Women of style – Marie Antoinette
She was the symbol of everything that was wrong with the old regime in France. Her Austrian descent made her a traitor and an enemy of the people. Her death was seen as a sign that the revolution’s work was done. Her extravagant lifestyle and fashion continue to inspire books, films and other media. And she continues to be an enigma. Her name was Marie Antoinette and she was the last Queen of France before the French Revolution.
Marie Antoinette was born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna in 1755. The Archduchess of Austria was the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresia and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. Since Maria Antonia was born on All Souls Day when Catholics mourn their dead and everything is black, her birthday was celebrated on All Saints Day where everything was white and gold. It was as if her day of birth predicted the sad fate of the girl.
Young Maria Antonia was raised together with her older sister Maria Carolina with whom she had a lifelong close relationship. Her relationship with her mother was difficult but ultimately loving and the Empress continued to influence and give advice to her daughter throughout her life. That and correspondence with other the members of her family and friends would be used later against her as a proof of treason.
Maria Antonia spent her formative years between Hofburg Palace and the imperial summer residence in Vienna where she met Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Under the teaching of composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, she developed into a good musician and knew how to play the harp, the harpsichord and the flute. She has a beautiful voice and excelled at dancing. However, her academic achievements were not so great. At the age of 10, she could not write correctly in German or French or Italian which were languages commonly used at court and her conversation skills were limited.
Images taken from Wikimedia Commons
Following the Seven Year’s War that split Europe into two coalitions – one led by the Kingdom of Great Britain and included the kingdoms of Prussia, Portugal and several small German states, and the other led by the Kingdom of France and included the Austrian Empire, Russian Empire, Sweedish Empire and the Kingdom os Spain – Empress Maria Theresa decided to once and for all end hostilities with her longtime enemy, King Louis XV of France. They decided on marriage to seal their alliance and in 1770, Louis XV formally requested the hand of Maria Antonia for his grandson and heir, Louis-Auguste, Duke of Berry and Dauphin of France.
Maria Antonia married by proxy to the Dauphin of France in Vienna and a month later she crossed the border with France, changed her Austrian clothes for French to become a Frenchwoman and met her husband at the edge of the forest of Compiegne. Upon arrival in France, she also adopted the French version of her name – Marie Antoinette.
Despite wedding festivities, the couple failed to consummate the marriage for years which hurt their reputations.
Initially, Marie Antoinette was well-liked by the common people and her official appearance was a success, but some disliked her because she was Austrian or for more personal reasons. Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry proved troublesome for the new dauphine and ousted some of Marie Antoinette’s allies. Due to ill advice from her husband’s aunts, Marie Antoinette refused to acknowledge du Barry which proved a political blunder that jeopardized her interests at the French court.
However, the Empress persuaded her daughter to speak to Madame du Barry which she did by merely commenting to her “There are a lot of people at Versailles today.” That was enough for Madame du Barry and the crisis passed. Upon the death of Louis XV, she was exiled by Louis XVI and two and a half years later her exile ended and she returned to her chateau Louveciennes but never to Versailles.
When Louis XV died in 1774, the Dauphin has crowned King Louis XVI of France and Navarre with Marie Antoinette as his Queen.
Louis XVI was besotted with his wife. He gave her an estate, the Petit Trianon and free rein to renovate it. Marie Antoinette loved entertainment and was influential in choosing shows to be put on at Court. She loved balls and encouraged artists. In her apartments, she entertained her circle and was a keen player of billiards and cards – often playing to excess and losing and winning large sums.
She supported the composers and artists and devoted a lot of time to fashion, much to the chagrin of her mother, who regularly lectured her on this subject. She was also often known to interfere in the choice of her dresses or hairstyles, ignoring the lady-in-waiting whose job this was.
Having been thrown into a foreign court filled with intricate, complicated rules of etiquette and an extremely high value on fashion, the young queen enthusiastically embraced her new nation’s passion for fashion. She spent lavishly on gowns, jewels, furniture, and all sorts of luxurious, expensive items fit only for the royalty of France.
Marie Antoinette favored big dresses of different styles that were all the rage, adorned with everything you could think of. Three types of dresses were popular at the time – the robe a la francaise, the polonaise and the robe a l’englaise.
The robe a la francaise was the best-known variant of the wide skirt held up by a frame underneath which originated from earlier, 17th-century Spanish fashion. This court fashion was popularized by Madame de Pompadour who favored frills and lace and liked to highlight her neck with velvet adorned with a flower or jewel.
Around the 1760s a series of less formal dresses were introduced, most notably the polonaise inspired by styles of dresses from Poland. It was shorter than the French dress, allowing the underskirt and ankles to be seen, and had a tight-fitting body and was bulky at the back.
There was also the robe a l’englaise, a dress inspired by male fashion which had a short jacket, broad lapels and long sleeves.
Marie Antoinette took all these dresses and accessories to the extreme, decorating them with jewels, feathers, fans which were the ultimate accessories at the Versailles and used to send flirtatious signals.
The queen befriended Marie-Jeanne Bertin, known as “Rose” who was the best known French fashion designer of the time. She opened her own fashion store in Paris in 1777 and soon caught the queen’s eye. Marie Antoinette was so taken by her designs she had a workshop built for her in Versailles where Rose, her “Minister of Fashion,” created ever more extravagant designs for the queen.
Even today, Marie Antoinette represents the epitome of beauty, luxury and grandeur when it comes to style and fashion. One of the things she is famous is big hair and hers was curled, powdered and then made huge and grand by the help of expensive wigs, becoming a symbol of status and style.
Pastel-colored hair has been al the rage for the past few years, but it was first made popular by Marie Antoinette. At the time it was fashionable for royals and aristocrats to dye or powder their hair or wigs and “strawberry blonde” was a popular color at this time.
Big hair also meant big hair accessories made popular by Marie Antoinette who would decorate her grand, extravagant hairdos with flowers, feathers, fake birds, pearls, lace, diamonds, boats, and other such toys.
Marie Antoinette loved nature, and her tastes were very much inspired by it. One of her favorite things was flowers and she loved to be surrounded by them, either wearing them in her hair or on tapestries and furniture. Flowers were embroidered onto chairs and furniture, and floral fabric covered the walls.
Having grown up with the less elaborate ceremonial routine of Austria’s royal palaces, she had a hard time adapting to Versailles’ complex etiquette and tried to seek out a more private life. She preferred to remain in her private chambers surrounded by a circle of friends whom she has chosen herself, although not always wisely.
She spent heavily on fashion, luxuries and gambling, though the country was facing a grave financial crisis and the population was suffering. She also wore dresses made of indienne, a material banned in France from 1686 until 1759 to protect local French woolen and silk industries, percale and muslin. Many started blaming her for the degrading economic situation and in her correspondence, Maria Theresa expressed concern over her daughter’s spending habits and warned of the civil unrest it was beginning to cause.
Marie Antoinette’s friendships with male admirers and various ladies at court also sent tongues wagging.
After eight long years, the marriage was finally consumed and Marie Antoinette’s gave birth to her first child – Marie Therese known as Madame Royale, who was soon followed by a Dauphin Louis Joseph Xavier Francois, Louis Charles who would go on to become Dauphin after the death of his elder brother and then Sophie Beatrice who lived for only a few months.
The Queen was always an affectionate mother and was close to her children and the deaths of her two children hurt her badly. In addition to her biological children, Marie Antoinette adopted four children who were raised as playmates for her children or lived on her expense.
During the 1780s France experienced poor harvests which led to the increase of the price of grain and the queen’s lavish lifestyle came under attack prompting numerous pamphlets, libels and caricatures to be distributed across the country. Since her marriage to the king wasn’t consumed in seven years, rumors appeared that her close friend, Count Axel von Fersen and her other alleged lovers fathered her children.
The Affair of the Diamond Necklace of which she was an innocent victim further hurt her reputation and her clumsy attempts to get involved in politics backfired as she was seen as The Austrian, a foreigner whose influence in court benefiter Austria whom many French still considered the enemy.
The construction of the Queen’s Hamlet, a secluded farming village on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles fitted with a farmhouse, cottages, a mill and farm animals where Marie Antoinette and her ladies in waiting would pretend to be peasants and dress up as shepherdesses milking the cows and sheep infuriated the starving public.
At the hamlet, she accumulated a library of 5000 books mostly on music and history. She sponsored the arts and some scientific endeavors, including the first launch of a hot air balloon.
Depite her clumsy attempts to influence politics, Marie Antoinette had an important role in aiding the American Revolution by securing Austrian and Russian support for France which stopped Great Britain’s attack.
She also played a decisive role in nominating Charles Alexandre de Calonne as Controller-General of Finances and baron de Breteuil as the Minister of Royal Household, the two important ministers in the reign rejecting any major change of the old regime. That paired with a condition introduced by marquis de Segur, Minister of War, whom she helped appoint that for the appointment of officers in the armed focer requires four quarterings of nobility made it impossible to introduce the concept of equality.
Following the death of her mother and the appointment of her brother Joseph II as the Holy Roman Emperor, rumors began that Marie Antoinette was sending him money from the French treasury.
At the same time, the nobility became disgruntled with Louis XVI’s indecisiveness about how to solve the problem of the growing government debt and issues surrounding the poor harvests. When he bought Chateau de Saint Cloud for his wife, the popularity of the already slandered and hated queen sunk to a new low.
Marie Antoinette tried to mend her reputation by presenting herself as a loving mother she was and retreating from the public. Despite her attempts to remain out of the public eye, she was falsely accused of having an affair with Marquis de Lafayette one of the former military leaders in the American War of Independence, whom she loathed and of having a sexual relationship with the English Baroness Lady Sophie Farrell who was a well-known lesbian of the time. These sort of accusations climaxed at her trial with an accusation of incest with her son.
Under pressure, Louis XVI ordered the first meeting in 175 years of the Estates General – the general assembly of the representatives of the clergy (first estate); the nobility (second estate), and the common people (third estate) but that initiative failed. On the other hand, Marie Antoinette tried to crush the revolution by using mercenary Swiss troops under the command of one of her favorites, baron de Besenval de Brunstatt but that effort also failed and an angry, armed mob stormed the Bastille in 1789, a state prison which represented the monarchy’s absolute authority.
It marked the beginning of the French Revolution and the fall of the French monarchy.
Weeks later, thousands of people surrounded the Palace of Versailles and imprisoned the royal family within the walls of Tuileries Palace.
Under this and subsequent crisis, Marie Antoinette proved to be stronger and more decisive than her husband. Having been raised in the Roman Catholic faith, the queen’s political ideas and her belief in the absolute power of monarch were based on France’s tradition of the divine right of kings. It never occurred to her to step down and leave the reign to the public.
Aware that the public hates her, Marie Antoinette planed to flee France with her family and seek refuge in Austria but the family was captured while attempting to escape and taken back to Paris but managed to escape trial.
The failed escape resulted in the queen’s hair turning white in a single night. The surveillance the queen, her family and entourage had to endure took its toll on the queen. Her health began to deteriorate.
Under political pressure, Louis XVI agreed to instigate a constitutional monarchy and promised to share his political power with the French Assembly. This, however, did not quell the rebellion and in 1792, a group of revolutionaries broke into Tuileries Palace where the royal family was being kept and imprisoned Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
With the king and queen under arrest, the National Convention ordered that the monarchy be abolished, and France was officially declared a republic. Louis XVI was convicted of treason and was sentenced to death by guillotine.
After Louis’ execution, Marie Antoinette’s fate became a central question of the National Convention. Some advocated her death, others proposed exchanging her for French prisoners of war or for a ransom, some advocated exile to America. After a while, calls for her trial emerged.
At the same time, calls were also made to “retrain” her eight-year-old son Louis XVII and make him pliant to revolutionary ideas. The child was separated from his mother, turned over to Antoine Simon and within weeks turned against her accusing her of horrible things, including incest.
After months of imprisonment, under constant surveillance, Marie Antoinette was put on trial and found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.
Preparing for the execution, she had to change clothes in front of her guards. Her hair was shorn, hands bound behind her back and she was put on a rope leash. She had to sit in an open cart while led to the guillotine, suffering insults from the crowd.
Marie Antoinette was executed in 1793. Her guillotined body was hurled into an unmarked grave in the cemetery of L’eglise de la Madeleine in Paris.
The phrase “let the eat cake” is often attributed to Marie Antoinette but in truth she never said it. It appeared in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Confessions and most scholars believe he invented the discussion he allegedly had with a “great princess” in which he reportedly told her that the pesants had no breat to which she responded “Let them eat brioche”. The problem is in the writing date which precedes Marie Antoinette’s arrival in France.
Marie Antoinette’s life still continues to inspire and intrigue many. Despite being called Madame Deficit and contributing to the financial crisis in the country with her extravagant lifestyle, she left a permanent mark on the fashion, making it in a way a form of art.
As an accomplished musician, she supported musicians. Thanks to her, Beaumarchais’s play The Marriage of Figaro premiered in Paris. It was a disaster but inspired Mozart’s Le nocce di Figaro which premiered two years later in Vienna. She supported scientists, artists, fashion designers further contributing to the image of Paris as a capital of culture.
Her support in the American Revolution changed the course of the war. Marietta in Ohio was named after her as an expression of gratitude to France for its help in the American Revolution.
The bodies of Louis XVI and Marie were discovered during the restoration of the monarchy in France in the early 19th century. Their remains were properly reburied at the Basilica of St Denis on 21 January 1815.