Book Review – Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

(Note: this review was originally published alongside an interview with the author in issue 4)

It’s the knife blade fashion sits on that makes it interesting, I think. Every instant of this super visible and deceptively subtle form of communication teeters between superficial and crucial, silly and symbolic. As Louis the Sun King showed the world – and impressed upon descendants of his like Marie Antoinette – style, when combined with a good performance, can confer enough power to exert domination. And it can make people angry enough to get you killed.

When Marie Antoinette became a living symbol of the fresh and tenuous alliance between the Hasburgs and the Bourbons (i.e. Austria and France) she was only fourteen years old. When I was fourteen I died my hair purple with Jell-O. In her world things were more intense. For someone in her position sartorial revolution literally ripped at the fabric of social reality. She changed the role of queen by loosening her stays, ditching the paniers, and learning to ride forward on a horse, and then she invented a wildly-visible hair style that seemed to compel imitation: the pouf.

The pouf is such a dramatic example of Marie Antoinette’s “revolution in fashion” that the hairdo was the subject of Caroline Weber’s talk in Montreal, February 15, 2007. In the basement of the Cote Saint-Luc Library, beneath the thick snow outside, library ladies wore rented Renaissance dresses from Malabar, a costume shop downtown, and had photographs taken with the author in front of tables heaped with gourmet cake. Weber – a Harvard alum, Barnard professor, New York Times book critic and author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution – was gracious and delighted when she took the mic, claiming this spot to be the most fun by far on her ongoing and, according to her husband, endless book tour.

The pouf took the powdered hair that was fashionable in the French court to elaborate new dimensions, telling three-foot stories on women’s heads with horsehair, flowers, feathers, vegetables, wood supports, and more. The hairstyle is, it seems, the reason for the apocryphal invention of her most famous phrase. As far as historians like Weber can tell, Marie Antoinette never said anything like the words “let them eat cake.” She did, however, use huge amounts of white flour in her hair to create a fashion that was a slap in the face to the starving citizens. Weber’s book executes a careful tracing of the swooping movements in style and sentiment that surrounded this alternately loathed and well-loved queen.

by Caroline Weber, Henry Holt and Co., 2006
Reviewed by Risa Dickens

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