Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber found its way into my reading list because of the controversial Hilary Mantel lecture I attended a few months ago. When musing on which book she would recommend to the Duchess of Cambridge, Mantel chose Weber’s biography. ‘Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks’ Mantel said and I knew I just had to read it.
It was published sometime ago in 2007 and yet is one of those books that will endure I think as it’s lessons are timeless. It is a hugely original biography and an outstanding piece of work. It tells the story of Marie Antoinette, the hated Austrian Queen of France from her childhood in Vienna to her execution in Paris, through the lens of her dresses. What she wore was one of the few things in her life that Marie Antoinette could control. She was completely constrained by her circumstances in the highly formal court of Versailles and Weber charts her rebellions; such as a refusal to wear a corset, her use of male riding clothes, her enormous hairstyle, the pouf, and her adoption of the unstructured dress, the gaulle. What she wore was also one of the few ways Marie Antoinette could be political in a patriarchal regime. However, it was this politicisation of her dress that Marie Antoinette got so wrong. The luxury and ostentation of her court dresses and hairstyles as befitting her royal status were resented by a starving public for the waste of money and even flour (used to powder her hair). Yet, when she turned to less formal styles like the gaulle, she was attacked for ruining the French silk industry. She could not win and at times, I felt huge sympathy for this tragic woman as I read the biography.
However, at other times I also felt extreme frustration. The particular episode that completely eroded my sympathy for her was, in planning to escape from Paris at the beginning of the revolution, Marie Antoinette foiled her own escape in many ways. At that time, she was wearing the colours of the revolution, blue, white and red to try to show her sympathy for the cause. It was, of course, an expediency and as they planned to escape, the Queen ordered new dresses in the royal white, blacks, purples and yellows, anticipating wearing them abroad after an escape. This raises suspicions in a minor seamstress and her tip-off was one of the factors in the failure of their escape. This speaks to me of extreme blindness and stupidity and putting narcissism and vanity above your and your family’s personal safety.
This biography shows both a vain and silly Queen, but also a doomed, sad woman, trapped in circumstances beyond her control and struggling for freedom in the only way she knew how. It allows the reader to make up their own mind. It also shows the power and the danger of being a fashion-plate in the public eye. A warning that is very pertinent to the Duchess of Cambridge as Mantel suggested. My one tip with this biography is that I might have found it a little hard to follow if I didn’t know the basics of the history of the French Revolution. It concentrates on Marie Antoinette obviously and does not linger on explaining some of the important events and personalities like the Flour Wars and Robespierre which are crucial references. This means that, if you have not already, I would recommend reading a general history of the French Revolution first before reading this book so you have a more rounded background overview of the period.
Reading this book has meant I think a little more carefully about what my clothes choices say about me, even though I am far from the public eye!
p.s this video of Caroline Weber explaining some of the ideas behind this book is really interesting.