By Xin Wen
When Louis XV was still alive, and when Marie Antoinette as a young dauphine was still popular among French people, she once wore men’s breeches and a riding coat. The audacious outfit gave her the fame of ‘the only man of Bourbon’. In fact, only after the revolution broke out, did she act as a political figure. At first she refused to leave France and then she wrote letters to her relatives in Austria with the hope that they would rescue her and her family.
However, this time she was out of luck. After a very short stay in the Tuileries, in August 1792 she and her family were transported to the Temple, where they were captivated as prisoners. The royal family’s life in the Temple was filled with indignities: one of the queen’s valet recalled that the guards of the Temple even put their hats on in order to express their disrespect when they saw the royal couple. As for clothing —Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe shrank greatly: with the small amount of money the Commune de Paris gave, she ordered ‘two white bonnets, nine gauze and organdy fichus of varying sizes, one skirt, one white linen capelet, one black taffeta capelet, and three lengths of white ribbon, several shifts made from linen and muslin…’ (Caroline Weber, 2006, Queen of Fashion, page 255)
Let us not forget this was a woman who used to purchase more than 300 new outfits a year, a woman who spent thousands of livres to comb her hair into a series of new styles, and a woman who was imitated by all the aristocratic women in France. However, when ‘the only living creature in France who still cried “Long live the King!” was a parakeet’ (Caroline Weber, 2006, Queen of Fashion, page 259), the crowd with admiring glances disappeared--partly because they were blocked by the tall, thick walls of the Temple, partly because they didn’t care anymore.
After her husband was executed, Marie Antoinette wore a black mourning gown day after day for two months. Her body condition got worse because of the abominable environment of her cell; her hair became white as her trials went on. She was steady and calm in front of most of her charges; however, she couldn’t remain silent when she was accused of ‘incest’—having a sexual relationship with her son—then a 7-year-old boy. Though hard to believe, the aggressive revolutionists indeed invented this absurd accusation. Maybe they thought for a chief culprit who relentlessly depleted the French national treasury (though actually France’s aid for America also contributed to the depletion of the French national treasury), the charge of incest was something she deserved.
On the morning of October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette changed into her last outfit—a white chemise with the stare of a gendarme. This scene reminded me of the stripping ceremony she went through 23 years ago. Over these years she failed as a queen, but succeeded as a fashion example. In Caroline Weber’s account:
‘She slipped into her plum-black shoes, a fresh white underskirt, and her pristine white chemise. To complete the ensemble, she put on the white dishabille dress Madame Elisabeth had sent her from the Temple and wrapped the prettiest of her muslin fichus around her neck. Marie Antoinette’s final fashion statement eloquently condensed her complex sartorial history into a single color with a host of different associations: white.’
Marie on her way to her execution, by Jacques Louis David
According to Stefan Zweig, only one person was truly woeful after Marie Antoinette’s death: her lover from Sweden—Mr. Ferson. He could never forget the glamour and radiance of the Austrian lady. However the turbulent wave of history did not have the leisure to mourn an evil queen’s death, or an old man’s misery. It took 22 years until people identified the corpse of Marie Antoinette among hundreds of dead bodies. Sarcastically, it was a piece of cloth that led the searchers to Marie Antoinette, in Zweig’s words:
‘A moldering garter enabled them to recognize that the handful of pale dust which was disinterred from the damp soil was the last trace of that long-dead woman who in her day had been the goddess of grace and of taste, and subsequently the queen of many sorrows.’
References : Stefan Zweig, <Marie Antoinette>, Pushkin Press, 2010
Caroline Weber, <Queen of Fashion>, Henry Holt and Company, 2006
The sketch came from Wikipedia.
by Xin Wen
At the age of 14, Marie Antoinette was sent by her mother- Maria Theresa of Austria to France to be the wife of the future king- Louis XVI. On her way to the foreign country, just after she set foot on the soil of Bourbon, she was asked to get rid of all the Austrian things she was carrying. Even her little puppy was taken from her. (As shown in the movie <Marie Antoinette>, directed by Sophia Coppola). In front of many noble people’s staring, she was stripped bare and given a whole set of French clothes. The little young princess burst into tears.
241 years later, we don’t know whether this awkward experience ruined the first impression of French people for Marie Antoinette, what we do know is that French people in 18th century pretty much hated her. Why? Because in Zweig’s words: ‘From the outset, the Queen’s mistake was that she wished to conquer as woman instead of as queen.’ During her 15 years of Queen she cast her primary energy on clothes, hairstyle, party, and gamble. She had great interests in everything except for the affairs of state. A typical day of Marie Antoinette starts at 11pm, ends at 5am approximately. As soon as she got up, she had to decide which gown to wear (which could take a few hours), and after that she let her hair done by her beloved hairdresser- Monsieur Leonard.
The hairstyle this gentlemen offered was exaggerated, pretty fit into the zeitgeist of 18th century—Rococo art. Here is how the hair was done: ‘To begin with, by means of huge hairpins and a lavish expenditure of stiff pomade, the hair was strained upwards from the temples like a huge flaming candle, about twice the height of the pointed head-dress of a Prussian grenadier.’ (Stefan Zweig, <Marie Antoinette—the portrait of an average woman>) When Marie Antoinette’s mother in Vienna heard about the 36-inch-height of hair her daughter was carrying, she was furious and wrote letters to warn the Queen of France. However, Marie Antoinette did not take any cordial advice.
Soon the hairstyle was popular among the circle around Palais de Versailles. Since the hair of noblewomen was too high, the ceilings of boxes were changed into vaults. Sometimes women could not sit in the carriages-- for the safety of their hair, they had to kneel down.
However, height was not the only object; political sensitivity was also valued: the hairstyle even reflected current events. ‘In the free space, eighteen inches above the eyebrows, began the artist’s plastic realm. Not only were landscapes and panoramas, with fruit, gardens, houses, ships, the sea in a storm, the whole motley world, but, to provide for sufficiently frequent changes in fashion, the event of the day had to be symbolized in this superstructure.’ (Stefan Zweig, <Marie Antoinette—the portrait of an average woman>) Though hard to believe nowadays, Marie Antoinette actually got a boat on her head: ‘When France joined forces with the American revolutionaries, Marie Antoinette showed her support by wearing an intricate hairdo displaying a French frigate that won a key victory against the British in June 1778.’ (Caroline Weber, <Queen of Fashion>)
Marie Antoinette was a classic representative of 18th century. She totally embraced the zeitgeist, and even elaborated and extended it at the cost of her life. Over the years, she squandered money on nothing related to the governing of the country. (She was not that into shoes as the 2006 movie showed). Her poor husband never blamed her; instead he paid her debts and tried his best to let Marie be the only peacock in the court.
However, French people did not have the same tolerance as Louis Louis XVI: sarcastic cartoons and rumors pervade; people attributed the empty national treasury to the life style of Marie Antoinette. Meanwhile she retained her extravagance without being slightly aware of the upcoming danger. That’s when the seed of her future death was planted. That’s when the tragedy of the Queen of Rococo started.
Stefan Zweig, <Marie Antoinette>, Pushkin Press, 2010
Caroline Weber, <Queen of Fashion>, Henry Holt and Company, 2006
Anne Hollander, <The Queen's closet—What Marie Antoinette really wore>, Slate
Liesl Schillinger, <The Queen's Wardrobe>,NY times
The first picture comes from the website of Palais de Versailles
The second picture comes from http://www.cfa.ilstu.edu/lmlowel/
The last one comes from <The Queen's wardrobe>, by Liesl Schillinger