Veronica Horwell has a rummage around Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe courtesy of Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion
The only arresting portrait is reproduced in monochrome among the text, and it’s hard to guess the subject’s identity. A cap of fine linen supports a black veil. The dress is dark, its neck filled in with a fichu. The date is 1793, so the emphasis on a heightened waist is le denier cri, as is the cap shape. All so plain, though. Whose were these frail features? A friend of Charlotte Corday’s mother?
She was the Widow Capet, formerly Marie Antoinette. After her husband, Louis XVI, had been executed, her jailers granted her plea for the proper gear of bereavement and permitted its purchase from the boutique of her “minister of fashion” Rose Bertin, which would explain the cap’s crisp pleats. Although the artist painted the portrait from memory after a snatched visit to prison, it’s a most composed image, and the composure is the queen’s. Considering her dire circumstances, she has retained command over self-presentation.
That’s Caroline Weber’s theme: Marie Antoinette’s control over her image through the simulation of autonomy that is fashion. She regards the queen’s life as “a story … that can be read as a series of costumed events”. Her book had the same genesis in Antonia Fraser’s biography as did Sofia Coppola’s giggle of a movie, and Weber covers the same scenes, beginning with the ceremonial stripping of the affianced teen princess on the border between empires. (Though Weber usually describes stills, single images she can decode: nobody talks.) Once the Austrian import had been reclad à la française and wed to, but not bedded by, the heir to the throne, she had to construct an alternative public identity to maintain her celebrity at Versailles until her husband impregnated her with a brood.
The Dauphine’s first act of defiance, a 15-year-old’s strop, was her refusal to wear the grand corps, the rigid corset permitted only to the court elite. Her second was to learn to ride, and don not only male-style upper-body garments (nothing novel about that, female royals and courtiers had galloped about in similar equine fig since the 1660s), but to wear, and be painted in, breeches, while astride the saddle. Hunting Frenchwomen hid “culottes” under skirts; only the awesome Catherine the Great of Russia and comic actresses flaunted their lower limbs in breeches.
The marriage was at last consummated when Marie Antoinette was 18, and the couple crowned when she was 19; but she still was not a mother and was blocked from political influence, so, according to Weber’s reading, she resorted to the Queen of Hearts approach. Rather than get on with the job of wife, she dressed, spent and partied like a king’s maîtresse en titre. But she lacked the original identity for it, the rococo cool of Pompadour or the earthiness of Du Barry. She looks more like the lifesized doll of herself, with a trunk of the latest Paris modes, that toured Europe’s capitals. In all portraits except that prison image of grief, she has the vestigial features of a fashion plate. Her clothes matter so much more than the woman in them.
They were mostly designed by Bertin and were almost couture in a modern sense. Although Weber is gushingly starstruck by Marie Antoinette, from the princess diaries debut to the death (which Weber overwrites as a sartorial martyrdom), the most charismatic character in her book turns out to be Bertin. As a single, plump, vulgar milliner aged 24, she opened a Rue St Honoré emporium, the Grand Mogol, evading restrictive laws by stocking fabrics, luxury accessories and lace and passementerie trimmings. What she really sold was her genius in putting these together: Bertin combined the shock chic of Schiaparelli with Chanel’s appropriation of lower-class cuts and cloths. She didn’t merely execute court orders, she proposed modes: to avoid the stately robing rituals of Versailles, Marie Antoinette closeted herself daily for hours with Bertin and her hairdresser, Léonard.
Between them, they repositioned the queen as a flashier brand, in light short skirts and high, heavy hair: the pouf do - a plinth for plumes, puffed caps and preposterous set-pieces. The extreme exaggeration of that mode was then collapsed into the simplicity of the gaulle, Bertin’s adaptation of Caribbean and Louisiana colonial dress - a voluminous chemise and not a lot else - in harmony with Rousseau-esque sentiment. Just the garb for A-list rusticity at the Petit Trianon, where mirror shutters were cranked over windows so that its façade was as arrogantly blank as Victoria Beckham in outsize RayBans. Whatever happened personally or politically, Bertin could be relied upon: for coronation robes; diamonds under pale fur with a wheat-starch powdered coiffure during a famine winter; a revival of elitist whalebone once the queen’s bust expanded to 44 inches after she delivered a dauphin and two more babes.
True, after the Bastille fell, the queen ordered tricolour cockades from Bertin’s rival, Madame Eloffe, in the rose and sky-blue colourway favoured by aristos. But when Marie Antoinette planned a family escape in 1791, she returned to Bertin. The two dallied for months devising a magnificent trousseau for an exile the Bourbons failed to reach. (“A queen of France will be able to get the dresses she requires where ever she may find herself,” her wisest attendant advised; but the queen wanted her Bertins.) The queen’s death-day white outfit, improvised from quality underwear and a housecoat a supporter had sent her in prison, was probably by Bertin. The last cap is dignified even in Jacques-Louis David’s brutal sketch of its wearer en route to the guillotine. (Bertin, by the way, fled France; after her return she assembled a few ensembles for Napoleon’s Josephine.)
Weber isn’t interested in the frocks as frocks: she’s an academic, pernickety over the semiotics of their perceived meaning, but her wardrobe vocabulary is as lax as glossy-mag captions - “fashion statements”, “opulent”, “furbelows” and even lazier imprecisions. She has no space for the clothing currents that affected Bertin and the queen, whose chemise-dresses and coat-dresses came out of a Europe-wide, all-classes drift to plainer garb; and she provides no textile context - it’s page 206 before cotton gets a mention, although its semi-industrial production in France was a revolution that prefigured political shifts. She doesn’t care - doesn’t know? - how the things were made, describing both silk stockings and lace as being “woven”. Weber’s adoration of Marie Antoinette made me dislike more the greedy silly, who charged the millions in credit that she spent like a demented mall-rat to a nation in debt and decline, and didn’t deliver minimum service to the state in exchange. Shop until the blade drops, cherie, and I’ll knit as I watch it fall.
(Mine’s the American version and looks like this. - Caitlin)