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I Don’t Want Candy: The Uses and Abuses of Marie Antoinette

As a child of the nineteen eighties and a longtime Manolo Blahnik devotee, I expected to adore the MTV-worthy musical shoe shopping sequence in Sofia Coppola’s new biopic, Marie Antoinette. In this scene, Kirsten Dunst’s radiant, irrepressible teen queen chooses to ignore a political briefing from the Austrian ambassador to Versailles, and embarks instead on a buying spree that would have made Imelda Marcos proud. With the infectiously happy anthem “I Want Candy,” by eighties pop band Bow Wow Wow, blaring in the background, an unstoppable Dunst makes her selections from racks upon racks of outrageously inventive, impossibly luxurious footwear designed, just for the film, by Blahnik himself. Fur-lined, feather-trimmed, and jewel-encrusted, each of the dozens of incredible pumps shamelessly invites the viewer’s jaw to drop and (if she is a shoe addict) her heart to break. “Got everything that I desire,” cries Bow Wow Wow’s lead singer, Annabella, over the soundtrack. Watching Dunst, who pauses from her frenzied acquisition only long enough to snack on a candy-colored Ladurée macaroon, this would certainly seem to be true.

But of course this was far from the case, and Coppola’s film—which, like the shoe scene itself, I found disappointing at best—is sadly misguided in presenting Marie Antoinette’s relationship to clothing as one of simple consumerist enjoyment. Although recently echoed in a poorly argued New Yorker piece by Judith Thurman, who describes the French queen’s stylistic excesses as “the posturing of a willful teen-ager…[trying] to be thought cool,” the idea that Marie Antoinette gravitated toward fashion out of mere, youthful exuberance neglects the tremendous political significance and motivations behind her costuming choices. As I demonstrate in my new book, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, the young queen may have shopped until she dropped, but she had pressing political reasons for doing so.

These reasons became apparent to the fourteen-year-old Austrian Archduchess Maria Antonia virtually as soon as she arrived in France in 1770 as bride to the future King Louis XVI. For no sooner did she reach Versailles than the young newcomer found herself surrounded—and plotted against—by courtiers vehemently opposed to the Franco-Austrian alliance of which she was to serve as the lynchpin. Faced, moreover, with a husband who refused to bed her for the first seven years of their marriage, Marie Antoinette quickly found that it behooved her to solidify her standing at the court of Frances by other means. Historically, bearing one or more royal heirs had been a French queen’s primary raison d’être and her sole source of power at court. The urgency of giving her husband a child was thus a subject to which Marie Antoinette’s aforementioned “nagging” mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, returned regularly in the missives she sent the girl from Vienna. And the pressure on the Dauphine was intensified by the fact that the puissant anti-Austrian faction at court was scheming to have her marriage annulled on the grounds of infertility.

While all these challenges are commonplaces of Marie Antoinette biography, they go some way toward explaining the infamous love affair with fashion she began in adolescence. As I reveal in Queen of Fashion, it was in a quite deliberate effort to safeguard both her own future and that of a high-stakes geopolitical alliance that Louis XVI’s teen-aged bride first turned to costume as “a new strategy for survival,…a viable, alternative path to political security” (Queen of Fashion, 74). In the words of one disapproving aristocrat, the beleaguered Marie Antoinette staged a “veritable revolution in fashion” that upended all time-honored conventions governing a French royal consort’s appearance. From the gender-bending riding breeches and man-tailored riding habits that she donned to assume a kingly aura to the ostentatious, three-foot-high pouf hairstyles that she adopted to heighten, quite literally, her visibility in the French public eye, Marie Antoinette used fashion not so much to “be thought cool” as to show her detractors that she was “a woman who could dress, spend, and do exactly as she pleased” (Queen of Fashion, 4). A woman whose right to the throne had nothing to do with her maternal prospects. A woman who, as her friend Yolande de Polignac put it, “looked as if she had been born for the throne.”

Needless to say, the use of clothing to enhance one’s symbolic power had been an effective political tactic at least since the days of Louis XIV. As historians from Voltaire to Louis Marin have rightly emphasized, the Sun King’s thoughtful and extravagant manipulations of costume did much to bolster his absolutist grip on an unruly nation. In this context, it may not be incidental that while still a teen-ager, Marie Antoinette declared Louis XIV her favorite French king—“because he is so great,” she is said to have informed her tutor, the Abbé de Vermond. In fact it is telling that, shortly after her accession, when she was, as she admitted to her brother Joseph II, anxious to cultivate “the appearance of credit” she enjoyed with her newly crowned husband, Marie Antoinette commissioned Louis-Auguste Brun to paint her portrait “riding like a man.” Brun complied, and depicted the young consort heroically straddling a rearing steed, outfitted in shocking male breeches and riding habit. Unconventional in the annals of royal Frenchwomen’s equestrian portraiture (in which subjects tended to strike a ladylike, sidesaddle pose), the Brun painting bears a startling resemblance to the great representations of Louis XIV on horseback. I cannot think of a single commentator who has dismissed the Sun King’s strategically deployed equestrian posturing as that of an immature youth endeavoring “to be thought cool.” Yet Marie Antoinette’s recourse to a similar iconographic strategy somehow fails to register—with the likes of Coppola and Thurman—as anything but garden-variety teenage rebellion, notwithstanding the fact that the young queen, still childless, had good cause for wishing to appear untouchable and strong.

Ignorantly overlooking these reasons, Coppola and Thurman manage to trivialize a complex historical figure, and to suppress the degree to which, above all through her clothing, she matured into an active, even courageous player in the political arena. Queen of Fashion recounts at length, for instance, how an adult Marie Antoinette deliberately goaded her enemies once the Revolution, which she abhorred, was underway—among other things by refusing to wear the tricolor rosette that her subjects began sporting in honor of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Even though this emblem became popular with many other members of the French court, Marie Antoinette stubbornly shunned it, infuriating the populace so much that when they stormed Versailles in October 1789, a group of Parisian fishwives vowed they would make new cockades from the queen’s innards. The target of their ire was not, however, cowed by these threats. In the years leading up to 1789, she had abandoned the sumptuous fabrics and jewelry of a French royal in favor of the faux-shepherdess aesthetic she devised for her Petit Trianon retreat. But when the Revolution came, she reversed this course and wore her most intimidating, glittering gemstones and priceless silks whenever the new régime’s would-be leaders paid her a visit. Retaliating against these provocations, the political pamphlets of the revolutionary era virulently decried Marie Antoinette’s stylistic decisions as so many proofs of her “counter-revolutionary” agenda. In October 1793, the republican leaders who sent her to the guillotine even stripped her of the black widow’s weeds she had insisted on wearing since her husband’s death that January, because of the unrepentant monarchism that such clothing symbolized.

Despite her own much-touted standing as a designers’ muse, Coppola pays no attention to these elements of Marie Antoinette’s fashion history, admitting to the New York Times, “I’m not a fetishist about historical accuracy. I’m just, like, making it my thing.” This statement would appear to serve as a justification for Coppola’s widely criticized decision to end her film in 1789—before the most dramatic political (and sartorial) chapter of the queen’s life unfolded. But even this decision betrays, like Thurman’s muddled reasoning, a worrisome readiness to reduce a formidable, female political player to mere eye-candy. The fact remains that Marie Antoinette was not reviled and ultimately killed because she positioned herself as eye-candy. As feminist historians have been persuasively insisting for years now, the queen met with this fate because she was a foreign woman who repeatedly overstepped the boundaries circumscribing French royal—and feminine—behavior. And nowhere, I have tried to show, did she break the rules of queenly comportment more emphatically or more visibly than in her sustained “revolution in fashion.” Thus, while Coppola and Thurman may be just, like, making Marie Antoinette their thing, they are remaking her in someone else’s image--most certainly not in the one she herself cultivated as France’s wholly grown-up queen of style.