18th century, books

Queen of Fashion Book Review

Since work and life have been so busy that pretty much NO sewing has been happening, I thought I’d keep things interesting around here with a book review! I recently finished Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, which in addition to having a fabulous title, was a fascinating read.

After seeing the movie last year, I went back to read Antonia Fraser’s biography (which I’d read about 1/3 of years ago but never finished). Queen of Fashion really compliments a conventional bio of MA; it actually includes a lot of biographical information, but there’s (obviously) lots that it can’t go into. So I recommend reading it after having read one of the major MA biographies.

But I was struck how much clearer my understanding of MA, and particularly why she became such a focus for the revolution, was after reading Queen of Fashion. In fact, I would now argue that it is impossible to really understand MA without understanding her clothing, and the public perception of her fashionable image.

In particular, it is author Weber’s argument that it was precisely because MA abandoned court dress in favor of fashionable attire that she became a focal point for public criticism. By leading the mode, and by leaving Versailles to mix with Parisian society, MA shattered earlier understandings of royalty as godlike. Previously, French queens had dutifully followed court protocol, which kept them wearing very formal attire and kept them physically removed from the majority of the populace. MA, on the other hand, became all too real, both in the fact that you could see her at the Opera or shopping in Paris, but also because she wore what was being worn by other fashionable women of her era. Real equals human, and human equals faults, so while early on she was very popular, when public sentiment began to sour with the current regime, she was a fair target — one who was wearing not only what other aristocratic women wore, but also (to some degree) what actresses and prostitutes wore.

This all helped me understand the Diamond Necklace Affair in a way that I hadn’t previously. After seeing the film The Affair of the Necklace, I went back to Fraser’s bio to try to understand why this incident had such a negative impact on MA’s public image — but just really didn’t get it. Queen of Fashion spends a lot more time (I think a whole chapter?) on this incident. Weber argues that by acquitting Cardinal Rohan, the parlement basically said that it was reasonable for him to assume that MA would spend huge sums of money on a ridiculous necklace, and also reasonable to assume that she would participate in secret assignations — all of which publicly confirmed the popular perceptions of MA.

There’s also lots of interesting costume history interspersed throughout, such as the whole “MA refused to wear a corset” actually was about her not wanting to wear the grand corps, an apparently even MORE rigid and uncomfortable set of stays that only royalty were allowed to wear — not that she didn’t want to wear a corset at all. And there’s lots of discussion of the “pouf” hairstyle and the gaulle, which is the early term for the chemise a la Reine.

I was excited to find, while scanning footnotes (I’m a history geek, I read the footnotes) that while Rose Bertin’s records were destroyed, the records of another dressmaker (Madame Eloffe) that MA used during the revolution have been published (I’m waiting to get these via interlibrary loan). And that the Musee Carnavalet in Paris has a few items from the queen’s wardrobe, including a shoe and a fan that is on permanent display (going to have to hunt these down on my next trip to Paris! I may have even wandered right by them on my last trip).

The only disappointment I had was that there was not more details on the specifics of MA’s wardrobe (oh, for a Marie Antoinette’s Wardrobe Unlocked!), but that wasn’t really the aim of the book and there are few records preserved.

The book is really well written and very readable; if you’re into the topic at all, I highly recommend it.

Next up, I really want to read Sexing La Mode: Gender, Fashion, and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France!

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  • Reply Loren February 19, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    Great review!

    I really enjoyed this book too. One of the things that struck me the most was the importance of color in the politics of France. All those acid yellow dresses weren’t just a fashion choice but were a political statement as well.

  • Reply wendy February 19, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    I can see a parallel to the british monarchy. Prior to the 1960s their personal lives were fairly much unknown by the masses and their only visibility the public appearances – as iconic images. The gradual slide into them becoming more real & human and the monarchy as an institution is not as subject to the gutter & other press. When formerly they may have done inappropriate and foolish things (eg wearing a nazi costume to a fancy dress) but the publcity would have been zero. They’d have remained icons.

  • Reply Anonymous February 20, 2007 at 2:31 am

    I found a neat book on Ebay abount Rose Bertin that claims to have registers of work she did for the Queen and others. A fun look…

    I enjoy your website so very much!!
    ~Kat (madamekat on LJ)

  • Reply Lisa February 20, 2007 at 9:14 am

    France was in bankrupt for very numerous reasons (also to have financed future United States against the UK;-)). Frenchmen called Louis XVI and MA,” M. et Mme Faillite”. The Revolution would have taken place, even without Marie Antoinette. Let us say that she did not sort out things, as Louis XVI, although full of willingness. The French Revolution has very deep reasons and all the French people do not know them… The policyis not easy to understand.
    In brief, I just meant that a book is appeared on Rose Bertin in 2004.
    Rose Bertin : Ministre des modes de Marie-Antoinette, by Michelle Sapori( actually it was her thesis).

    The Musée Galliéra in Paris also keep a “corsage baleiné” de Marie Antoinette. If I remember correctly, it’s made of blue silk…


  • Reply J February 22, 2007 at 10:05 pm

    There’s a late-19th century bio of Rose Bertin out there that is quite interesting in a Victorian kind of way. Translated into English in 1913: Langlade, Émile. Rose Bertin: The Creator of Fashion at the Court of Marie-Anoinette. Adapted from the French by Angelo S. Rappoport. London: John Long, Limited, 1913. (from my thesis bibliography, I found it at my library.)
    I saw the shoe and fan at the Musee Carnavallet last week (I was in Paris). The shoe is very small! They have lots of touching little relics of the queen, and some interesting portraits of her as a widow.
    You might be interested in buying the Gazette des autours de Marie-Antoinette, which is a scrapbook facsimile like the Barbara Johnson’s. I bought it at 107 Rue de Rivoli (bookshop of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs), but you will probably be able to find it online.

  • Reply Hannah February 27, 2007 at 7:02 am

    I recently read _Sex with Kings_, about royal mistresses. It brought up an interesting point regarding MA and her public image. Apparently Louis XVI was the first French king in centuries not to have a (or several) royal mistress. Previously, the Queen had stayed in the background of the court, busy producing babies and the royal mistress had been in the spotlight, setting fashions but also being a major focus for public derrision. In a greatly-simplified nutshell, MA essentially co-opted the royal mistress’s role as public scapegoat.

    BTW, the book mentioned covers a number of other European courts and a broad scope of history (aprox. 16th thru early 20th cen.) I highly recomend it!

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