October 9, 2006

Marie Antoinette - Part 2

When Marie Antoinette arrived in France (from her native country, Austria) as the bride of the future King of France, she had to make a first stop in a temporary building, erected for the ceremony right on the border between France and Savoy. Before she could enter France she had to go through a dressing/undressing ritual: she was completely stripped of her magnificent wedding garments and all her Austrian belongings were taken away, including her pug, Mops. Then she was provided with all new French-made clothing. This was to symbolize her complete de-Austrification, and her being now a French "possession" (eventually Mops found his way to Versailles).

Since a little girl, Marie Antoinette had been treated like a doll, and her life had been a dress rehearsal, so the fact that she kept using clothes and appearances as a way to express herself it's not a surprise.

One of her personality trait was the genuine desire to please people, starting with her very rigid and demanding mother. Now, only 15 years old and away from everything familiar to her, she strived to please the people that represented her new family.

Women in France had already begun to raise their hair with pads and pomade and wore big luxurious gowns, and so Marie Antoinette embraced France's new styles and fashions as one way to show her sincere dedication to her new country.

And she took it a step further...

With Marie Antoinette, the pouf fashion reached the extremes that made it a period trademark, with heights up to three feet, and a profusion of ornaments and objects on it that showcased current events, turning a noble woman's hairdo almost into a bulletin board.

Rose Bertin, her modist, was the genius behind the pouf, and working together with Leonard, the royal hairdresser, created a coiffure that became all the rage all over Europe.

Leonard would start by interweaving Marie Antoinette's real hair with fake tresses and arrange it on a wire form placed on her head and padded with wool. Then he would stiffen the hair with pomade and cover it with powder. After this foundation was ready, the real fun begun: the hair would be accessorized, stylized, cut into defining scenes, modeled into shapes, fruits, things, from recent gossip to nativities to husband's infidelities, to French naval vessels like the "Belle Poule", to the pouf "aux insurgents" in honor of the American independence war.

The most famous one was the "inoculation" pouf that the Queen wore to publicized her success in persuading the King to be vaccinated against smallpox.

Rose Bertin, called Minister of Fashion by her detractors, was also the mind behind almost every new dress commissioned by Marie Antoinette. The dresses, and even more the hair, became Marie Antoinette's personal expression's vehicles and Bertin clothed the Queen for more than 20 years, from 1770, when she was a young princess, until her dethronement in 1792.

After winning the favors of Marie Antoinette, Rose Bertin became a powerful figure at court, and her gowns and headdresses would easily cost twenty times what a skilled worker of the time earned in a year.

These big gowns ensured that its wearer took at least three times as much space as her male counterpart, thus making the female figure an imposing (not passive) presence.

Right from the coronation, the French people loved their Queen, more so than they did their King, and placed high hopes on this charming and beautiful woman, with a radiant smile that would win over "the most brutal of her enemies". In the words of the Baron de Besenval "Something delightful about the carriage of her head, a wonderful elegance in everything, made her able to dispute the advantage with others better endowed by nature and even beat them".

France was already then the center of the fashion world, and one of the duties of the Queen of such nation was to lead (by example) the trends, and so, at first, the Queen's spending and extravagant taste were justified and even encouraged, since many of Marie Antoinette's feathers and ribbons did increase trade and economy for the country. She was expected to make display of support for the luxury trades, an important sector of the French economy.

But Marie Antoinette's staggering expenses quickly caught up with her and she soon started accumulating debts with the court, and was nicknamed "Madame Deficit".

By 1776, the Queen had managed to spend 500,000 livres on dresses alone (her allowance was 150,000 - about $3.6 million in current spending power) and her opulent clothing occupied three public rooms at Versailles.

But extravagant spending at the court of Versailles didn't start with Marie Antoinette; the King's sisters, for example, would spend 3 million livres in a six-week expedition to Vichy to drink the waters.

Things started to precipitate because of the unsatisfactory bedroom performance of the King. It was 1775, and after 5 years of marriage the royal couple had yet to provide an heir to the throne. Marie Antoinette was failing at her most important duty. From the pressure of the situation, the increasing scolding from her mother, the unfulfilled maternal instinct, the people doubting her fertility, her non-existent and embarrassing bedroom life made public... from all of it Marie Antoinette wanted to escape.

She started looking around for different means of entertainment and distraction: costume balls, gambling, the opera, anything that would provide a temporary relief and that would keep her away from the sleeping King (a reminder of her conjugal failure).

And her debts accumulated.

This is when vignettes and pamphlets started circulating on the streets, taking aim at the lack of heirs, at the new vices of the Queen, and at those expensive ribbons and feathers.

France's economy had been bankrupt before Marie Antoinette's arrival, because of disastrous wars and centuries of corruption and when things didn't get better during her reign it was easy to blame the worsening financial situation on these expensive activities. As it always happens in these cases, people needed a scapegoat, and who better than the Austrian "foreigner" with her excessive spendings and corruptive influence on the Frenchwomen aspiring to her chic and her ways?

What people didn't understand was that the personal extravagance of the Queen was of very little monetary consequence compared to, for example, dispatching thousand of French troops and ships to fight in the New World.

But it was too late... the Autrichienne was to blame.

read part 3 here


Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel

Anonymous said...

The idea of hair 3 feet high is incorrect.
Perhaps stemming from caricatures.
Put a yard stick on top of your head and you will see quick enough.