Monday, 11 October 2010

Fit for a Queen

The blog Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century is hosting a rather fun video, celebrating the legendary wardrobe of the last Queen of France and her contemporaries.

The dress above is one of the cumbersome but magnificent gowns required by Versailles etiquette to be worn by the great ladies of the Court on formal occasions of State. Marie-Antoinette was not a fan of this particular style of dress, but she made the best of it by employing the talents of her famed dress-maker, stylist and so-called "Minister of Fashion," Madame Rose Bertin, who American Vogue credited with inventing the entire concept of haute couture in their September 2006 issue.

The personal style of Marie-Antoinette and her confidantes is something often misrepresented. Like earlier queens, such as Anne Boleyn and Henrietta-Maria, Marie-Antoinette was genuinely interested in fashion for fashion's sake - she enjoyed the touch and sight of gorgeous fabrics and daring, fashion-forward gowns. Unlike other sovereigns, such as Elizabeth I or Louis XIV, the Queen did not enjoy dressing for the sake of grandeur or political display. Her decision, in the 1780s, to patronise the movement for simpler, elegant lawn dresses was one of her more controversial, but is also indicates that the Queen preferred style to splendour and innovation to tradition when it came to fashion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her own obsession with fashion and her appreciation of the power of aesthetics, Marie-Antoinette's set was known for being a fairly fashionable one. Her brother-in-law, the Comte d'Artois, was generally considered to be the best-dressed man in France, while several of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting were praised for their sense of style - the imperious but entertaining Princesse d'Hénin, a friend of the Comte d'Artois', had a preference for sophisticated and generally fairly conservative cuts in clothing; the pretty Thérèse-Lucy de Dillon, married to the Governor of Tobago and chatelaine of a beautiful townhouse on the rue du Bac, generally followed where the Queen led, but her love of the latest fashion and complimentary, highly-feminine styles were commented upon with approval by many of the courtiers at Versailles.

Amongst the Queen's extended circle, perhaps the most adventurous dresser was Victoire, the Princesse de Guéménée, wife of one of the highest-ranking aristocrats in the kingdom and related by blood to another of the nation's "first families." Victoire was noted for the general fabulousness of her lifestyle, her extravagant parties, her sophisticated manners, her luxurious homes, her gambling addiction, her financial recklessness, her love for her pet dogs and her dazzlingly decadent dress-sense. Madame de Guéménée dressed in the most lavish and ostentatious style, which so many of us associate in our heads with the last days of the ancien régime in France. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Madame and her husband were the only French aristocrats in the entire century who actually faced bankruptcy - a financial scandal which rocked the nobility and titillated the gossips of Paris and Versailles for months to come. The Queen, who was not particularly close to Madame but enjoyed her parties, arranged for a loan to be given to the couple to spare them the humiliation of debtors' prison, but the Guéménées were still forced to quit the capital for awhile, in order to live-down the disgrace of their bankruptcy.

Perhaps the keenest of the Versailles fashionistas, after the Queen herself, was her friend and Superintendent of her Household, the Princesse de Lamballe. A pretty society widow, the Princesse was not only one of the highest-ranking women in France as a Princess of the Blood, but also one of its wealthiest, thanks to the enormous fortune she had inherited when her young but immoral husband died at the age of twenty from advanced syphilis, leaving her everything but an infection. Mercifully, Madame de Lamballe had avoided contracting venereal disease, since her husband had quit his wife's bed for that of a dancer, Mademoiselle Chassaign, shortly after the wedding. That the Lamballe marriage had been abusive had long been whispered in the corridors of Versailles and with the inheritance received from her husband, it was cruelly (but accurately) reported that the prince had given his wife far greater pleasure in death than he ever had in life. Deeply religious, morally upstanding, highly sentimental, emotional and lady-like, Madame de Lamballe showed no wish to re-marry and instead used her vast fortune to give generously to her favourite charities and to maintain an extravagant yet elegant life as one of the French aristocracy's premier socialites. She kept two large homes - her town-house of the Hôtel de Toulouse (where the recent film Marie-Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst was partially filmed; Madame's home was used to film the scenes of Marie-Antoinette's youth in Vienna) and her beautiful country house of the Château de Rambouillet (above left.)

Probably one of Marie-Antoinette's closest friends when she first arrived in France, Madame de Lamballe was an avid fan of fashion and, in fact, generally considered the best-dressed woman at Versailles before Marie-Antoinette asserted her own sartorial independence. Madame de Lamballe had avoided the flamboyance of the Princesse de Guéménée and the occasionally rather racy or gaudy outfits favoured by Madame du Barry and had instead preferred to focus on following the latest trends being set or innovated by the fashion designers of Paris. Professor Caroline Weber of Columbia University has characterised Madame de Lamballe's personal dress-sense as "stylish [and] soulful." Indeed, the princess was one of the first aristocratic patrons of Rose Bertin, later to become Marie-Antoinette's chief fashion ally; Professor Weber suggests that it was Lamballe and her sister-in-law, the Duchesse de Chartres, who first began to spend a fortune at Bertin's fashion house, thus helping to bring her lavish aesthetic to the attention of the fashion-conscious nobility and eventually to the attention of Marie-Antoinette, herself.

Certainly, despite her emotional sensitivity and the hideous, repugnant circumstances of her murder during the Revolution, the Princesse de Lamballe had an eye for colour and a strong fashion statement, similar to Marie-Antoinette's own. In her recent work of micro-history, Queen of Fashion, Professor Weber writes: -

"Like Marie Antoinette, the Princesse de Lamballe had pearly white skin, blue eyes, and pale golden hair, and the two young women seemed to take pleasure in underscoring their resemblance through prettily co-ordinated ensembles. In the winter of 1776, after six weeks of heavy snowfalls, the friends caused a sensation by riding to the Bois de Boulogne in a horse-drawn sleigh, both of them glittering in white diamonds, adorned with powdered poufs, and snuggled under piles of fluffy white furs - all of which matched the white plumes bobbing in their horses' manes..."
 Perhaps the most interesting of the personal styles amongst Marie-Antoinette's friends, apart from that of the Queen herself, was that of Gabrielle, Duchesse de Polignac. An almost legendarily beautiful socialite, with porcelain skin and lilac eyes, Gabrielle was so physically perfect that she was compared to a Madonna by Raphael. Yet, if assessments of her beauty were unanimous, those of her personality were more divided. The Queen's perfume-maker, Monsieur Fargeon, disliked Gabrielle intensely, spreading the ludicrous rumour that the duchess did not wear any perfume - something which was impossible in the 18th century and probably indicates that Gabrielle quite simply didn't like M. Fargeon's.

Fargeon did, however, hit the nail more accurately on the head when he likened Gabrielle to a steel dagger in a silk glove. Perfectly nice to those she liked, even charming, and always graceful, always serenely calm, Gabrielle de Polignac was nonetheless capable of delivering devastating put-downs and she was certainly the most "cliquey" of the Queen's confidantes, excluding anyone she found boring, rude or unattractive from the charmed circle surrounding the Royal Family. One highly unlikely claim made about Gabrielle's fashion tastes is Madame Campan's famous comment that she never saw the Duchesse de Polignac wearing diamonds. Made at a time when Madame Campan was anxious to excuse the Queen's Household from its charges of extravagances, it is utterly impossible that Gabrielle could have turned up to the affairs of state without wearing the requisite diamonds which etiquette insisted upon. Moreover, court inventories reveal that she gave an exquisite set of diamonds and pearls to her only daughter for a wedding present, indicating that the Polignacs certainly owned diamonds and Gabrielle expected women of the clan to wear them when appropriate. That is not to say, of course, that Madame Campan's general point - that Gabrielle's sense of style was quintessentially simple - was not basically true.

Whereas Madame de Lamballe is perhaps more regularly associated with the glory days of the Queen's position as France's "ruling diva" and Gabrielle de Polignac with the later, more elegant, charming, informal years which followed the birth of the King and Queen's children, this attempt to split the two women's fashion tastes has given rise to inaccurate ideas about what they liked to wear. As I have said, Madame de Lamballe was very much a fan of fashion itself - she liked to move with the foibles and vogues of the era. She was certainly as much of an enthusiast of the simple linen gaulles and gowns inspired by the Queen's life in her private village as Gabrielle de Polignac was. Madame de Lamballe was not shimmying around Versailles in the enormous ballgowns of the 1770s, ten years after they had gone out of fashion. Moreover, Gabrielle's love of simplicity in couture has led to the incorrect assumption that her clothes were therefore cheap, or, at the very least, modest in comparison to the Queen's, Madame de Lamballe's or the comtesses d'Artois' or Provence's.

To those familiar with the fashion world, it is well-known that a simple cut does not always equate with a tiny price-tag. Anyone who has seen the gorgeously simple designs of Chanel, Tom Ford or Alex Perry, will know that simply because Gabrielle de Polignac liked to order elegant and minimalist designs from Madame Bertin or her other dress-makers does not mean that her expenditure was necessarily less than, say, Madame de Lamballe's or the Queen's - or her close friend, the Duchess of Devonshire's. In fact, Gabrielle's outgoings were astronomically high, but courtiers, aristocrats and royal-watchers rhapsodised about her unfailingly beautiful appearance - even if, like the Comte de Provence or the Comte de St.-Priest, they disliked her personally. Gabrielle was, from head-to-toe, always elegantly dressed, style and outfitted. She was, physically and sartorially, reassuringly lovely to look at and the financial (and even physical) cost of maintaining this aesthetic was high.

Unlike her predecessor, Marie-Antoinette had no intention of slowly dying under the weight of Versailles's morbidly rigid code of dress for the women of the Royal Family. The wardrobe of the Queen, which evolved over the nineteen years of her career at Versailles and four during the Revolution, was thus constantly changing and constantly inventive but also trying to convey to an often hostile world how Marie-Antoinette saw herself and how she wanted others to see her. It began with the conservative doll, dressed by high priests of Versailles protocol, and emerged into a gorgeous, lavish, outrageously dazzling hyper-decorated aesthetic, which was then replaced by simple pastels and whites, linen gowns and flowing simplicity, before they too gave way to the maternal, dignified demureness which the Queen of a monarchy under siege felt she needed to project, in order to convey the seriousness and unassailable dignity of the Royal Family in trying times. To quote Caroline Weber: -

"From the moment the fourteen-year-old Austrian-born Archduchess Maria Antonia arrived in France to marry the heir to the Bourbon throne, matters of clothing and appearance proved central to her existence. For the future and, later, reigning queen, a rigid protocol governed much of what she wore, how she wore it, and even who put it on her person. Designed to showcase the magnificence of the Bourbon dynasty, this protocol had been imposed by French monarchs on their courtiers, and on their consorts, for generations ... Yet from her earliest days at Versailles, Marie Antoinette staged a revolt against entrenched court etiquette by turning her clothes and other accouterments into defiant expressions of autonomy and privilege. Although, as many scholars have pointed out, she did not evince a sustained interest in politics qua broad-reaching international or domestic policy, it is my belief that she identified fashion as a key weapon in her struggle for personal prestige, authority, and sometimes mere survival. Her efforts in this vein became increasingly complex and sophisticated as she grew to adulthood and adapted to the ever-changing political climate around her... "
 In a world where appearance was everything, Marie-Antoinette - lovely, pretty and charming - was nonetheless determined to prove that she was nobody's fool and that she was not someone to be dictated to. Ironically then, what began as a teenage rebellion, was to showcase one of the most fascinating and appealing sides of Marie-Antoinette's personality - her determination. It was a character trait which stayed with her, right up to the steps of the guillotine. Dazzling and dignified, constantly revolutionary (in its own way), the one thing Marie-Antoinette's wardrobe always remained, like its owner, was elegance personified and it has thus helped create part of a legend which has endured to this day.


  1. Beautiful paintings/ pistures, I never knew Marie Antionette was innovative with fashion I learns so little about her due to the strong influence of the revolution.

    Paris sightseeing tours

  2. Ah, the Princess de Guéménée. A cautionary tale that no doubt I shall entirely fail to heed.


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