starlady: (utena myth)
Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.

So. Everyone remembers Marie Antoinette as an icon of style, but no one remembers exactly what it meant that she was an icon of style, or for that matter, how she became that icon and what her motives were for doing so. Caroline Weber's biographical history of the Queen's fashion traces how Marie Antoinette's revolution in clothing became a Revolution in truth--and, paradoxically, how the same styles that were deplored by court and commoners alike on the Queen became the only acceptable clothing for patriotic citoyennes after the end of the monarchy.

Weber's history restores to Marie Antoinette an agency and an intelligence that is often written out of accounts of her life in the context of the fall of the ancién regime, but at the end of the book it's painfully clear that while the Queen was anything but innocent of a role in her own undoing, and that of the monarchy, she remained an innocent in many ways, too many of them political. Weber's brilliant analysis also makes clear that the deep-seated misogyny of French society in general and of the court at Versailles in particular simply could not condone the idea of a Queen who abrogated to herself the role and funds of a royal mistress, even after she fulfilled her only duty as queen by providing the dynasty two male heirs. This same misogyny was part of the potent forces that condemned the Queen to death at her sham show trial--to say nothing of xenophobia and chauvinism--and it gives a painful lie to the male revolutionaries' pretensions to Equality (more on that below). The other disturbing point Weber makes implicitly is that Marie Antoinette's true transgression in the eyes of the Paris Mobility--which became the heart and soul of the Revolution and the Terror--was her equalizing herself to them by adopting explicltly non-royal styles and wandering around Paris shopping like a haute bourgeoisie. They hated her for dressing down, and then when she started dressing up again, they hated her for emphasizing her superiority through the ancient sartorial codes. What the Revolutionaries did to her was exactly what she had done to herself, what they had hated her for doing but what they now forced her to do, and still could not exorcise their hatred, which led directly to her being taken to her execution in a plain white chemise, much the uniform of the Revolution, equal to them at last. And yet that very appearance of sartorial equality gave the lie to the idea of equality, for it was her inequality as Queen that required her to die--but after her execution, women in Paris started wearing thin red ribbons around their necks, for her execution had shown that her fate could be theirs: real equality at last.

The other takeaway points are that Louis XV was probably the most irresponsible king in the history of irresponsible kings (and, conversely, history might be very different if Marie Antoinette had married him rather than the future Louis XVI). Another disturbing idea is that the power of the French monarchy was exactly as strong as its images and illusions: Louis XIV convinced the realm that he was pre-eminent, and constructed Versailles to foster that illusion, but Louis XV had little interest in maintaining the smoke and mirrors and Louis XVI was pathologically incapable of doing so, which led Marie Antoinette to attempt to re-incarnate the Sun King's prestige in her own person, with fatal results. She transgressed roles of both class and gender through her fashion, and her very ease in transgressing them gave the fatal lie to the central conceit of monarchy in France.


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