Just before Diana’s death her dresses were auctioned for charity at Christie’s in New York. When they were turned inside out, they showed their secret structure, second dresses built inside the first; they were nothing like the dresses ordinary women wear, and with their elaborate frosting and beading they looked as if they might be stab-proof, if not bulletproof. The dresses stood up and almost walked; after her death, they alone retained the shape of the princess.
Antoinette’s clothes also formed a sort of anticipated ghost. In the years before the Revolution, you could go to Versailles as a tourist and see the Queen’s dress collection. Any respectably dressed person could turn up and take a look at the French monarchy in action. It seems odd, in one way: you would have thought that the monarchs would have cultivated their legend at a frozen distance from the populace. But if you actually visit Versailles you can see how it worked; the palace is so spectacular, so awe-inspiring, that proximity could create in the onlooker nothing but the conviction that the Bourbons were here and here to stay. In the medieval alleys of Paris revolution might have seemed possible, but at Versailles it hardly does, even now; the mind and will are benumbed by excess, the imagination is taken captive.
Antoinette had her own house, the Petit Trianon, a neoclassical château made over to reflect her exquisite taste. It was a stylistic break with the old-style opulence of Versailles, but the new style could not be mistaken for simplicity. The Queen did not break the codes of artificiality, but substituted a new code, which looked different, but was no more easy to achieve for outsiders. Vast expenditure and enormous contrivance produced what Caroline Weber calls the graceful, careless ambience of this retreat. The fashionable English garden had to be planned and landscaped just as carefully as the geometric gardens that Le Nôtre had contrived for the palace itself. Antoinette was not a great reader, and had probably never read Rousseau, but she had picked up the idea that what was natural was good, and to be imitated, at great expense if necessary. She turned Rousseauist thinking into a style statement and perverted it; the flowers you saw at the Petit Trianon were not just nature’s flowers, but flowers of porcelain and enamel, gilded flowers, painted flowers. She sanitized nature and made it whimsical; at her toy farm, Le Hameau, she kept perfumed sheep. At the Petit Trianon and the toy farm, the Queen ruled, not the King: here, she said, “I am me.”
A code of aesthetics, then, shielded the Petit Trianon from the dangers of strong emotion or the effort of hard thinking. A public figure, Antoinette wanted the one thing money couldn’t buy her—a private life. For the Queen to be “me” meant an effort of self-denial, in the true sense. In the musical comedies she was fond of staging in her private theater, she liked to play the part of servant girls. They were cute, well-dressed little servants; it was an abdication, nevertheless, and a telling one. For how can the psychic space be filled between “Queen” and “me?” In Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette—as in Stephen Frears’s The Queen, about Elizabeth II—there are repeated scenes in which a rumpled royal person wakes up, dazed, and—yawning and rearranging herself—passes from the unreality of dreams to the unreality of a waking life as a queen.3 Coppola’s film has a beautiful sleepwalker at its center, and offers, for all its conscious absurdities and anachronisms, an emotional truth. The Queen is self-absorbed, but not self-possessed. It is the people who dress her who own her. The couturiers of the eighteenth century used to create dolls to show off their designs, and in the reign of Louis XV such a doll, dressed as his mistress Madame de Pompadour, had caused excitement as it traveled through Europe. These dolls were known as “Pandoras.” Rose Bertin made and dressed a life-sized doll to look like Antoinette, and so one wonders: Was she ever “me” or only a simulation of a person, a dressed doll wheeled along by other people, its outer surface decorated with mirrors to reflect her times?
Perhaps it is the concentration on surfaces that has bred oddities in Caroline Weber’s treatment of the historical background to her story. Writing of events following the harsh winter of 1774–1775, she tells us:
That May, a scarcity of grain and misguided reforms by Louis XVI’s Controller-General, Turgot, impelled starving people throughout the nation to stage riots known as the Flour Wars.
It is an odd locution; though there is an element of ritual behavior in the events of that spring, in that the protesters petitioned for relief, as they usually did in time of famine, at the King’s own gates, the riots were presumably not a theatrical performance to those who engaged in them; they were not “staged.” She goes on to tell us that
to quell the rioting both far and near, the historian Simon Schama has written, “Turgot call[ed] out twenty-five thousand troops, and institute[d] summary tribunals and exemplary hangings.”
Could she not have checked the facts and given them direct, instead of quoting another historian? It is her anxious tactic, throughout the book, to ornament quite uncontentious assertions with frills and tassels of received opinion, as if we might not like them if she left them plain.
The year 1789 saw in a plainer age. In the time of Louis XIV—the Sun King—the splendor of his buildings, his court, and his own costume were what proved to his people that he was a king. In those days, to seem it was to be it, but Louis XVI’s court, powdered and reeking of Fargeon’s chemical experiments, seems to exist in a different time frame from that of the sober black-clad deputies who met in Versailles in the spring of 1789 to represent the Third Estate, the common people of France. By 1789, the King’s power to regulate his subjects’ style and taste was in the past, though the King had not noticed. The deputies had been commanded into black, to contrast with the parakeet colors of their betters; but this was an age of commodification, where the illusion of caste could not be maintained. The marchandes de modes of Paris catered to the middle classes as well as the aristocracy.
As long ago as 1773, Rose Bertin had set up her shop on the rue Saint-Honoré, with lavish window displays. She tried to limit her clients to the nobility, but anyone could look and imitate. If anyone can dress up as a queen, anyone can, at a casual glance, seem a queen. In the complex pre-Revolution scam known as the Diamond Necklace Affair—which was a public relations disaster for Antoinette, although she was not at fault—she had been imitated by a prostitute who had been specially coached, to ape her style. The demimondaine had sent out all the right signals to the man who was to be conned. She moved in silence, in a floating white dress, a rose in her hand; at dusk in the grounds of the palace, she walked the walk.
Caroline Weber’s book is absorbing, fascinating, a wonderful display of grace and expertise, full of telling details. She shows what she sets out to show: speaking of Antoinette’s fashion choices, she says:
I will argue that these ensembles, too often dismissed as mere instances of the Queen’s frivolity, identified her as a woman who could dress, spend, and do exactly as she pleased.
But what is new here? To posterity that is how she has always looked: a woman whose empty self-regard was at the center of her world, and who employed considerable resources to salve her wounded vanity.
We can sympathize with the young exiled princess—isolated, homesick, not very bright. That she decided “to play the game of fashion by her own, unconventional rules” cannot be doubted, but Weber comes close to representing Antoinette’s fight against her personal circumstances as a proto-feminist campaign. But to reflect the great world only through what you wear is surely an acceptance, an accentuation of a subservient feminine role. The fashionable woman at Versailles marked the partition of Poland by adopting a new style of skirt, caught up in three separate hoops—one for Russia, one for Austria, one for Prussia. It’s doubtful that Polish patriots were much cheered.
Antoinette is, as we say, having a moment. This is her season, because of the new film, and because 2005 was the 250th anniversary of her birth. The papers have been full of the news that she did not in fact say, of the starving populace, “let them eat cake”; but in Paris, the Ladurée patisserie on the Left Bank has been filling its windows with tiers of pastel-colored macaroons, inspired by her gowns. A rehabilitation movement is unneeded in English-speaking countries, where readers for generations have been sentimentally fixated on royalty and aristocracy, and there is always room for a new biography with a new version of the Queen’s sufferings.
At the Bourbon restoration the French treated her as a martyr, an icon, but for many years seem not to have taken much notice of her—as a brand name, anyway—making do with their own set of sentimentalities and pieties about the Revolution. The palace of Versailles has presented itself to tourists as a grand and chilly spectacle, though one that is underrealized and underexplained. But over the last year, the Petit Trianon and the Hameau have been marketed as a major attraction. An expensive Marie Antoinette fragrance is on sale—which must please Elisabeth de Feydeau. The Queen’s old bones have been dug up and re-dressed, providing a welcome distraction for a nation that hardly knows its role in the world, that has lost its sense of a civilizing mission and is filling the hungry void with pastel froth.
The thinking of cultural historians for many years now has been that the revolutionary period embodied a crisis of patriarchy; the nation murdered its father, having found him wanting in fatherly care. It was her motherly credentials that were assailed when Antoinette stood trial. Her eight-year-old son had been induced to accuse her of teaching him to masturbate and of sexually abusing him as he lay in bed with her; the court was told that she did this to gain a physical and moral ascendancy over him, which she could assert if he ever became king. The accusation came from the peculiar mind of the prosecutor Jacques-René Hébert, who had long before turned current events into a perverse circus, with the royals as blood-bespattered mechanical dolls. Brought out in open court, this weird allegation brought cries of sympathy for the Queen from the public galleries. Caroline Weber quotes a contemporary report, to the effect that when Robespierre
heard what a sensation the sublime manner in which the Queen had met the charge had made, and the effect it had on the audience, he, being then at dinner, broke his plate with rage.
Now, Weber is a respected commentator on the Revolution, having published a scholarly work called Terror and Its Discontents: Suspect Words in Revolutionary France. Presumably she knows that Robespierre was not the kind of man who smashed the crockery. It’s more likely that, as Robespierre’s latest biographer Ruth Scurr reports, he simply said that Hébert was a fool and risked making Antoinette an object of pity. It’s hard not to think that, by bringing forward this picturesque version of events, the historian, like her subject, is playing to the gallery.
Antoinette’s failure came early, as Weber describes: “Her white blank slate of a body had failed to live up to its promise as a site of inscription for Bourbon custom.” It also came late—when the Revolution came she turned her elegant back on the zeitgeist. It seemed, briefly, as if the Revolution itself might deliver to women a share of political power; this didn’t happen. Set against this great disappointment, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether pre-revolutionary nobles, finding their wives’ bills mounting, feared that “women were trampling sacred male authority beneath their dainty satin heels.” This form of female self-assertion had no payoff, no consequences. The Revolution provided many occasions for dressing up, and many sartorial codes to be cracked: one can brood for a lifetime on Saint-Just’s cravats and Robespierre’s embroidered waistcoats.
Such speculations would be interesting, but would hardly have commercial appeal to readers. It appeals to us to look at the Revolution as a giant piece of theater, and this year it is a girlie show. But the Revolution is more than this, and it cannot be understood by overstating, however entertainingly, the importance of its iconography. It is unfashionable to say this, in post-Marxist times, but it is true: if you want to understand what happened in the Revolution and why, it is better to keep your eye on fluctuating bread prices, rather than fluctuating hemlines. Antoinette did not know this, but it seems that we should know it, on her behalf. Antoinette was culturally retarded, a clumsy figure running to keep up with the times and tripping over her own skirts. Her private impulses were at odds with the general will, her caprices were at odds with republican vertu. After her death, the scraps of her clothing that remained were given to poor women in a hospital. But in the end, though the Queen did not foresee it, it was the bourgeoisie who triumphed: those who had the nerve to send in the bill. Monsieur Léonard, Rose Bertin, the perfumer Fargeon: all of them died in their beds.