Marie Antoinette’s extravagant sartorial style represented the height of French fashion in the 18th century, even as it provided her myriad enemies with symbols potent enough to help foment the monarchy’s overthrow.
Weber (French/Barnard Coll.) has written previously about the revolutionary period (Terror and Its Discontents, 2003, not reviewed), and her comprehensive, entertaining latest work suggests that she has studied just about every other important history—academic and popular—covering the reign of Louis XVI and his controversial consort. Although there is probably little new to say about this unhappy couple, their story will forever engage with its unparalleled combination of haute lifestyle and unspeakable violence. (Mercifully, the author keeps the king’s and queen’s executions offstage.) Weber focuses on Marie Antoinette’s clothing, emblematic of her sense of style, her outrageous expenditures and her tragic inability to comprehend the public’s perceptions of her and her excesses. Weber’s task is made difficult by two factors. First, virtually none of this clothing now exists, having been destroyed by angry mobs or stolen by souvenir-hunters. So we are left with contemporaneous written descriptions, portraits and parodies. Second, the story of the young queen’s rise and fall is so engrossing that Weber sometimes finds it hard to turn our attention away from history’s explosions to look at her subject’s latest ridiculous pouf or silk-and-satin extravagance. This ultimately serves, then, as yet another biography of Marie Antoinette, another history of the French Revolution. Still, the fashion segments are fun to read and researched with consummate attention to detail, as 80 pages of endnotes certify. When the royal couple is finally imprisoned, the author does a splendid job of explaining how their political fall was mirrored in their dress. Her account of the queen’s final appearance—all in glorious white—on the ride to the guillotine carries enormous poignancy.
A briskly written account of a time when high fashion took death’s hand and danced.