A fatal fashion choice

By Victor Schagerlund

Victor Schagerlund takes us into the private abode of one of history’s most reputable- and stylish- figures Marie-Antoinette, to explore what was to become a fatal fashion flop.

Photograph: Wikisource

Dressed in a lusciously draped muslin dress, innocently white, reflecting her subdued grey and softly curled coiffure; her elongated fingers elegantly balancing a petite bouquet of her favourite flower- the rose. Further the cheery pink of the flowers eco her rosy cheeks, underlining the freshness of her face. Even the cool blues in her hat seem to be inspired by her eyes. One must not search far to understand the Queen’s admiration for the academic artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who thanks to her more romantic expression was appointed Marie-Antoinette’s official portrait artists in 1778. This particular portrait La Reine en gaule (The Queen in Gaule) was Vigée Le Brun’s first work displayed at the prestigious yearly Salon at the Louvre, and thereby marked an important milestone in her career, especially considering her gender. However, despite the harmonious colour play and delightful composition, it caused scandal and was perceived as subversive on many levels. It was so provocative it quickly had to be removed from the exhibition and thereby many historians argue it marked the beginning of the downfall for the last Queen of France.

In order to grasp the political charge of the painting let us return a few years, more specifically to 1774 when Marie-Antoinette received the Petit Trianon, a neoclassical pleasure palace in the gardens of Versailles, from her husband Louis XVI. Thrilled with joy the young Queen quickly began the process of adapting the small palace to the latest fashions and her own personal tastes. After Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s epistolary love story Julie, ou la nouvelle Hëloise was published in 1761 the jardin à l’anglaise (English garden) became immensely popular in France. The traditional French garden was marked by symmetry and structure, whereas an English garden envisages imitating nature in a more spontaneous manner. Therefore the first thing Marie-Antoinette did was to construct such a garden, with wildflowers, rivers, and hills, around her new refuge. Shortly after, influenced by another seminal Rousseau work Émile ou de l’éducation (Émile or On Education), she had built a small farm next to the palace in order to fully submerge herself in the simple life promoted by prominent enlightenment philosopher.

Photograph: Phxere

In hindsight the Queen’s efforts of living closer to nature appear endearing at best, ironically tragic at worst. Because, as expected Marie-Antoinette and her entourage did not engage in any physical labour or domestic duties.

The Petit Trianon rather became an intimate playground where court etiquette didn’t rule. It was also a closed setting because Versailles and its park were public domains, whereas the Trianon was shielded and required a personal invitation from the Queen herself. Such capricious and spoilt behaviour caused great resent among many, including the majority of the haute noblesse at court. As for Marie-Antoinette and her friends, the setting was truly idyllic; here no formal protocol ruled and one could give in to indulgence and idleness. This pastoral mode of life was in itself not a new phenomenon among the French aristocracy, but it hadn’t been taken to this extent before.

Naturally, this new way of life, isolated and very different from that at Versaille, required a new form of dress: picking strawberries and petting lamps is difficult in silk and whalebone. Influenced by Rousseau’s new feminine ideal Marie-Antoinette and her companions abandoned traditional status symbols such as the particularly rigid French corset and opulent silks in favour of imported cotton muslin and bonnet à la laitière  (the milkmaid bonnet). The latter was an unstructured large hat made from white cloth. Apart from the bonnet large straw hats were favoured among the ladies at Trianon, like the one Marie-Antoinette is wearing in the portrait. The most radical fashion choice- the dress she also is wearing above- was introduced in 1775. Named la robe à la polonaise (Polish dress) this garment did not only conform with Rousseau’s resent of aristocratic hypocrisy, represented in traditional court gowns that were stiff and highly structured, but allowed for a certain physical mobility favoured by the Queen who never felt at ease with the formality of Versailles; the new cut was much looser and the hemline higher, which made it an ideal choice for outdoor activities. Even the powder so associated with the 18th century was left at dressing table at the Petit Trianon. Marie-Antoinette was blessed with a clear complexion, which she now chose to show, and her friends followed. To accompany the hats the hairstyles also became looser, and natural hair colour was favoured.

Now even though the Queen and her closest friends embraced and enjoyed this new interpretation of the pastoral fashion, there were many who certainly did not. Firstly the robe à la polonaise rejected not only in style the French cut, but also in its material; the bright muslin used to produce them had to be imported from the British colonies, which was perceived as an unnecessary extravagance and above all a non-patriotic act, especially as Britain and France were at war in North America. Also, a Queen dressed as a peasant was not seen fit for the French Empire.  The fact that many of her closest friends including her lover were foreign furthermore contributed to the style’s bad reputation. It was considered indulgent and traitorous.

Returning to the starting point of the Vigée Le Brun’s portrait from 1783 we can now begin to understand the prevocational aspect of Marie-Antoinette’s fashion choice. Through her romantic peasant look, she symbolically rejects French aesthetics and French values. The fact that the dress resembles a nightgown, or underwear, further gave it sexual connotations spurring on the already prominent rumour the Queen was morally corrupt. Lastly, the rose was not only a rose, but also the Hapsburg family’s emblem, and Marie-Antoinette’s Austrian heritage was thereby present in the state portrait. Put frankly, the French public saw their Queen portrayed as a Germanic tart, and they were not pleased. The painting was so contagious it had to be taken down and replaced by a new, quickly repainted version, in which Marie-Antoinette wears a blue silk gown à la française.

Yet the damage was already done, and a dress that initially was intended to promote a new ideal of modesty and simplicity came to incarnate the Queen’s moral degeneracy and nonchalance for the people she was supposed to rule. Spending a fortune on aestheticizing a starving population’s suffering may have been a proof of Marie-Antoinette’s poor taste, nevertheless, her exquisite sense of style remains unquestionable.

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