'What did Fashion Do For Us?' is a collection of articles to dis-spell any superficial suggestion or theory that fashion, the fleeting pulse of trends in clothing and style, is frivolous and powerless. I know many people who say fashion is nothing, and once you read 'What Did Fashion Do For Us?' you will find it very difficult not to see clothing as a communicative tool, a visual statement and a catalyst for culture-shaping history.
The first volume in these inquiries can only belong to one woman, a woman whose history I have traced religiously and have empathised with, been fascinated by and will never really tire of. Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France.
For it is true, though monarchy was restored and kings returned to France in the nineteenth century, that there would never be another Queen like her. With her execution, the death of the myth of absolutism and the opulence of the Divine existence of European royalty ensued: she has been both penalised and mocked in study of the period (beginning with her trial in 1793) for her frivolous extravagance. But it may surprise the twenty-first century reader to know that there was more to this fashion than meets the eye.
Little Maria Antonia of Austria was betrothed to the Dauphin of France and at the age of 14, she was the villainous L'Autrichienne of the French court at Versailles. Her fashion baptism of fire began in her homeland at the hands of her mother, Maria Theresa of Austria. This is where the awareness of image for political gain began. The Austrian archduchess adopted a new Versailles-orientated identity, beginning with the re-working of her name. She became Marie Antoinette, adopting the frou-frou of the court dress under the watchful eye of her mother. Marie Antoinette was essentially writing the body of her CV for the most important job her sad life would ever have, Madame la Dauphine, bearer of the heir of the Bourbon Throne and Mother of France; through her appearance.
|Maria Antonia of Austria, aged 14. 1769.|
Though accepted as the prospective Dauphine of France, Marie Antoinette faced tribulation at court that can be perfectly traced through her dress. Her refusal to wear the traditional whale-bone corset in the early years of her minority at court upset her uncertain future and made her standing at court all the more turbulent. Her incapability to consummate her marriage to Louis-Auguste of France was marked by a turn to a more masculine dress inspired by her joining the King on the hunt. Tenacious and hyper-aware of appearances, no-one can say that Marie Antoinette wasn't aware of her audience. However, her fashion risks would later prove to be extremely poorly calculated and subject to lewd and aggressive speculation about the inclinations and intentions of the Queen of France after the abolition of the monarchy.
|Marie Antoinette on Horseback|
Alone in a foreign court, the simple Marie sought refuge in fashion. With the death of Louis XV and the coronation of Louis XVI came the breakdown of Barryiste factions (social networks of the favourite of Louis XV, Mme. du Barry) and the essential move to break bread with L'Autricienne, who in court terms was clearly there to stay. The Queen's social circle of favourites such as the Duchesse de Polignac, the Princesse de Lamballe, hair-stylist Leonard Autie and designer Rose Bertin helped to build Antoinette's microcosmic, arguably narcissistic and intrinsic world at court which offended so many beyond its walls. The young Queen and her ladies became caught up in the ridiculous practise of creating towering hair styles.
|The celebratory hairstyle marking the American War of Independence. This endeavour arguably sent the French economy into an irrecoverable decline. The war, not the hair.|
This is probably the most explicit example of the political use of fashion. Frankly, whilst Marie Antoinette appeared on the surface to be 'up' with the latest state affairs, she was almost definitely bound to be painfully unaware that the symbolism of her coiffure was corrosive and anathema to the principles of monarchy that she would defend until her death. I mean, come on: the most absolute monarch in Europe sporting a hair-piece that represents republicanism? This ostentation was arguably the beginning of Marie Antoinette's personal contribution to the erosion of monarchical prestige.
As Antoinette receded from the public eye at her personal refuge at the petit trianon and she became aware of some of the backlash in the public sphere about her ostentatious ways, her style developed once again. The shabby-chic appeal of life as a 'commoner' at the Trianon inspired the latest phase of her style development: Marie Antoinette the Sherpherdess.
Demonstrating her arguably poor political influence, Marie Antoinette moved towards a simpler, back-to-nature style that was all the rage among her court friends. It was at the Queen's personal discretion that courtiers could attend her Trianon, a liberty never before given to a Queen (even Louis XVI had to ask permission...) Amazingly, Marie Antoinette managed to turn simple peasantwear into an elitist flexing of fashion muscles. In short, while the Queen thought her subjects would respect her simple approach; her shape-shifting from Queen to peasant wife was disturbing to a country used to la gloire of Louis XIV in the seventeenth century and it was frankly insulting. Life as a peasant was, well, atrocious. So when L'Autrichienne played at being 'normal,' aptly skipping the starving, potential for crime and prostitution to survive and adapting to horrendous famine: it did nothing to recommend the struggling monarchy. It appeared Marie Antoinette could not win. Take the court spotlight at Versailles in royal finery or slink in the shadows of the private Trianon in simple clothes? Either way, Marie Antoinette was hated. By 1785, this reached boiling point.
The Diamond Necklace Affair just goes to show that reaching the dizzying heights of perceived wealth that France's aristocracy had is extremely dangerous. A set of jewels circulated European courts, failing to be sold as no courtier was senseless enough to pay for them. Ludicrously expensive, it was the kind of thing the Queen couldn't refuse. Well, that's what a certain Cardinal Rohan thought when he was looking to earn favour from Marie Antoinette, so he snapped it up for her with a royal IOU. Because surely the Crown could afford it?
Under cover of night, he went to give them to her in the gardens of Versailles. As you do, apparently. Needless to say the foolish Cardinal was duped by a disguised prostitute (only in French history) and when the Queen got stuck with the bill, scandal bred across Paris. For the first time, the Queen of France was
a) impersonated by a mere prostitute.
b) seen to essentially steal jewels to look the part of queen whilst millions starved.
All in all, it's fair to say that it is dreadful news for Marie Antoinette's reputation. And those diamonds, certainly no allies of hers.
Skip forward a few years and monarchy has fallen in France. It would be senseless to blame the Queen for the total collapse, but it's safe to say that years of unnatural adoption of masculine garb, sickening demonstrations of wealth through fashion and seemingly-demonic, taunting portrayal of peasant life would make those aware of royal affairs completely incensed. Whilst the economy crumbled, foreign policy crippled the royal treasury and the National Assembly (eventually) put paid to the feudal system; Marie Antoinette appeared to her public to think she was untouchable.
From this point onwards, the fashions of the Royal family would take on a chillingly revolutionary turn. After the failed flight to Varennes escape plot, Louis XVI and his family were stripped of their status and both Louis XVI and his son were forced to wear the revolutionary phrygian red cap. This unsightly submission to his own deposition was the last statement of fashion the King of France would ever make.
Though she spent the remainder of her days in mourning black, Marie Antoinette's personal journey of fashion concluded in virginal white. Where many aristocrats went screaming and weeping to the guillotine, (Louis XV's former mistress was described as 'more like a caged animal' than the court beauty she had been in the ancien regime) Antoinette was stoic in probably the least assuming garment of her life. The last recorded antemortem 'portrait' of Marie Antoinette is a cold demonstration of just how far the oldest establishment in Europe had fallen. No longer did the Queen need flour (a scarce necessity for the Third Estate during famine) to whiten her hair. At just thirty seven, the pretty ribbons and silks of the court abandoned Marie Antoinette in the face of revolution.
I think the below image is, in ways, more fitting if we are to discuss Marie Antoinette's personal development. Aged by the terrors of revolution and exhausted by the horrific charged against her, including incest against her own child, Marie Antoinette was no longer frivolous and thrilled by beautiful things. Heroic, she was not. Simon Schama comments that Marie Antoinette was a 'terrible' Queen and he was probably right. But this painting does more justice to her final fashion statement. As the Austrian Archduchess herself famously remarked, "Tribulation first makes one realise who one is."
In conclusion, Marie Antoinette defined fashion, not style. She moulded the trends, understood the court implications of something as fickle as her dress sense and came to represent the rotten imbalance of the ancien regime in France.
So, next time someone tries to tell you that no-one cares what you're wearing, think about Marie Antoinette. And have a gold star if you, simultaneously think of my little (affectionately mislabeled, there) blog post on her.
Thank you so much if you did actually read this! Even if it doesn't suit many of you, I love history and I'm enjoying experimenting with these fusion blog-posts.
Have a lovely, snowy weekend. Seriously, look out the window Northerners. I'll need a sherpa to leave the house.