Page 13, 8th June 2007

8th June 2007
Page 13
Page 13, 8th June 2007 — Costume drama
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Costume drama

There was more to Marie Antoinette than her amazing wardrobe, says Jack Carrigan Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber, Aurum £18.99 Caroline Weber, a professor at Columbia University, has subtitled her book: "What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution". On the dustjacket is, perhaps, the most famous image of the French Queen that has survived: posing sideways in decolletage with an extraordinarily elaborate hairdo, topped by a French frigate. By an irony of fashion, this was the very hairdo sported by the pop star and one-man extravaganza, Elton John, for his 50th birthday party. Apparently he was annoyed that his headpiece was too high for an ordinary car and so he had to travel to the party venue by furniture van.

This anecdote is not a digression. What the author has done. with her meticulous research into every aspect of Marie Antoinette's toilette, from the time of her arrival in France as future Dauphine in 1770 (she became queen on the death of Louis XV in 1774), until her death on the guillotine in October 1793, is to depict a woman of iconic frivolity, someone who used fashion as "a key weapon in her struggle for personal prestige, authority and ... mere survival". There are many similar remarks. Underneath the scholarship I detect a certain feminist agenda that has selected Marie Antoinette as a feisty precursor of the sisterhood, someone seeking power and identity in a hostile, largely male world. Is this an adequate interpretation?

Certainly, the young queen had much to contend with at the French court: she was only 14 when she left Austria forever, the chief actor in a dynastic alliance arranged by her formidable mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. The Viennese court was .a place of homeliness and informality compared with the rococo rigidities of Versailles, still dominated by the rules of etiquette laid down by Louis XIV. Her husband, the future Louis XVI, was shy, clumsy and undemonstrative, preferring food and hunting to the company of his new wife. Surrounded by envy, gossip, intrigue, scandal, courtly corruption and conspicuous spending on a grand scale, it was not surprising that Marie Antoinette, graceful, modest in her comportment and possessed of great charm, should seek to establish herself as her rank demanded. If she could not break the conventions of her life, she would impose her own style upon it. Her mother had spent 400,000 livres on her trousseau, at a time when the entire wardrobe of a working-class French family averaged 30 livies.

On her marriage she received jewels worth two million byres. Her household at Versailles comprised 100 officers and valets, 200 servants, six equerries, nine ushers, two doctors, four surgeons, a clock-maker, a tapestrymaker, 18 lackeys, a fencing master and two muleteers as well as "a small cadre of priests." The author substantially documents the colossal extravagance of Versailles and its aristocratic hierarchy. If Marie Antoinette had had the statesmanship of Catherine the Great or the bourgeois virtues of Queen Victoria, it is just possible that the French monarchy might have averted the tragedy that befell it. As it was the Queen, shielded from the wretched lives of the common people, together with her hapless consort, a man kindly disposed but chronically indecisive, faced the "deluge" of the Revolution. Weber describes the dazzling outfits the Queen wore and the relentless public life she was forced to lead, even while dressing. One is reminded of the late Princess Diana, another beautiful young woman and fashion icon, married dynastically and alternately loved and hounded by the public. But there the comparison ends. What the author does not understand are Marie Antoinette's more serious and abiding character traits: her faithful love for her husband at a debauched court; her bravery in captivity and at her trial; above all, her dignity in facing a deliberately humiliating death. Essentially the book peters out in 1789, when the royal family was forced to travel to Paris from Versailles and to live in gilded captivity in the Tuileries. Though these final years, from 1789-93, show the Queen at her noblest, they are the least interesting for Weber because the lavish court costume drama is now over. Indeed, her treatment of Marie Antoinette's time in the Temple and the Conciergerie is almost perfunctory.

The Queen's last letter, written to her sister-in-law, Madame Elizabeth, in the early hours of October 16, 1793, the day of her execution, is referred to without comment, yet it is easily the source of our keenest insight into the mind and personality of this woman of tragic destiny. In it Marie Antoinette declared her love for her family; she humbly asked "God's pardon for all the mistakes I have made"; desired forgiveness for her enemies (who had scurrilously slandered her moral reputation); finally, every inch a monarch and a Hapsburg princess, she expressed the hope that she would die with courage.

The last glimpse posterity' has of her is the quick sketch made by the revolutionary artist David as she was taken by tumbrel to the scaffold. The graceful, charming woman is shown prematurely aged by suffering, her hair white, dressed in a plain white smock and bonnet, with her hands tied behind her back.

Yet her posture is erect and she sits with an aura of pathetic composure and calm. She was much more than a "queen of fashion".




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