Known for her extravagant gowns, sky-high hairdos and royal status, Marie-Antoinette is one of the most famous queens of France. Her fashion sense and personality continue to influence trends and inspire creatives. In Sofia Coppola’s film, for instance, Marie-Antoinette is depicted as a frivolous, naïve young girl, more interested in dresses, pastries and partying than engaging in political intrigue. This is one of the common representations of the queen: a foolish woman obsessed with her appearance and having fun. Yet, there is also another side to the historical figure: a rebellious, independent woman. Hated or admired, Marie-Antoinette has always sparked strong emotions, as did her eccentric way of dressing. Clothing can be a means to communicate and convey a statement; it is seldom as futile as it seems. Was Marie-Antoinette a selfish fashion victim – who told the starving people to eat brioche – or was her clothing a way for her to express her bold and free spirit?
At 14, Marie-Antoinette was thrown into one of the cruelest courts in Europe. Chosen on the basis of her physical beauty and for political reasons, she was meant to give birth to the future king of France. Her every move was scrutinised and discussed. It did not sit well with her that for the first seven years of her marriage with the king, they were never intimate. At the time, with her sole purpose being to produce an heir, her failure to do so was extremely humiliating and the object of public criticism.
Quickly, the queen made it clear that she was going to live according to her own rules. She did not appreciate the strict code of conduct and etiquette of the court, and soon found her own safe space at the Trianon: a smaller palace close to Versailles, flanked with a functioning farm, where she retreated by herself or with her friends to rest and throw the occasional luxurious party. Except that according to protocol, the queen was meant to sleep with the king – her not doing so was deemed scandalous.
Scandal remained associated with Marie-Antoinette throughout her life. By choosing not to abide by the rules associated to her rank, Marie-Antoinette made many enemies. Gossip and slander became extremely common, even after she finally had her first child. Her choice of dresses, far from being inconspicuous, was another form of rebellion on her part.
Through her sartorial choices, Marie-Antoinette transgressed the traditional social order. Bored of her husband, and allowed no real political role, the queen decided to play her last card: use fashion as a means of self-expression, in a court where everything was about appearance. A true fashionista, Marie-Antoinette came up with outrageous, fancy dresses and hairdos with her stylists. She refused to wear the traditional corset of the time, deeming it an object of torture. As the queen of France, she was allowed to follow fashion, but without provocation. Marie-Antoinette disregarded the etiquette, and preferred extravagant outfits. For a while, the people followed the queen’s example, adopting gravity-defying hairstyles, and dresses overflowing with material.
That is, until the queen went too far. First, she decided she wanted to wear long white dresses made of cotton, like the peasants did. This frock allowed her to be free in her movements and feel closer to nature. Marie-Antoinette looked less like a queen, and more like a milkmaid, a transgression that was perceived as a betrayal by the people of France. Moreover, the queen was being accused of spending huge sums of money on her clothes, rather than prioritising the well-being of her people. Her defiant fashion-sense led to the kingdom distrusting the foreign queen.
Although Marie-Antoinette is not the only reason that triggered the French revolution — and her extravagant wardrobe not the only reason she was disliked–, her peculiar nature certainly helped nourish distrust in the French monarchy, as she came to symbolize the excesses of royals. Until her very last breath, Marie-Antoinette used clothing as a statement. After the execution of her husband, she asked for a black gown to wear for mourning. When she was taken to the guillotine, she was denied the right to dress as a widow. Instead, Marie-Antoinette chose to wear a white dress. When she was being led in a cart through the streets of Paris to be executed, everyone fell completely silent as they watched the queen go by.
To the end and still today, the iconic Marie-Antoinette continues to fascinate for her ambiguous, controversial and paradoxical character.
Article by Inès Huet
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