14 April 2009

Book Review: Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber

Queen of Fashion Who hasn’t heard of the frivolous French queen Marie Antoinette and her ruinous love of luxury? Queen of Fashion steps behind the reputation and uncovers the true history of the queen’s wardrobe. Far from a mindless indulgence in finery, as Dauphine Marie Antoinette used fashion to claim for herself the status she lost through her failure to bear children (or rather, Louis’s failure to attempt to produce any). Later, as Queen, she started her own revolution, abandoning the silks and jewels of Versailles in favour of the simpler, lighter dresses of the Petit Trianon, in her attempt to escape the stifling protocols of the court and enjoy a life of her own. Unfortunately her fashion statements were never received in quite the way she had intended, and returned to haunt her when they served as fuel for the rebellion brewing among the lower tiers of society. Despite her efforts to camouflage herself in the colours of the revolution, the former fashion leader found herself in rags, and with only one fashion statement left to make: her choice of dress for the guillotine.

I wish I could remember where I read a review of this; it was on my list so I must have done so somewhere. Whichever blogger was responsible for adding it to my list - thank you. I greatly enjoyed it, which proves that you don’t need a love of fashion in order to do so. (Is there anybody reading this who doesn’t find haute couture ridiculous?) I had a basic knowledge of the Revolution - in fact I now recall that I studied it, vaguely, in Year 7 French; I had previously thought my historical education hadn’t involved a single thing beyond Australia (except for being made to read Number the Stars and Richard III). Now I know rather more, about both the Revolution and the absolute monarchy that it overthrew; the politics of the day frames the story of Marie Antoinette’s outfits like gold surrounds jewels. Putting everything in context like this shows how each influenced the other and allows a greater understanding of both.

At first I found Marie Antoinette to be terribly naïve and foolish, ignoring her mother’s advice and instead falling prey to the machinations of her husband’s anti-Austrian aunts. She was only young, but even so surely she should have been able to see that such a flagrant flouting of protocol as refusing to wear the mandatory corset was a recipe for disaster? Later her costume choices became more considered - attempts to emulate the glory of Louis XIV - but I still shook my head over her vast expenditure and insistence on wearing clothes ill-befitting her station, even as I sympathised with her desire for a private life, which was impossible when perpetually on display at Versailles. However, once the Revolution got going and Marie Antoinette was finally able to have a say in something more serious than how she looked I came to admire and respect this woman who worked so hard to preserve the monarchy and protect her family, despite the fact that her love of fashion undermined their one shot at escape.

Her love of fashion may have contributed to her downfall and left her to be remembered as a shallow, frivolous creature, but had she been the retiring ideal of a Bourbon wife she could have been known to most as just a name in the history books, a woman who had the misfortune to be queen at the wrong time. Instead, with hardly anything remaining of her magnificent wardrobe, the popular imagination is left free to deck her out in whatever extravagant finery it can conceive; and I can’t think that Marie Antoinette - at least in her younger days - would entirely disapprove of such a legacy.

Yet much as I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t shake the faint scepticism that hovers whenever I read a work of non-fiction which will try to apply interpretations and meaning to almost everything. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar - and sometimes a white dress is just a white dress.

Rating: A

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776