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Let Them Eat Lace: Marie Antoinette's Fierce and Fearless Fashion

In an age when brave, independent thinking is in short supply both on and off the runway, a resurgent "Marie Antoinette moment" can only be a salutary trend -- whatever kind of dress that moment prescribes.
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After several seasons of polished and demure looks, presumably aimed at bringing out their customers' inner Stepford Wife, fashion designers have launched a pair of altogether different trends. The first of these proposes that women abandon their pretty little dresses for an array of unreservedly hard-edged, mannish creations that, in the words of New York Times reporter Ginna Bellafante, leave "no room for ambiguity about [their wearers'] power and aggression." The second vogue, ushered in by the Cannes debut of Sofia Coppola's flimsy but stylish biopic, Marie Antoinette, has been described as a "Marie Antoinette moment." This look features oversized, flamboyantly colored puff pieces (Yves Saint Laurent's hot pink "carnation cape," Lanvin's billowy, lollipop-red baby-doll dress) and accessories festooned with spangles, crystals, and ostrich feathers galore. Faced with these two, seemingly irreconcilable aesthetics may well lead fashion followers to ask: What gives? Is it really possible to be a take-no-prisoners power dresser and a frilly fashion queen at the same time?

On a practical level, the answer may well be no. History, however, suggests a different response, at least if one takes a closer look at Marie Antoinette's own relationship to fashion. In my forthcoming book, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, I have tried to dispel the erroneous, shopworn idea -- upon which Coppola's film, for instance, relies -- that the French queen's extravagant clothing choices reflected her self-absorbed, "let them eat cake" frivolity. As is now well known, Marie Antoinette never uttered that notorious zinger, which had been attributed to various French sovereigns for more than a century before her arrival at Versailles in 1770. Much less well known is the fact that her signature costumes -- like the frothy, candy-colored frocks, towering, feather-sprigged hairdos, and sparkling gemstones reprised in 2006's fall collections -- represented daring bids for political power. In Queen of Fashion, I demonstrate how, defying the well-established conventions that governed queenly appearance, she used clothing to combat her enemies and cultivate an aura of unshakable strength.

When the Austrian-born Archduchess Marie Antoinette was married off at age fourteen to France's future king -- crowned Louis XVI in 1774 -- her overriding duty was to give the kingdom an heir. But for her first seven years at Versailles, her cripplingly shy (and, according to some, genitally malformed) husband refused to consummate their marriage. Because so many people at Versailles opposed the Franco-Austrian alliance that her marriage had been designed to solidify, Marie Antoinette's failure to get pregnant left her vulnerable to countless court intrigues. The most damaging of these sought to annul Louis XVI's marriage and send his "barren" wife back to Vienna in disgrace. Despite her young age, Marie Antoinette understood that this course would destroy Franco-Austrian relations, and thus that it behooved her to secure her position through other means. Taking a lesson from her husband's and her own great, seventeenth-century ancestor, Louis XIV, for whom magnificent costumes had proven a famously effective tool of absolutist domination, the young queen turned to fashion to bolster her prestige. Detracting her subjects' attention from her childless state, she reinvented herself -- as my friend and colleague Pierre Saint-Amand has written -- as the nation's first "supermodel, its ruling diva, the queen of glamour."

To that end, Marie Antoinette rebelled against the stodgy, outmoded costuming strictures of Versailles, which, by remaining virtually unchanged from generation to generation, were meant to signify the timeless transcendence of the Bourbon reign. Unlike previous queens of France, who had stayed hidden away at their husbands' court, Marie Antoinette scandalized her fellow courtiers by making weekly trips to Paris, which was eighteenth century Europe's undisputed capital of style. There, she met some of the city's most celebrated designers, whom she enlisted to outfit her in a variety of eye-catching, experimental ensembles. These ranged from startlingly androgynous, man-tailored jackets and breeches to mile-high pouf coiffures decorated with intricate landscapes and military battle-scenes, and from sweeping, jewel-encrusted gowns with which she upstaged her husband at public appearances to risqué peasant-girl shifts that she sported at her private country retreat. Whether dressed up or dressed down, Marie Antoinette conveyed an image of absolute autonomy and power -- of a woman who could do, wear, and spend just about anything she pleased.

As Marie Antoinette herself recorded, this astute piece of self-marketing went a long way toward convincing the French public that she actually had real influence in her husband's government -- for, like Louis XIV before her, her sartorial flights of fancy bespoke an unrestricted access to the royal coffers. Yet unlike Louis XIV, of whom, as a male ruler, such aggressive ostentation was expected, Marie Antoinette's bold posturing scandalized many of her subjects. France was, after all, a country where the royal consort had traditionally stood as little more than a docile, retiring companion (and breeder) of kings. Alarmed by her apparent rise to power, the queen's adversaries at court began spreading unflattering tales about her narcissism, her financial recklessness, her ruinous addiction to fashion.

These, of course, are precisely the stories that culminated in the myth of "let them eat cake," and that Coppola's Marie Antoinette -- whose opening scene shows a feather-headed Marie Antoinette saucily licking cake off her fingers -- so lamentably perpetuates. And gossip of this sort dealt the queen a devastating public-relations blow. When massive social unrest erupted in 1789, for instance, angry hordes descended on Versailles calling for Marie Antoinette's -- not her husband's -- head. The burgeoning revolutionary media then took up this call with a vengeance, describing her outfits as signs of her treacherously self-indulgent nature. By the time she was imprisoned in the Conciergerie in August 1793, her detractors seemed to take great pleasure in punishing her for her alleged crimes of fashion. Unlike other well-born inmates of the Conciergerie, who were allowed to retain sumptuous wardrobes, Marie Antoinette was forced to give up all clothes except for the tattered dress on her back. One cruel jailer even insisted that she unstitch by hand the royalist fleurs de lys embroidered on her chamber's wall-hangings.

As when she had occupied the throne, however, Marie Antoinette had no intention of letting her enemies beat her, and costume remained her preferred weapon of choice. Before she and Louis XVI were stripped of their powers in August 1792, she insisted on wearing her most aggressively spectacular diamonds to meetings with hostile revolutionary officials -- as if to remind this group of men, whom she dismissed as "a pack of madmen, idiots, and brutes," that there would always be an unbridgeable chasm between them and her royal self. To add insult to injury, she adamantly refused to wear the tricolor ribbons and cockades that revolutionary public adopted as privileged emblems of liberty, fraternity, and equality. In this embargo, she was virtually alone, as other, more politically opportunistic members of the court made the tricolor and similar revolutionary insignia (like jewelry set with the stones from the demolished Bastille prison) a regular part of their daily costume. Unlike the more craven members of the aristocracy, Marie Antoinette never dreamed of compromising with the forces that sought to lay her low.

Even when revolutionary leaders beheaded her husband in January 1793, she did not back down. Upon learning of his death, her very first act was to commission a full wardrobe of regal black mourning clothes for herself and her children -- notwithstanding the fact that wearing mourning for the newfound French republic had declared it illegal to wear mourning for the late king. Because of its monarchist overtones, in fact, Marie Antoinette was forbidden to wear this dress to the guillotine; apparently, republican chieftains feared that her widow's costume, which smacked of royalist martyrdom, would cause the public to sympathize with her and try to prevent her execution. Yet even when stripped of her widow's weeds, the fallen queen trounced her foes. According to her serving-girl in the Conciergerie, she had kept a pristine, lily-white slip dress -- the instantly recognizable color of the Bourbon fleur de lys -- hidden in her cell throughout her incarceration. It was in this politically charged outfit, which reduced the crowds around the scaffold to an awestruck silence, that she was guillotined in October 1793.

From the beginning to the end, then, Marie Antoinette's fashion statements were an intrepid and highly consequential form of power dressing. Like the dark, defiant get-ups that are coming into vogue this fall, they left "no room for ambiguity" about her defiance, her courage, and her utter unwillingness to accept defeat. Sadly, Sofia Coppola's film misses a huge opportunity by ignoring these qualities and offering yet another variation on the insipid, pastry-devouring party girl of legend. Still, the queen's fearless clothing choices merit consideration today, and not just among the devotees of high style. In an age when brave, independent thinking is in short supply both on and off the runway, a resurgent "Marie Antoinette moment" can only be a salutary trend -- whatever kind of dress that moment prescribes.

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