a dressing gown on her, Marie Antoinette comments, “this is ridiculous,” and she is answered, “this is Versailles.”

The ceremonial expectations of a French monarch became strenuous for Marie Antoinette to maintain. Etiquette dictated most of the events in her day including getting dressed, what she wore, having meals, etc. Once she became queen, especially after her acquisition of La Petit Trianon, she more frequently rejected the standards of etiquette and sought ways to personalize her experience at Versailles. 

Disdain of Court Life