Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

I’m giving away several books throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month. Win a copy of this book, courtesy of yours truly! Read on for more information.

Book cover: Queen of Fashion by Caroline WeberMarie Antoinette symbolizes many things to many people, but the things that usually stand out are “let them eat cake,” and the sky-high pouf hairstyles. Carefully cultivated from birth to adopt the mannerisms and grace of a future queen, the young Austrian Archduchess learned early on that appearances were everything. What she could not have been prepared for was the idea that her body and personal space would no longer be her own. As her entourage crossed the future Dauphine from Austria into France, the mortified fourteen-year-old was stripped naked before a mixed audience of men and women and changed into French attire. From that moment on, she would be forced to follow French royal protocol and have people ritually dress and undress her, and would be expected to adhere to the established fashions of the French nobility.

Very early on, encouraged by people she naively trusted, she rebelled by refusing to wear the painful corsets worn by members of the royal family. The backlash was instant: rumors spread that her posture was lopsided and deformed because of her refusal to wear the corsets. Though she quickly acquiesced and began wearing the dreaded corsets again, some of the rumors persisted even after her death. What she was quickly learning, however, was that the ways in which she adorned and presented her body were powerful. As she grew older, she would use her fashions and hairstyles to challenge the passive roles expected of her and assert herself politically. It worked to her advantage at first, when she was a young and beautiful girl who endeared herself to the nation. Ultimately, it would contribute to her downfall. Either way, it would make her an icon.

Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution is not your typical biography. Though Marie Antoinette’s life is examined, the major focus is on her sartorial choices and their cultural implications (“let them eat cake,” for example, was a loaded — and fabricated — statement largely due to the all the flour that went into powdering the pouf hairstyles that Marie Antoinette had made all the rage).

At her country retreat, Trianon, Marie Antoinette finally got her way in regards to corsets and banned them, instituting a much more relaxed dress code that allowed for flowing, flexible fabrics. This style, “peasant” style, also caught on among nobility, scandalizing the old guard with its lack of wealthy flair. When public opinion turned on the royal family, this loose style was considered indicative of loose morals; rumors abounded about the wild sex parties taking place in the “opulence” of Trianon (which was, by the standards of Versailles, much more simple decor-wise).

With her fashion, she could support political causes or just have fun. She could make herself look humble and innocent, or make herself look supremely regal. This backfired on occasion; if a hairstyle was considered too masculine, for example, it also made a statement about the masculinity (or perceived lack thereof) of her painfully shy husband.

The cultural implications also extended to those who supplied her with her famous fashions. Madame Rose Bertin, who through Marie Antoinette became France’s first designer of haute couture, created a stir by her very presence. As someone from a non-noble background, and as a woman, she horrified plenty of people by establishing herself in a career traditionally occupied by French noblemen (and threw it in everyone’s face by hanging a sign outside her shop window that said “Marchande de Modes to the Queen”).

There were times that I wished she’d focused a little more on Marie Antoinette’s life, but then again, that’s not the goal of the book (for those who are interested in more of a straightforward biography, Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey is excellent). Anyone who is interested in fashion and fabrics and royal protocol will be utterly fascinated by Weber’s masterful descriptions. It was also interesting to read about the French Revolution and catty inner circles of Versailles from a fashion-based cultural perspective. I know it’s still pretty early in the year, but this is hands down my favorite read of 2012 so far.

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution was released in paperback by Picador on October 2, 2007.

IndieBound | Powell’s | Amazon
I read it as a(n): paperback
Source: interlibrary loan
Pages: 432

Want a chance to win this book? Since it’s one of my favorite reads so far this year, I’m giving a copy away for Women’s History Month! To enter, fill out this form by midnight on Friday, April 6, 2012 (Central Time). Contest is open worldwide!  This giveaway is now closed.

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