Marie Antoinette is all the rage. From Sophia Coppola's new movie to a bevy of recent magazine articles, the infamous queen is making headlines. But the spotlight is nothing new for her; people have been interested in her life and activities since she arrived in France as a 14-year-old princess. One such person is Caroline Weber, a French professor teaching at Barnard College, Columbia University who has written a fascinating biography of Marie Antoinette titled QUEEN OF FASHION.
Weber approaches the queen's life story from a totally unique perspective: what Marie Antoinette chose to wear (and what was chosen for her to wear) at various stages in her life. Weber suggests that her fashion choices reflect her attempts to assert her identity and to gain power in a culture where she was expected to be a passive representative of the throne.
Even before she married the future King of France as a young girl, the Austrian Archduchess was told that her looks and appearance were of the utmost importance. She had to undergo a makeover that included extensive, painful dental work and the powdering of her strawberry blond hair, just for marriage negotiations to continue. As she was handed over by the Austrian entourage to the French, she was stripped naked in a room of strangers and redressed in what was considered to be more appropriate (that is, more French) attire. Right away the young woman knew that fashion was what she was expected to be interested in, and she decided to use it to her advantage. She became a figure that challenged propriety, the roles of women and the nobility in her society through the clothing and hairstyles she wore.
Weber convincingly demonstrates how Marie Antoinette, rendered essentially powerless by social and political norms, managed to assert some influence, through her appearance, that extended beyond France's borders. In the beginning the princess (later queen) was adored. French society was enamored of her, and women especially found her refreshing and relatable. The nobility and other traditionalists were less taken by her. However, by the end of her life she was reviled and demonized, accused of sexual misconduct, irresponsible overspending and other corruptions. And, as France found itself heading toward revolution, her foreign birth and foreign ties were impossible for the nation to ignore.
During every stage of her life in France, Marie Antoinette used dress to express herself --- even when she was hated, she was copied. In fact, after her execution by guillotine, the fashion was for women to wear a thin red ribbon tied around their necks. Her choices in fashion were often overtly political, challenging to the social order and always deeply personal. Weber's examination of Marie Antoinette's life through what she wore is engaging, eye-opening and immensely enjoyable.
QUEEN OF FASHION is a truly enlightening and entertaining exploration of history, fashion, gender and power. Weber manages to balance an academic's eye for detail and research with a storyteller's voice for drama, tension and narrative. Marie Antoinette remains, after all this time, a worthy subject for biographers. Weber's contribution is one of the most unique, well-written and recommendable additions to the canon.
--- Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman