Caroline Weber, author of Terror and its Discontents, returns with another book on historical France entitled Queen of Fashion – What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. The author’s obvious fascination with French history is reinforced
by her career as an Associate Professor of French at Barnard College, where she specializes in the 18th-century literature and history.
Marie Antoinette's name
is still recognized today, more than 213 years after this controversial queen was guillotined. One has to ask why so many scholars discuss her today, why so many books are written about her life, and what part she played during a time when women were seen as little more than breeders.
The recently released movie about Marie Antoinette gives the impression of a childish woman obsessed with spending and looking good.
Weber’s book shows readers a much different picture of a woman who defies tradition and the constraints of court. This is a queen who is consulted by the King
concerning problems and affairs in their realm. She, who sparks a revolution that destroys the
royal family, is no mindless party girl.
The book begins with 14-year-old Maria leaving her mother, the Empress of Austria, and
her beloved home in Hapsburg to travel toward her young husband-to-be, Louis XVI. The Empress hopes the arranged marriage will cement the Bourbon-Hapsburg alliance that began with the
Seven Year War.
Stripped naked before strangers, Maria’s entourage and all her possessions are returned to her homeland, including her little pet. This ceremony catches the young girl off guard, and she is left to shiver in the cold under the scrutiny of many eyes while waiting for them to dress her. This is the first moment in her new country and sets the tone for the rest of her life – where she will never have a single moment of privacy again.
Young Maria is aggrieved to discover that her shy young husband is not ready to procreate and finds that her role as a breeder is no longer available. In time, Maria finds few friends in a castle filled with animosity and learns quickly that in France, clothing stated who you were, what station you or your family held, and swayed those around you. Her ancestor, Louis XIV, used fashion to control his constituents, and his highly specified rituals and rites continued into Maria’s era. These rites kept people fussing over just the right look, and while the people formed a deep possessiveness for their positions and appearances, they were distracted from radical thought.
While forced to wear the extravagant and expensive attire appropriate for her station as royalty, this courageous woman became a fashion trendsetter as she tried out new styles, colors and fabrics. Following the example set by a few prominent people from the past, Maria endeavored to use fashion to speak out as an individual, show support for various causes, or to show a political stand. Unfortunately, Maria had neither the experience nor loyal advisors who could predict the public reaction in France to a simple color or ribbon and how or where it was worn.
At a time when the average family’s net worth was well below 100 livres, royal extravagance from diamond headdresses to weekly parties was resented. During a food shortage, hatred grew over the
royal traditional hairstyles because of the flour it consumed.
No matter what she did or where she went, Maria Antoinette seemed to gain enemies. Submitting to the growing discontent regarding her expenditures on clothing, many businesses were ruined, and she was blamed for that as well.
Caroline’s new book focuses on the connection of fashion and the revolution in historic France between 1755 and 1793. Queen of Fashion is a thoroughly researched historical autobiography with 100 pages of author notes,
two pages of illustration credits and a two-page closing by the author. Some facts in the book may not be supported by all historians – such as the tale that a woman’s hair went completely white while traveling in a carriage. However, for general readers, such as myself, the book is an interesting look into history and one woman’s role during a tumultuous era.