Queen of Fashion – Book Review

Queen of Fashion paints a vivid picture of a defiant queen, externally frivolous, sartorially political, and, as we all know, inevitably doomed.  A queen whose legendary fashions would sweep the fabric of change before France.

 Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber

What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Throughout her youth Marie Antoinette was a figure to be envied, despised, a foreign queen who acted more like a courtesan than a consort.  The words she never spoke (Let them eat cake!) are remembered with more vivacity than those chilling sentiments recorded in her letters (“I have seen everything, known everything, forgotten everything.” October 1789).

At the end of her life, her body wracked, hemorrhaging, her soul devoured, she would die a misunderstood queen, one that history would refuse to relinquish to the crackled pages of time.

More than any other day in her life, on October 16, 1793, she inspired a rare kind of divine awe in the populace.  As noted in Weber, “By most accounts, as the spectral white figure was escorted through the double hedgerow of navy- blue-coated soldiers who lined her path, the crowds reacted with stunned, leaden silence.”   Garbed in scraggly black mourning dress during her internment at the Conciergerie and denied those same widow’s weeds upon her death (as the privilege of mourning was associated with the aristocracy) she had one last statement up her sleeve.  In a move of fashion genius, she had saved a pristine white chemise in anticipation of her final parade .  . .

Marie Antoinette Taken to the Guillotine, William Hamilton, 1794

At the age of thirty-seven, her hair the angel white of the gaulles she wore while frolicking in the gardens of the Trianon, she proceeded to the guillotine, shorn of all royal refinement, but possessed of a final resistance: undeniable, unrelenting grace.

She went to her death as she lived her life, courageously, unwilling to confirm to the dictates of her gaolers, Versailles and later, ironically, her people.

Marie Antoinette , Joseph Ducreux, 1769

Ange ou demon?

Enemy of the Republic, royal conspirator and counterrevolutionary, that Austrian bitch or conversely, victim and bubble-headed consort, Marie Antoinette proves herself as neither.  She dusted flour in her poufs while her people starved; crippled the silk industry – a mainstay in the French luxury economy – by flaunting her preference for foreign fabrics.  She influenced Louis XVI, a soft hearted, bewildered king – a break in the imperious line his Bourbon ancestors – when consorts before her faded as forgotten queens.  Her exploits infamous far beyond France, she shadowed the already dissolute, depraved Court of Versailles in her scandals, becoming the sun itself.

January 1793:  Louis, ever faithful to her, ever weak, goes to his death wearing a coat a la cheveux de la Reine, the golden-red of his wife’s youthful hair.  The future king in an abolished monarchy, Louis Charles, her son, is ripped from her prison cell, placed in the hands of a drunkard, a fervent revolutionist bent on beating privileged sensibilities out of the boy.  Although the testimony in her trial is composed of hearsay, lies, and speculation, the memory of Madame Deficit, the Autrichienne who failed to metamorphose into a true, French royal, triumphs.

In my favorite chapter, the last entitled “White,” Weber draws her readers into this profound last vision of Marie Antoinette:  “White the simultaneous coexistence of all colors: revolutionary blue and red, royalist vilent and green.  White the color of the locks she saw the executioner slip into his pocket as her sheared her head to prepare her for her fate.  White the color of matrydom, of holy heaven of eternal life.”  And this eloquent, final prose: “White the color of a ghost too beautiful, or at least too willful, to die.  White the color of the pages which her story has been – and will be – written.  Again and again and again.”

Read it?

If, after ingesting biographies, memoirs, and blogs, Marie Antoinette still holds your imagination, your picture yet incomplete of this misunderstood queen, read Queen of Fashion.  Combining exhaustive scholarship and vast insight, Caroline Weber writes with a deft hand, reviving an icon in a flourish of silks and muslins and widow’s weeds.  Revisiting her story on a Weber’s fresh canvas, I like Marie Antoinette more and I like her less, but finally, if only a little, I think I understand her.

Book 1 of Enchanted by Josephine’s French Historicals Challenge completed!

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