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Marie Antoinette Was the First Fashion Martyr

A history professor argues that the much-maligned queen of France attempted to win influence at the royal court through her transcendent sense of style only to be decapitated as a result.

Illustration by Craig Scott

The much-maligned Marie Antoinette had shit luck. She got married as a young teen to the impotent king of France, had her head chopped off, and posthumously became a symbol of aristocratic excess and greed. Her famed decapitation was partly the result of her all-consuming passion for fashion, claims Clare Crowston, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, in her book Credit,Fashion, Sex: Economies of Regard in Old Regime France. As a big fan of famous French ladies, beheadings, and the clothes people wore back in the day when everyone went to the bathroom in pots, I decided to call her up to learn more.


VICE: Why did Marie Antoinette’s life suck so much?
Clare Crowston: She faced serious challenges. She was Austrian, and Austria was the traditional enemy of France. Her husband was impotent and couldn’t consummate the marriage for many years, so there were no children. She was young and in a very vulnerable position. Her advisors’ strategy to boost her [position] was: Always stay close to the King; if he ever manages to have sex, make sure it’s with you and not somebody else; don’t ask for favors for frivolous reasons.

And how did fashion come into all this?
There is a great line from one of her letters that basically says that she used fashion to give the appearance of having credit. Now, in the 18th century, when people spoke of “credit,” they were talking about somebody’s reputation and credibility. Credit is a great example of the gray market of female power at the time—through credit women could indirectly influence the whole machinery of the royal government. What Marie Antoinette was saying in her letter was that to have credit you have to appear to have credit. She was paying much more attention to fashion than previous queens ever had—they stayed closer to the traditional court dress codes—and she was trying to lead fashion and use her ability to create new styles and dominate fashion as a way to gain attention and to claim some kind of prestige in the eyes of the court.

That fashion sense meant she worked directly with designers, right?
She had a fascinating relationship with a woman named Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin, who was one of the official fashion merchants to the queen. Bertin sold her these fabulous three-foot-tall hats. She was sort of the original Coco Chanel—the first really famous celebrity stylist. Antoinette relied on her to craft the appearance she was looking for; theirs was a very close relationship.

And presumably this seriously pissed off the common people?
It came to symbolize what the queen was doing wrong: She was spending too much money, she was having relations with the wrong kinds of people, she was focusing on frivolous things. The people said the queen was bankrupting the aristocratic families by encouraging noblewomen to follow her fashions, and that she was also bankrupting the state.

And presumably, as well as upsetting the masses, this also irritated the nobility?
At first it went OK, but as the expenses mounted and the impending bankruptcy of the French state became clear, it attracted more and more negative attention. There were rumors he was not the real father of her children, that she was having affairs with all kinds of people—lesbian affairs with her friends, for example, including Bertin.

As far as sex goes, the clothes themselves she was wearing at the time, were they considered to be racy?
She was wearing clothes that were extravagant more than sexual. But there is a very famous portrait by the artist Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun of Antoinette wearing a very simple chemise. What was shocking about it was its informality: It was a plain white linen dress with a frill around the bust. The queen is supposed to be armored behind stiff corsets and wearing extremely expensive formal wear. This looked like the queen being painted in her nightgown. There might be a sort of sexual component that people felt there, but it was as much a social shock as it was a sexual shock.