Happy Halloween and Happy Samhain everyone! Today I’m giving you a special post just for the occasion. As you may recall from my last post, “Historic Costuming: That Other Cool Thing I Do,” one thing I like to do is sew historic costumes. For this Halloween, I decided to wear a revamped 18th century dress I made and go as French Queen Marie Antoinette. But this time, its Marie Antoinette’s ghost, meant to symbolize her tragic death. This post is broken into two pieces: a summary of Marie Antoinette’s life and my costume.
First, a Brief History of Marie Antoinette’s Life:
Born on November 2, 1755 in Vienna, Austria as Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, she was the 15th of 16 children of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa. She had a carefree life in her childhood, learning to play music and proper court etiquette, but she did poorly when it came to traditional subjects such as writing and history. At the age of 14, she was sent to France to marry the heir to the French throne, Louis Auguste on May 16, 1770 at Versailles. France had been the former enemy of Austria and the marriage was meant to cement the new found peace between the nations. But her fifteen year old husband was shy and had a possible medical condition that prevented him from consummating their marriage. She was often blamed for the couple’s failure to produce an heir.
While many at the French court welcomed the future queen and admired her grace and beauty, others disliked her simply because she was Austrian. Marie in turn would come to dislike the court’s elaborate rituals with their strict rules of etiquette and that she hardly had any privacy. She broke with protocol many times, most notably by retreating to the Petit Trianon and her small country village on the grounds of Versailles. She also took comfort in friends such as the Princesse de Lamballe and Duchesse de Polignac as well as Count Axel von Fersen whom she likely had an affair with.
On May 10, 1774, King Louis XV died from smallpox and young Louis ascended the throne as Louis XVI. At first, the French people liked Marie Antoinette, especially the charitable works she preformed, but their appreciation of the new queen would not last. Despite the good she did, her life was generally restricted to the court and because of this she rarely saw the poor conditions of the French people. This, along with her lavish spending, would be part of her undoing. Marie loved going to events in Paris, gambling, buying new dresses, and wearing enormous hairstyles. Her frivolous spending caused the people to call her “Madame Deficit.”
Finally, after seven years and some advice from Marie Antoinette’s brother Joseph II of Austria, she and Louis were able to consummate their marriage. Their first child was born in 1778 and three more would follow. In the meantime, France continued to suffer from heavy debt and poor harvests that lead to high grain prices. There was a lack of relief efforts by the government especially after Louis XVI spent many resources supporting the American Revolution. The queen would be blamed for many of France’s problems and pamphleteers viciously attacked her by showing her in sexually deviant relationships with various members of the court. Her reputation took a further hit in 1783 when she became the victim of a swindle involving an expensive diamond necklace. A group of thieves setup the Cardinal de Rohan to buy the necklace and give it to them under the guise that the queen wanted him to acquire the necklace for her. Despite having nothing to do with the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace,” Marie would be blamed for the stolen piece of jewelry all the same.
To restore her tarnished image, she cut her spending and became more involved with politics when her husband crumbled under pressure, but by then the French people were too riled up and her political experience too weak to be of any use. She would also suffer personal losses after the deaths of her youngest daughter and first son in 1787 and 1789, respectively. When politicians established the National Assembly and attempted to create a constitutional monarchy, Marie refused and pushed her husband to send troops to the National Assembly. This provoked riots and the storming of the Bastille fortress on July 14, 1789. The members of the Versailles court were sent away for their own safety. A mob of women then broke into Versailles on October 5, attempting to kill Marie and destroying her bed chamber in the process. The queen managed to escape, but the royal family was forced to go to the Tuileries Palace.
They attempted to flee the palace one night disguised as average citizens, but their coach was soon discovered and they were forced to return to Paris. Despite the king and queen’s begrudging acceptance of the revolutionaries’ constitutional monarchy, those who wanted to overthrow the monarchy completely soon took over the new government. They forced the royal family into confinement at the Temple fortress and declared them to be ordinary citizens. Louis XVI was tried and executed on January 21, 1793, leaving Marie Antoinette with only her children. Soon her young son would be taken from her and would die within the walls of the Temple after facing horrific abuse. Only her eldest daughter would survive the revolution. Marie Antoinette was tried and guillotined on October 16, 1793; she was only 37.
So what of the late French Queen? She certainly made mistakes, but it can be argued that she was never properly trained to be a good ruler, or a queen at all for that matter. She was a product of the environment she was born into: the wealthy class who were aloof to the problems of the lower classes. Her husband’s indecisiveness and inability to perform under pressure forced her to make decisions she was ill prepared to make. She was also wrongly attacked for many things that there was never any evidence of her taking part in. Perhaps if the king and queen had been more willing to compromise with revolutionaries early on and had been proactive about the plight of the French people, they could have escaped their tragic fates.
Some Interesting Facts About the French Queen:
- Marie Antoinette likely never said “let them eat cake” in regards to the people having no bread to eat. This was most likely a phrase uttered by another aristocrat and something attributed to her by revolutionaries or historians after the revolution.
- Many of her portraits were done by female artist Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun.
- She adopted several children to take care of them after their parents died.
- Among her many groundbreaking fashions was the “Chemise a la Reine,” a loose fitting gown made of muslin with puffy sleeves, as seen in the above portrait. The gown was controversial at the time because it was seen as improper for a queen to wear and, as my fashion history professor put it, was basically like her wearing only her underwear. Regardless, the fashion was adopted by many women and was a precursor to regency gown styles.
- Marie Antoinette’s only child to live to adulthood, Marie Therese, had no children and so the queen has no living descendants.
Now, My Costume:
This style of dress is a Robe a l’Anglaise (French for English Dress) with what is commonly called a cutaway or “zone” front in the costuming community. The “zone” front is where the bodice appears to be separated by lines starting from the center front at the top of the bodice that taper away to the side seams or just slightly before. The “zone” front is meant to look like the dress has cut away to reveal a stomacher or waistcoat, mimicking men’s styles. These “zone” front styles became popular in the last quarter of the 18th century. The back of the bodice is cut in four panels seamed together in the Italian gown style. By this time in the 18th century, fashions had generally lost their large widths in the skirts and became more rounded with back fullness. Dresses also gained longer trains in the back. This is the actual 18th century dress that inspired my costume (and probably dozens of other people’s costumes):
The costume itself I originally made when I was about 13. However, this past year I improved the construction of the bodice and made it more historically accurate. I likewise added new trimmings. The style of wig I am wearing is generally known as the “hedgehog” style. In the 1780s, hair went from being very tall to very full at the sides. You can see that Marie Antoinette is wearing this style of hair in the above portrait. I also made pretty much all the accessories, including the undergarments, for this costume except for the skull cameo jewelry and the fan. So that’s my costume. Let me know what you all are wearing for Halloween in the comments!
- Marie Antoinette documentary by PBS, 2006.
- “The Human Side of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette” by Joe McGasko of biography.com
- “1775 vs 1785: A Mini Fashion Revolution” by Dames a la Mode on YouTube
- “The Many Types of 18th Century Gowns” by Lauren Stowell on American Duchess blog site