Marie Antoinette or the power of clothes

March 7, 2014


I was talking to my friend Kristian the other day and I asked what was he writing about this time (he’s a scholar and a writer). He told me the theme was the French Revolution and was in need of a bit of inspiration. Jokingly I said I could write a chapter about Marie Antoinette, if that helped and that’s how our little chat turned into an idea for a short essay.

I don’t know all that much about Marie Antoinette and certainly I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter either. The only actual book I read about her was Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, by Caroline Weber . I also watched the beautiful film by Sophia Coppola from 2007 Marie Antoinette, but then who hasn’t, right? Apart from these two things that I remember quite vividly, there’s also a blur of references from popular culture and other films, that resulted in a mish mash of ideas in my head. The image I always had was that she was a frivolous b*tch, who told the starving people to eat brioche if they didn’t have any bread. True but as with anything, there are always two sides to a story and in this case, there is a side to hers that only recently people cared to uncover which is what captivated me the most when I read the book.

So let’s consider a few facts from her life that will help understand her personality a bit better: she was sent to a foreign country as a child to marry a man she had never seen before and was despised by her husband’s family. The only way to fall on their good graces would be to produce an heir and that seems to have taken a long time – her husband probably thought babies were brought by storks and didn’t take much action for such heir to become a reality… We must also remember that this was a time when women didn’t have access to education and when they did, were still treated as second class citizens, it didn’t matter if they were royalty. I’m not excusing her from the fact that the people faced all sorts of difficulties and poverty while she was leading a lavish lifestyle on their expense… She was in a fairytale world in the Petit Trianon, things were as they were and let’s leave it at that.

What seems interesting to me (and other people, I don’t think I am alone in this) is that in her oppression, she found her means of expression and empowerment in fashion and style (and a lot of partying as well, woohoo!). She had the monetary means to access all that her fantasies dictated and that’s what she did (I can imagine her on a credit card shopping spree if she had been born in our era!). She established herself as an influential part of the aristocracy via her clothes and by dictating what was hot and what was not. An Anna Wintour of her day, one might say. What may have started as a way of escaping her depressing life ended up becoming her main strength and her way of exerting power out into the world. I think many of us can relate to this, I know I can. Many of us have very boring 9-5 jobs that although pay the bills, do very little to satisfy us as creative individuals and this is where fashion and style become an important part of our lives.

To me, it all started when I was younger and felt I was different and expressing it via my clothes seemed (and still does), a perfectly valid means of communication. At the time it was done somewhat unconsciously but with time I started paying more attention and making bolder choices in what I wore and it has become a way of saying something about myself. It has become a personal statement (some people might say of craziness but they have no imagination). Some days it looks better than others in retrospective but experimentation is also part of the fun. Picking something to wear in the morning is the escape from the shackles of a boring routine into the Petit Trianon. Sharing this online has become a way of reaching other like minded people and more recently a door to opportunities I never dreamed would have been possible before. There are many others who have become professional bloggers or have established themselves as their own bosses via online business that will concur.

So every time I hear someone accuse women who like clothes and have a strong personal style of being frivolous I tell them to think again. It’s an ignorant statement, for the most part. It may be true in some cases, but more often than not, behind the bold personal style you will find a strong, creative personality. No one remembers the grey suits but they will remember a beautiful dress or a colourful pair of shoes and the confidence of those who wear them. Marie Antoinette is remembered in History for her clothes and creative style, we can do the same. Isn’t it so much better than being remembered for starting wars and causing bloodshed? Maybe those who point the accusing finger should stop being so shallow themselves and look beneath the surface.

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  • Reply Kizzy @ The Dainty Dolls House March 7, 2014 at 09:10

    Superb article doll. I think with this story there is most definitely two sides. She had to marry him & then was shielded from what real life was like outside her castle, so it could be easy to assume everyone lived like she did. And any women back then would have been living a life a great despair really at any social level since women had no rights to anything, they were pawned around for dowries and so forth. Having girls was the worst thing for any family back then, they wanted just sons. So, to escape into fashions and other things was to in a way free yourself from the oppressing things happening around you. Not to mention women were also told what to wear really. Kings & Queens back then really were at the hands of the people at times…when the people thought to fight back. Other countries could invade in no time. I would have hated…despite the lavish lifestyle to have been born back then & even worse born into royalty. My life would have been very oppressed without anyone outside realizing it. Clothes do speak about ourselves and how we feel, we can wear things to make us feel better or to show exactly how we’re feeling..that’s what I like 🙂 xx

  • Reply Miranda March 7, 2014 at 10:41

    Epá, ó Sara, amei. Muito bem dito. Sou daquelas pessoas que toda a minha vida tenho sido acusada de ser uma cabecinha oca só porque gosto de roupas e de maquilhagem e de moda, e no entanto considero-me uma pessoa bastante culta e inteligente. Mas porque me visto se calhar de forma mais pessoal, já ninguém se dá ao trabalho de passar para lá do chavão inicial… muito bom texto.

  • Reply Vix March 7, 2014 at 12:53

    Excellent read, Sara!
    I’ve never seen the film and although the French Revolution was part of our A level history curriculum, other than learning that Marie Antoinette was known as La Aus-chienne – a play on words meaning “the Austrian Bitch” and “let them eat cake”, I know precious little about her.
    As a uniform wearer I escaped my hideous job by decorating my house in wild and unconventional ways. I know lots of women who try to escape from their conformist lives by dressing daringly though. Whilst fashion means precious little to me , beautiful , well made clothes are a different matter entirely. A great outfit serves as a great ice-breaker, too. How many times have you made friends with a stranger just because they’ve complimented you on how you’re dressed? I know I have. xxx

  • Reply Connie Snow* March 7, 2014 at 17:55

    What a wonderful thoughtful post. Because of illness I spent three long years wearing mostly pajamas or soft sweat pants and tee shirts. Dressing up always made me feel better. Clothes actually made me feel physically better!!! A pretty blouse or a new dress could lift my spirits like nothing else. It is not in the least bit frivolous. To be able to think about color and style instead of doctors and hospitals has really been the BEST medicine for me. Marie Antoinette had the right idea. Poor thing just didn’t know what was going on around her.

  • Reply PinkCheetahVintage March 8, 2014 at 14:54

    Her fashion was amazing and surely a means of expressing her inner creativity. I don’t envy her life, tho, even with all the incredible riches.

  • Reply Señora Allnut March 8, 2014 at 23:51

    great post!, you’ve expressed very wisely some pretty good ideas about fashion as self-expression and creativity, and not as a so frivolous thing as many people thinks!. I would like to encourage more people to use their clothes and style to express themselves, world would be far more colorful!

  • Reply Ariane March 11, 2014 at 17:01

    Well said Sara! I have seen the movie, and loved it – I knew a bit about her before seeing the movie –
    I do have a 9 to 5 boring well paid easy job, and true i like to dress innapropriatly, cause it’s the only way i will survive the boredom of the office and plus i put smiles on faces every day –

    Hope you feel better?

    Ariane xo

  • Reply Lyosha March 14, 2014 at 11:39

    I love reading about famous women! thanks for sharing

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