‘Queen of Fashion’ by Caroline Weber

weber

2006, 292 p + notes

If I’d written this book, I couldn’t have resisted her subtitle: ‘What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution’.  Although to be fair to any humourless editor who may have insisted on the more staid title, the first half of this book does deal with Marie Antoinette as Queen, and only the second half is devoted to the Revolution.

A French Queen’s clothes were never neutral: the young bride-to-be  Marie Antoinette was stripped of her Austrian clothes on the border, despite her mother’s care in making sure that they were of the latest French design, and clothed in authentically French court fashion, including a wicked boned corset and the ceremonial grand habit de cour – the court dress of Versailles with a tight-fitting bodice, voluminous hoopskirts and long train.  The clothes were not enough, though, to encourage her diffident husband, the future Louis XVI and it was in the in-between phase, before he bolstered her position at court by bedding and impregnating her, that she began experimenting with court fashion.  She scandalized the court by refusing to wear the corset; she introduced the English-style redingote (riding coat) and wore trousers while riding.

Redingote

Redingote

Once Queen, her own style set the standard for fashion at court.  She introduced the pouf– huge, towering hairstyles built on scaffolding made from wire, cloth, gauze, horsehair, fake hair and the wearer’s own hair, teased off the forehead.   In amongst this would nestle an elaborate miniature still-life- for example ‘ a three-foot high pouf that replicated a verdant garden, replete with flowers, grass, a bubbling stream, and a tiny windmill edge with jewels and powered by a clockwork mechanism’ (p. 104.); or more political poufs, like one that depicted the French frigate that won a key victory against the British in June 1778.

pouf a la Belle Poule

pouf a la Belle Poule

Away from the court, at her Petit Trianon garden shed, she broke away from the formality of the court by wearing a lightweight chemise dress known as the gaulle, made of airy, ruffled muslin with a wide sash at the wait and ribbon bracelets at the elbows. The gaulle was popular not just in France, but across the Channel in England as well.

The Princess de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette's BFF, wearing a gaulle

The Princess de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette's BFF, wearing a gaulle

This earlier section of the book was interesting, but rather laboured.  Perhaps this reflects the long waiting-around time that Marie Antoinette had to endure before her husband managed to ‘do the deed’.  Weber draws heavily on Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette throughout her book- I don’t know why, but I’d mentally placed Fraser’s meticulous work into a different category from a scholarly (but popular) book like Weber’s.  At times I felt like saying “Okay- I get it! Clothes matter!” during the early chapters.

For me, the book really took off with the Revolution.  Weber spends little time discussing the Revolution per se, but instead looks at it through the lens of Marie Antoinette’s clothing, and just like the Revolution itself, there is a dizzying array of statements being made in the clothes she wears.  During the early days of the Revolution she adopted the cockade in blue, white and pink (not red) worn by the people in the streets, to express her sympathy in the movement.  In trying to escape to Varennes, she adopts an unassuming dark brown dress with a black shawl and hat, but in the pictures portraying their escape, she is depicted wearing the gaulle she made famous.  Once arrested, she adopted again the colours of royalty- purple and green, and sometimes the Austrian colours of yellow and black: at the risk of a bad and anachronistic pun, surely a ‘red rag’ to the Revolutionaries.  She insisted, over her jailers, on wearing black once her husband had been executed, a dress that became progressively more tatty and threadbare as her imprisonment stretched on.  Finally, taken to the guillotine, she pulled out a white dress that she had kept carefully hidden throughout her imprisonment, and died in that.   Even the fact that she had saved this white dress highlights her awareness of appearance: she had been suffering very heavily from uterine bleeding for months, was desperate for rags to staunch the flow, and to have kept this dress intact speaks volumes.

Weber draws on other biographies, the memoirs of royalists written at the time and small ephemeral documents like receipts and accounts with her dressmakers and milliners.  It is a beautifully written book that she has obviously enjoyed writing- so much so that there is a personalized narrator-centred introduction and afterword- as if she can’t bear to let the topic go. And yet I wish she had integrated her afterword into her introduction, because it detracted from the masterful closing paragraph of the book that encapsulated everything that had come before:

Even before she had reached the guillotine, this aspect of her history, her body, her being, had been erased- leaving only white.  But the erasure reveal even more than it concealed, condensing as it did the whole of her perilously fashionable past.  White the colour of the fleur-de-lys and of a young bride’s complexion. White the colour of costume parties and sleigh rides in the snow.  White the color of a powdered head, coiffed by Bertin and Leonard- or by the mob.  White the colour of a muslin gaulle, imported or otherwise: pretty at Trianon, perverse in Paris.  … White the simultaneous coexistence of all colours: revolutionary blue and red, royalist violet and green.  White the color of the locks that she saw the executioner slip into her pocket as he sheared her head to prepare her for her fate.  White the color of martyr-dom, of holy heaven, of eternal life.  White the color of a ghost too beautiful, or at least too willful, to die.  White the color of the pages on which her story has been- and will be- written. Again and again and again.

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