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Bedtime Biography: Queen of Fashion

What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

By Caroline Weber
4-minute read
Audio available
Bedtime Biography: Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber

Narrated by Marston York
Music by Federico Coderoni

Queen of Fashion (2006) unveils the untold ways in which Marie Antoinette, with her iconoclastic sense of fashion and rebellious nature, challenged the status quo of 18th century French court. Expressing herself through daring originality, her story reveals a great deal about the revolutionary politics that make up the history of both fashion and France.

  • Fashionistas wanting to know more about the link between power and clothing
  • Francophiles obsessed with Marie Antoinette
  • History students interested in the French Revolution

Caroline Weber is a specialist on eighteenth-century French culture. Before she became an associate professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University’s Barnard College, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, Bookforum, the Washington Post and the New York Times

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Bedtime Biography: Queen of Fashion

What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

By Caroline Weber
  • Read in 4 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 3 key ideas
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Bedtime Biography: Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber
Synopsis

Narrated by Marston York
Music by Federico Coderoni

Queen of Fashion (2006) unveils the untold ways in which Marie Antoinette, with her iconoclastic sense of fashion and rebellious nature, challenged the status quo of 18th century French court. Expressing herself through daring originality, her story reveals a great deal about the revolutionary politics that make up the history of both fashion and France.

Key idea 1 of 3

Chapter 1

Bedtime Biographies are best when listened to.  Check out the audio version to get the full experience!

 

How much do you know about Marie Antoinette? You might know that she was a queen of France, famously uninterested in the plight of her people. A figure with immeasurable wealth and power who sat at the top table of an unjust and deeply divided society. And you probably know that it cost her. She died at the hands of revolutionary forces – a victim of the social unrest she’d helped cause. 

But there is far more to Marie Antoinette than this old story. In this bedtime biography, we’ll try to understand this fascinating Queen of France through another facet: her style. 

What do royal hairdos and haute couture have to do with one of the most tumultuous periods in history? Quite a bit! So make yourself comfortable, relax, and let’s hear the story of Marie Antoinette, Queen of Fashion.

 

Marie Antoinette was born on November 2, 1755, in Vienna – the thriving capital of the sprawling Habsburg Empire. The Empire was massive. On a modern-day map, it would stretch all the way from Italy to Ukraine. Millions of people lived within its borders, and they spoke a variety of languages from German to Ukrainian, Czech to Polish.

Marie Antoinette's parents ruled this massive empire. Her mother was Empress Maria Theresa, and her father was Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. Marie Antoinette was the Emperor's youngest daughter. This made her an Archduchess of Austria. It was a very noble position and came with its fair share of power, prestige, and pomp.

Her early life was pretty easy and carefree. Sure, she had to study dance, etiquette, and the harpsichord – the standard curriculum for most upper-class girls – but she was given plenty of freedom to dress and play as she liked. She especially loved to play with dolls and would dress them up in a variety of splendid outfits.

Compared to the harsh lives of most people in the empire, it was a very privileged upbringing.

 

Marie Antoinette’s idyllic childhood came to an end in 1770, the year she turned 15. That year, her mother decided it was time for her daughter to get married. But Marie Antoinette wouldn’t marry for love. No, she’d have to marry for politics.

Throughout history, the Habsburg Empire had had a long-standing feud with the kingdom of France; they’d fought each other for centuries. But during the eighteenth century, things started to change. Rising powers like Great Britain and Prussia started to threaten the wealth and power of France and Austria; they were both in danger of falling behind.

To fight back, France and Austria decided to bury the hatchet and work together to beat their new rivals. And there was no better way of coming together than with a strategic marriage.

Marie Antoinette was chosen to be the bride. She would marry Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin of France and heir to the French throne. 

 

But before Marie Antoinette could start her new life in France, she needed a makeover. The rules and dress of the French court were completely different from those of Vienna. And she’d need to follow the French rules to the letter.

First, she was given hours and hours of lessons by a ballet dancer on how to perform the graceful walk of the French royalty, known as the Versailles-glide. To perform the glide you had to take tiny steps, with both feet always touching the floor. It wasn’t easy, but Marie Antoinette practiced and practiced. In the end, she became quite the expert; one person later commented that she “walked as if on wings.”

Learning to walk properly was not the only issue – her fashion had to be updated as well. The young bride couldn’t wear the casual Austrian clothing she was used to. So her mother raided the imperial treasury and bought a new wardrobe of all the trendiest French styles. 

This was no small shopping trip. The empress filled the Habsburg court with tailors and seamstresses. She bought grand gowns, intricate lace undergarments, and stiff whalebone corsets. In today’s dollars, the cost of this finery would be in the tens of millions. But for the empress it was worth it. In the end, her daughter looked and acted like a French princess.

 

In April 1770, Marie Antoinette was married to Louis-Auguste. The wedding ceremony took place in a church in Vienna. The marriage was a bit odd; the groom wasn’t even there! But that didn’t seem to matter.

Two days after the wedding, Marie Antoinette left Austria to meet her new husband – a man she’d never laid eyes on – in France, a country she had never visited. 

She left Vienna in an extravagant carriage pulled by dozens of horses. For the occasion, the royal bride wore a habit de cour – a grand, sweeping gown considered formal dress at Versailles. It was made from heavy layers of brocade, one of the most lustrous and expensive fabrics available. Her hips were accentuated with large, curved baskets around her waist, and her silhouette was adorned with ribbons, lace, and pleats.

Huge crowds of Viennese citizens gathered to see her off and witness the spectacle. Marie Antoinette was the center of attention – a role she would need to get used to. 

 

Marie Antoinette’s new family, the Bourbons, spent most of their time at Versailles, an extravagant palace outside of Paris. Here, they passed the days surrounded by opulent luxury. The scale and splendor of Versailles was unrivaled. The palace was over a quarter of a mile long, with 226 grand apartments and 500 smaller – but still pretty magnificent – rooms. It was surrounded by world-famous gardens, with beautiful fountains and statues everywhere.

It was also very busy; some days, 10,000 people would crowd into the palace. Many were lowly servants, but there was always a rotating cast of decadent aristocrats surrounding the royal family. 

The court was considered the most fashionable place in Europe. It was also extremely formal. 

Unlike life in Vienna, life in Versailles was highly ritualized. King Louis XV enforced strict rules of court conduct. Everyone, from members of the royal family to the lower nobles, had to play their part perfectly. They had to wear the right things, talk the right way, and always show the correct amount of deference to those higher up. 

Each of the king’s gestures and actions was especially designed to appear sacred. The formality and high fashion made the royals appear perfect. It made their power seem natural and insurmountable. 

Versailles was the ultimate display of high-fashion politics.

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