What Marie Antoinette Wore in the Eighteenth Century

In the eighteenth century everyone talked about what Marie Antoinette wore and she came to be perceived by the French public as a trendsetter in fashion. However, because France began to face economic woes, Frenchmen began to think of her as frivolous and immoral and they ultimately came to despise her labeling her “Madame Deficit,” “Madame Veto,” or worse “L’Autrichienne,” the combination of “Austrian” with “Chienne” in reference to a female dog. As Dena Goodman writes in the introduction of Marie Antoinette: Writings on Body of the Queen:

“Marie-Antoinette was the first in France to live at a time when pamphlets and newspapers and other forms of print publicity were ready to put the spotlight on public figures – to manufacture news if necessary to satisfy an avid reading public newly introduced to the thrills of court scandals and revolutionary politics … From the moment she arrived in France, Marie Antoinette found herself treading a fine line that crossed two competing spheres of public life: the court at Versailles, the center and epitome of the Old Regime of formality, privilege, show, and duty; and a new public sphere of press and public opinion.”[1]

Marie Antoinette.

What Marie Antoinette wore would unequivocally tie her to how people came to view her and it all started at Versailles on her formal wedding day, 16 May 1770. On that day she wore an extravagant dress given to her by her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. It had a wide pannier, was silver in color with a white hue, and loaded with diamonds. Unfortunately, it had been made long before her arrival so when she tried it on for the first time on her wedding day the bodice was much too small and there was no extra fabric to fix it. As there was no solution Marie Antoinette had to walk down the aisle with her shift showing and her lacing not tight.

Marie Antoinette’s marriage to the Dauphin. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Marie Antoinette also came to have a reputation for being a rebel when it came to fashion. She had the same reputation when it came to obeying her mother. One painting, that is now lost, was done of the future queen in 1771 and showed her wearing a manly riding garb. It was executed in France at the request of her mother who wanted a painting of her sixteen-year-old daughter dressed in finery to represent her station in life and not wearing men’s clothing. The young and rebellious Marie Antoinette wore exactly the opposite. Moreover, wearing such a garb was considered unacceptable at the time and Caroline Weber in her book, Queen of Fashion, states that in 1771:

“[M]asculine style breeches did not form part of the standard female riding outfit. And breeches worn without the supplementary cover of petticoats and skirts were far from common when Marie Antoinette adopted the look. … Arbiters of feminine conduct disapproved of breeches because they ‘permitted women to assume the poses and gestures of men, to wager, stride, swing the arms, and put hands on hips. Even worse, breeches made it far too easy for their wearers to straddle horses, whereas riding sidesaddle was … the norm for ladies in most European countries. Riding astride, it was believed, represented both an affront to common decency and a threat to a woman’s reproductive health.”[2] 

In 1771, another picture painted of Marie Antoinette was painted shortly after the one painted for her mother. It was painted by Joseph Kreutzinger and in it Marie Antoinette wore an “androgynous red justaucorps,” a long, knee-length coat worn by men throughout the 18th century that was introduced in England as a component of a three-piece ensemble, also consisting of breeches and a long vest or waistcoat. The dauphine was shown in this hunting attire from the waist up, wearing a black three corner hat and yellow kidskin gloves. Her mother thought this painting much more appropriate and even stated that it was “one of the most true-to-life images she had yet seen of her daughter.”[3]

Marie Antoinette wore justaucorps in this painting by Joseph Kreutzinger

Painting by Joseph Kreutzinger of Marie Antoinette wearing justaucorps in 1771. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another fashion that Marie Antoinette wore regularly was the en grand habit de cour shown in the painting below. This painting was produced by artist Jean-Baptiste-André Gautier-Dagoty in 1775 and shows her in a stiff bodied gown, the type that was worn for formal wear and popular throughout Europe, but particularly so in France. It was mandatory that any who came into the King’s presence be dressed in full Court dress and it was particularly required when foreign dignitaries came to visit. In fact, when the Venetian ambassador called once during one of Marie Antoinette’s pregnancies, she was too pregnant to wear Court dress and had to apologize profusely because if she had not there might have been a diplomatic incident.

Marie Antoinette wearing en grand habit de cour. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another item Marie Antoinette wore when she was pregnant, was the à la Lévite costume. It was described in the following fashion by author Judith Chazin-Bennahum in The Lure of Perfection.

“One other ‘oriental style’ that interested fashion fallowers was la Lévite, in part due to the great success of Racine’s Athalie, which played in Paris in the late 1770s. Athalie wore a Jewish costume consisting of a straight dress with a shawl collar and pleats in the back, held with a loose scarf around the waist (à col châle à plis derrière, seulement retenue à la taille par une écharpe lâche). … It was considered quite radical for the period.”[4]  

Marie Antoinette was also known to have some special shoes. Of course, she had more shoes than a normal person, but she would not have been considered a shoe hound like Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines who became famous in the late 1980s for her huge collection of 3,000 pairs of shoes. In Marie Antoinette’s case one pair that survived were a silk pair that have alternating green and pink stripes and sport a pleated ribbon of silk of the same fabric at the vamp. These shoes also had wooden heels covered with white leather and a pointed toe. The size was a dainty 36 ½, which is around a 5 in an American shoe size. These shoes were also said to be given to her by her manservant, Alexandre-Bernard Ju-Des-Retz, when she was twenty years old. He passed them down to relatives, until they were auctioned off in 2010 for €50,000 (approximate $65,600) through the Parisian auction house Drouot.

Marie Antoinette wore these striped shoes.

Marie Antoinette’s shoes with heel detail. Courtesy of Coutau-Begarie & Associates.

After the birth of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s first son, the Dauphin, Louis Joseph de France (Louis Joseph Xavier François), on 22 October 1781, many celebrations were held throughout France. Parisian festivities included fireworks, illuminations, and balls. Among those who attended one particularly sparkling entertainment in celebration of the boy’s birth was Eliza de Feuillide, cousin to Jane Austen. Eliza was amazed by what she saw and wrote to her cousin Phylly Walter giving some interesting details about what Marie Antoinette wore:

“Her Majesty, who is handsome at all times had her charms not a little heightened by the magnificence of her adjustment. It was a kind of Turkish dress made of a silver grounded silk intermixed with blue & entirely trimmed & almost covered with jewels. A sash & tassels of diamonds went round her waist, her sleeves were puffed & confined in several places with diamonds large knots of the same fastened a flowing veil of silver gauze; her hair which is remarkable handsome was adorned with the most beautiful jewels of all kinds intermixed with flowers & a large plume of white feathers. … In short altogether it was the finest sight I ever beheld.”[5]

One of the most controversial pieces of clothing that Marie Antoinette wore was captured by Élisabeth Loiuse Vigée Le Brun in her painting of 1783 titled “Marie Antoinette en chemise”or “Marie-Antoinette en gaulle” (Marie Antoinette in a Muslin Dress). “In its early form the chemise was merely a tube of white muslin with a drawstring at the neck and sash at the waist. The light color gave the shape and quality of draping a lovely aura.”[6] However, it was also something the Queen’s critics considered too risqué and completely inappropriate as informal attire for a queen. Because there was so much controversy over the painting, Vigée Le Brun painted a similar portrait of the Queen holding a rose but wearing formal attire that same year. The second painting was titled, “Marie-Antoinette dit à la Rose” (Marie Antoinette with the Rose).

Marie Antoinette wore in these paintings a muslin dress and the more acceptable formal attire.

Paintings of the Queen by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette in a Muslin Dress” and “Marie Antoinette with a Rose.” Public domain.

Modish as ever, in the mid-1780s Marie Antoinette wore a blue redingote that had gold frogs and buttons, a stylish white collar, and pleated cuffs. The redingote was a type of coat that evolved over time, was halfway between a cape and overcoat, and became known as a riding coat in English. In the early to mid-18th century the redingote was used for traveling on horseback and was utilitarian in nature. However, by the last two decades of the 18th century it evolved into a fashionable woman’s accessory that was tailored, having been inspired by men’s fashions, and, of course, Marie Antoinette was one of the first to embrace this fashion.

Marie Antoinette in redingote in mid-1780s. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Some of the Queen’s fashion selections may have not always been her choice. This is likely the case in the painting commissioned by the office of the Bâtiments du Rois painted by Vigée Le Brun in 1787 that shows the Queen with her children. The painting was done to overturn her image of frivolity and licentiousness and to improve her flagging reputation after the Diamond Necklace Affair. The painting was meant to emphasize her motherly role and in it Marie Antoinette is shown wearing a red velvet gown lined with sable. The selection of red and velvet was likely deliberate because in France red represents royalty, valor, and strength and velvet stands for power.

Marie Antoinette wore this red dress for this painting of her and her children.

Marie Antoinette and her children. Painted by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun in 1787. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

This painting is also considered iconic and is one of France’s most important treasures and well known to every French school child. In the painting the Queen’s youngest boy (Louis-Charles) sits on her knee, her daughter (Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France) is pressed lovingly against one arm, and the Dauphin, Louis Joseph, is shown standing to her right. The empty bassinet is in memory of Princess Sophie, the Queen’s 11-month-old daughter who died while the painting was in progress.

Marie Antoinette was also one of the first to use the revolutionary colors to make both a political and fashion statement. It all began with the finance minister, a popular man named Jacques Necker, who was father to Madame de Staël, friend of Juliette Récamier. Necker published an inaccurate account of the government’s debts and made it available to the public, which so upset Louis XVI, he fired him on 11 July 1789 and restructured the finance ministry at the same time.

Jacques Necker. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The King’s actions upset many Parisians who presumed he was trying to undermine the National Constituent Assembly, and so on 14 July, a militia of revolutionaries stormed the Bastille. At the time the revolutionaries were wearing a distinctive badge in the form of cockade, representing the ancient colors of Paris, blue and red. They had initially wanted a green cockade but abandoned that color because they discovered it was the color of the King’s brother, the Count d’Artois. A few days after storming the Bastille’s Louis XVI met the French National Guard on 17 July. They were now wearing the blue and red cockade of the militia, to which their new commander, the Marquis de Lafayette, famous for his participation in the American Revolution, had added a white band representing loyalty to the sovereign. The King reluctantly put the cockade on his hat, and thus was born the French tricolor cockade that would represent revolution.

The French tricolor cockade. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A few months later, on 5 October, dissatisfied and hungry women marched on Versailles. They wanted a resolution to the bread shortages and they also demanded economic changes. The women also succeeded in forcing the King and Queen to relocate from Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris to be nearer the people. On 7 October, the Queen tried to show revolutionaries that she supported them and their ideals by what she wore:

“When she announced to a large crowd that she and the King wished to coexist peacefully with the Parisians and that ‘all hatred must end,’ Marie Antoinette reportedly adopted a tricolor costume: a blue-and-white-striped gown and a white bonnet and fichus, both of which were edge with ribbon. On that same day, she also directed Madame Éloffe to provide her with dozens of aunes of rose, white, and blue ribbon for cockades for her own personal use. Quietly but powerfully, her eternalized change of heart toward the Revolution’s emblems corroborated her message of friendship and peace.”[7]

The Queen was also apparently willing to wear tricolor ribbon shoes to show her revolutionary spirit, or at least that is what alleged with the pair of mules shown below. Mules are defined as having no back or constraint around the foot’s heel. They also have a history that dates as far back as Ancient Rome and remain a popular fashion today. Although somewhat faded, these mules were made using the France’s tricolors of red, blue, and white and reportedly Marie Antoinette wore them on 14 July 1790, the first Fete de la Federation, that later became known as Bastille Day.

Mules supposedly worn by Marie Antoinette. Public domain.

After the Queen was imprisoned at the Temple with her family, her wardrobe was limited. Nonetheless, Marie Antoinette wore green as one of her fashion choices and did so in defiance to her imprisonment because green was the color of her brother-in-law, the Count d’Artois. Green became a prohibited color after Charlotte Corday assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, a popular French political theorist who vigorously supported and defended the sans-culottes. She killed him because she supported the Girondins, believed a civil war would soon happen, and wanted to get even for the September Massacres where people like the Princesse de Lamballe had been killed. When Corday was apprehended what was most remembered was the green ribbon found in her hat and thus it became “the color of counter-revolution … [and was therefore] prohibited, to the ruin of drapers and haberdashers, from any public dress.”[8]

Charlotte Corday. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While imprisoned in the Temple, according to family tradition, among the items Marie Antoinette wore was the caraco shown below. Caracos were short coats or jackets worn by women that were usually about waist length. The one shown below is Basque style, made from taffeta, and fastens in the front. It is gathered around the neck and has long sleeves fitted to the cuff. Because the Queen had so few pieces while imprisoned, it is also claimed that she patched her own clothes, which may explain some of the colored patches found on the interior of the caraco’s sleeves as shown.

Caraco that Marie Antoinette wore while imprisoned at the Temple. Courtesy of Coutau-Begarie & Associates.

After Louis XVI was guillotined on 21 January 1793, Marie Antoinette wore the colors of mourning, widow’s weeds, or in other words, clothing that looked “melancholy.” This meant that she adopted a plain no frills black wardrobe, although black also conveniently happened to be Austria’s national color. She wore her black outfit every day after the death of her husband and it was the same black outfit she was wearing when she was transferred to the prison called the Conciergerie. It was also at this prison that she was found guilty on 16 October of depleting the national treasury, conspiracy against the internal and external security of the State, and high treason.

Marie Antoinette wore widow weeds after the death of her husband.

“La reine Marie-Antoinette en habit de veuve à la prison de la Conciergerie” by Alexander Kucharsky in 1793 show her in her widow weeds. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Revolutionaries and the National Convention believed that what Marie Antoinette wore on the day she died was also important. She had been instructed not to wear her black dress but rather to put on a white cotton gown because it was the color worn by widowed French queens and symbolized royal mourning. Unfortunately, she began bleeding profusely, possibly because of uterine fibroids, and because of the uncontrollable bleeding she needed to change her chemise as it became soaked with blood:

“The gendarme refused permission for her to change her clothes out of his sight for fear she might escape. She crouched in a tiny space between the bed and the wall with a maid standing between her and the gendarme in order to hide her nakedness. She was ashamed to leave her soiled linen for people to see, so she hid her chemise in a crevice in the wall behind the stove. Her bleeding served as one of her final punishments.”[9]  

References:

  • [1] D. Goodman, ed., Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013), p. 3.
  • [2] C. Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), p. 82.
  • [3] C. Weber. 2006, p. 87.
  • [4] J. Chazin-Bennahum, The Lure of Perfection: Fashion and Ballet, 1780-1830 (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 24.
  • [5] D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Outlandish Cousin (London: The British Library, 2002), p. 54.
  • [6] J. Chazin-Bennahum. 2005, p. 23.
  • [7] C. Weber. 2006, p. 220.
  • [8] S. Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. 735.
  • [9] J. Chazin-Bennahum. 2005, p. 23.

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