Marie Antoinette still evokes an image of fashion and frivolity – wigs as high as a doorway and skirts as wide as one, sequined feather fans, rosette-festooned slippers, jeweled masquerade masks. But there was a lot more to the Queen of France and the styles she set across Europe in the late 18th century than the visual of a silly coquette best known for the erroneous “Let them eat cake” remark.
Art historian Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell’s latest work, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (Yale University Press, $60), is a groundbreaking study of clothing in the time of the embattled king and his even more controversial consort. Separating fashionable fact from fiction, Chrisman-Campbell’s book is the definitive account of the progress of style during this fascinating and tragic period, thoroughly researched and poignantly written.
The author, who appears at the Dallas Museum of Art on April 30, spoke recently to me about her passion for the era, its clothes and the major players whose influence shaped the looks that were to die for.
Randy Bryan Bigham: How did you come to the subjects of Marie Antoinette and French court fashion? What appeals to you most about the queen and her era?
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell: I’ve always been fascinated by the fashion world of the 18th century. It’s so alien and so familiar at the same time; our modern, media-driven, celebrity-focused fashion industry has its roots in the reign of Louis XVI. But the over-the-top luxury and originality of that period has not been replicated since.
RBB: What were Marie Antoinette’s greatest contributions to the fashions of her day?
KCC: She legitimized cotton as a fashion fabric, which still influences the way we all dress today. In the 1780s, she popularized the color white. Some scholars attribute this to the fact that white was the color of royal mourning, and she was in and out of mourning throughout that decade. In general, I believe that she was more of a trend-follower than a trend-setter, much like Princess Diana. Even today, royals cannot risk being too avant-garde. Madame Du Barry had her portrait painted in a chemise gown two years before Marie-Antoinette did. But if she didn’t wear it first, she wore it best, and because of her position, popularity, and beauty, anything she wore became that much more fashionable and widely publicized — again, much like Princess Diana. Fashion magazines attached the tag “à la reine” (“in the style of the queen”) to all kinds of things because it was a guarantee of chic.
RBB: Today, apart from the apocryphal “Let them eat cake” quote, Marie Antoinette is still associated with high fashion and indulgence. Is it justified? She was lavishly dressed as a young queen, but didn’t she ease up on the opulence after she became a mother?
KCC: She eased up on the opulence, but not the expense! Her new, simplified look was not necessarily cheap, and today we might perceive it as being even more offensive because she was appropriating what she considered to be peasant dress. Ironically, her new look was more controversial than her old opulence, because a certain level of magnificence and formality was expected from the royal family, regardless of cost. The queen had a duty to uphold the dignity of the throne as well as to support the French fashion and textile industries.
RBB: How did Marie Antoinette actually confer with her dressmaker Rose Bertin? What protocol was involved – a tradeswoman meeting with royalty? And how much of a collaborative relationship was this?
KCC: All fashion was couture at the time, so a woman effectively designed her own clothes in consultation with her marchande de modes, couturière, and mercier (or mercer, who sold fabrics). Marchandes de modes, including Bertin, regularly boasted of “collaborating” with their famous clients; it was a form of name-dropping, but also implied that the clients’ good taste and celebrity had rubbed off on them. Bertin called on Marie Antoinette at least once a week. Some accounts claim she visited the royal apartments daily. The truth is probably somewhere in between. The queen’s surviving wardrobe accounts document purchases once or twice a week. This was an unprecedented breach of protocol. Previously, royal dressmakers worked for the queen exclusively, and no working-class person could be admitted into the royal apartments.
RBB: Were there other dressmakers favored by the queen and her court?
KCC: The task of dressing Marie Antoinette was far too demanding for just one person! Plus, Rose Bertin had scores of other illustrious clients, including the queens of Spain and Sweden, the Princess of Portugal, and Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia. Marie Antoinette used a wide array of fashion merchants; the couturière Madame Eloffe and the marchand de modes Monsieur Beaulard were two of her favorites. But no one besides Bertin was allowed such intimate and frequent access to the queen, and surviving accounts suggest that Bertin pocketed about half of the queen’s wardrobe budget.
RBB: What is Bertin’s importance to fashion history? Was she the “first” couturiere? Or does that term accurately apply to the dressmakers and milliners of that day? Were they designers in the modern sense?
KCC: In the 18th century, a couturière was a seamstress. A marchande de modes was a milliner, and that’s what Rose Bertin was. The literal translation of marchande de modes is fashion merchant. At this period in history, it was trimmings and accessories rather than cut, construction, and textile choice that made one gown more or less fashionable than another. The marchandes de modes provided those trimmings and accessories. In practice, they also made some complete garments, though this was technically the job of the couturière. Bertin was the first celebrity designer. Her fame and success were staggering by any measure, but especially for a lower-class, unmarried woman in an age before mass media and modern transportation.
RBB: As you researched, what surprised you most about the period’s fashion and culture?
KCC: There are so many myths and misconceptions about this period in fashion — even among historians — that the truth often came as a shock. The coiffure à la Belle Poule is a great example. The one thing absolutely everyone knows about Marie Antoinette is that she wore a ship on her head, right? This hairstyle is still imitated and parodied today as an icon of ancien regime extravagance. But at the time, it had a much different meaning, and the true story behind it is even more compelling than the myth.
RBB: Do any garments or accessories belonging to the queen survive?
KCC: The question is not whether they survive, but whether we know they are hers! Many museums have in their collections so-called “Marie Antoinette” garments that are clearly not of the right time period or quality. At the same time, I’m sure that many of her garments do survive in museums, but only a few can be authenticated persuasively. I included pictures of as many of these as I could in my book, plus a few that have a strong (though not conclusive) royal provenance, and are definitely fit for a queen. Unfortunately, we know that most of Marie Antoinette’s clothes were destroyed in the sack of the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, and many others were sold or given away as perks to her ladies-in-waiting over the years.
RBB: Have any garments survived that belonged to Mme. Du Barry or other major French court personalities?
KCC: Again, there are probably many more out there than we can actually identify. There was a very good 1992 exhibition about Madame Du Barry, and the catalogue includes a chapter on her wardrobe. Several of her wardrobe bills survive, as well as a pair of her shoes. But the clothing culture of the French court was geared towards recycling and replacement, not preservation. It’s quite a contrast to, say, the Swedish court, which has saved everything, including gowns belonging to Queen Sophia Magdalena, a client of Rose Bertin. Many of Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna’s gowns have survived, too.
RBB: What was the most exciting part of your research, and what was the most personally fulfilling aspect of publishing this book?
KCC: Unexpectedly, I discovered I loved researching the intersection of fashion and etiquette, whether court dress or mourning rituals. Strict protocol seemed to inspire the fashion industry and its clients to new heights of creativity rather than grinding it into submission. I think I’m the first to look at the French émigré fashion industry, and I uncovered several previously unknown garments and primary sources. But the most fulfilling aspect has been seeing the book that I’ve lived with in my head for such a long time finally on paper, complete with 220 gorgeous illustrations.
RBB: What do you hope readers will take away from your study of the fashions and events of this extraordinary time?
KCC: It’s a fun — and sometimes silly — period in fashion history, but I hope readers will also appreciate how serious it was. Fashion was a big business as well as a powerful form of social and political commentary, particularly for women. While it would be unfair to say that Marie Antoinette or Rose Bertin was responsible for the French Revolution, fashion itself played a defining role, and maybe not the one you’d expect.