Marie Antoinette's Endless Reign

January 27, 2021 / Amber Weir

The queen of maximalism, fashion and corruption.

Transport yourself back to the early 1780s. You’re in the lavish Palace of Versailles with 700 rooms, 2,000 windows, 67 staircases and 700 hectares of garden. Marie Antoinette arrives in the Hall of Mirrors, she is wearing a light blue pastel coloured dress embellished with gold, her hair is large with hair feathers on the top, she is holding a light pink coloured fan as a slight flare. Marie Antoinette has coordinated her outfit to bring out details in the interior of the palace. Welcome to the hub of Parisian fashion, extravagance and maximalism.

Fast-forward to 1793, Marie Antoinette and – her husband – King Louis XVI are being sentenced to the guillotine. Where did it all go wrong?

Known infamously as ‘Madame Deficit’, Marie Antoinette’s excessive spending on couture and jewelry resulted in the French public scapegoating her for all of France’s economic problems. You might associate her with the infamous ‘Let them Eat Cake’ line, which she was rumoured to say in response to hearing about the working class having bread shortages. Surprisingly, this was the 1780s version of ‘fake news’ and history has debunked that she did not actually make such a statement, but it serves to highlight the distance between the aristocracy and the common man in pre-revolutionary France.

The class structure of French society was inherently flawed. It was an Estate System where the Third Estate, the poorest in society, paid the most in taxes. Meanwhile, the upper class in the First Estate paid nothing. With looming debts from the 7 Years war and further dues owed from financing some of the American revolution, France was struggling economically, and this failing taxation system only aided economic turmoil. Marie Antoinette wore extravagant clothing throughout her husband - Louis XVI’s - reign representing her hereditary privilege which acted in stark contrast to the 85% of the population who were living in destitution.

Most significantly, Marie Antoinette’s life is remembered - ironically - because of her death. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were executed because the people of France no longer believed in the Divine Right of Kings and the institution of absolute monarchy: mostly due to the wave of Enlightenment thinking in the 18th century, which conveyed the asymmetrical treatment of class in French society under a new light. Men such as Voltaire, Montesquie, Hobbes and Locke’s were able to undermine the legitimacy of the Ancien Regime by highlighting men’s natural rights and freedoms which were extremely radical at the time. Marie Antoinette was resented in her lifestyle primarily because of what her outfits signified, illustrating how clothing constructs an individual’s perceptions of each other.

While Marie Antoinette was physically killed in 1793, her aesthetic lived on as she is remembered for her bold fashion choices. Antoinette has often been described as one of the first females to wear haute couture. She would commission around 300 dresses a year.. Antoinette also had an impact on interior design during the late 1700s. She was known for coordinating all the decorations in a room -  walls, ceiling, curtains and lighting were intended to match. As an absolute monarch, you have the connections and wealth to live out a consumerists dream.

Many designers still base their shows on the idea of what a modern-day Marie Antoinette could be. Rihanna did a Fenty collection inspired by what “Marie Antoinette might wear to the gym.” Rihanna interpreted this through pink, green, purple and white-coloured clothing paired with fans, pearl, lace and satin. Some models wore heels and platform sneakers, which is totally impracticable and extremely dramatic for gym attire. But Marie Antoinette wore clothing for effect and Rihanna channels this through her collection.

Thom Browne’s spring/summer 2020 men’s collection was also inspired by the 18th century and Antoinette. The show included large box silhouettes for the couture with pastel colors creating a surreal experience, merging the 18th century with a modern twist. The models wore headpieces with a veil and had Antoinette-inspired hairstyles. The couture itself was all pastels blues, greens, pinks and whites. Some models wore blazers that were striped. Marie Antoinette’s clothing is symbolic of the power and attention one gains through clothing.

More recently, Kylie Jenner dressed up as Marie Antoinette for the Harper Bazaar front cover. Arguably, there is something quite ironic about Jenner, a billionaire,  dressing up as Antoinette due to the parallels these women share in character. In the current economic state of America, there is a growing distance between the elite and lower classes– very similar to the Ancien Regime of France. Jenner is detached from the economic struggles of the common people just like Marie Antoinette was. When celebrities dress up as Antoinette, they are associated with her persona: naïve, entitled, and isolated from reality. While we can admire Antoinette’s fashion and her aesthetic, we must also remember that she was part of an institution which exploited the lower classes whilst she was living in luxury.

Marie Antoinette is a complicated figure and it is too simplistic to look at her life through a binary lense ‘good’ and ‘evil’. In some aspects, we can admire Marie Antoinette for her love of fashion/design  and the aesthetics she left behind, specifically her maximalist ways and how she has been able to inspire numerous shoots and collections. However, it is important to not fully romanticize Antoinette, as she was a part of a corrupt institution which exploited the poor for her (and Louis XVI) own personal gain. 

Marie Antoinette’s endless reign on fashion and interior prevails till today, as we question “What would Marie Antoinette look like today?” ■

By: Amber Weir

Photographer: Erica Grifaldo

HMUA & Styling: Olivia Harris & Sophie Lindsey-Gilles

Models: Talee Jones & Kaitlyn Brooke Harris

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