So, if you know me or if you are an avid reader you’re probably aware that I was a women’s studies and history double major in college. So naturally women’s history is a huge interest of mine. I also love fashion. Not in the “OMG I need the new D&G purse” kind of way, but in the way that I firstly love using clothes as a way to express my unique self and secondly that I appreciate high-end designers for making wearable art. I appreciate and admire the aesthetic beauty of a great Galliano gown. So you can imagine my complete excitement and rapture while reading a book on how one woman changed history through her fashion. Swoon!
Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber.
No matter how much you love or loathe history, I’m sure you know at least a bit about Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI of France, both of whom were executed by guillotine during the French Revolution. Perhaps all you know is her famous (yet untrue) “Let them eat cake!” statement towards the hungry Parisians while she partied her country’s wealth away. Regardless of what you know or don’t know about her life, you can at least imagine what it must have been like during the late eighteenth century for a Queen of France who rose and fell from people’s favor not because of her politics (she wasn’t allowed any say in state matters) but because of her fashion and consumption.
Caroline Weber does an outstanding job of explaining how Marie Antoinette uses fashion statements as her voice in a culture that did not allow female participation in politics. The queen’s role was to secure alliances with other countries due to her heritage (in this case Austrian), reproduce “an heir and a spare” (males, of course), be pious and pretty, and keep her mouth shut, especially when the king collected lovers on the side. Yet due to Louis XVI’s disinterest (or discomfort) in sex, Marie Antoinette was unable to provide any children for the first eight years of marriage. Seen as a failure in her one duty, she had to somehow present herself as more powerful than she really was while people were slagging her off due to her childlessness. So she dressed the part of power, creating elaborate pouf headdresses, inventing new fashions with colors and cuts of dress, bucking traditional Versaille fashion protocol, and altogether being a fashion diva. She used the tools with which she was provided in an avenue that was acceptable for women and although it ultimately contributed to her demise, you’ve got to appreciate her chutzpa.
Queen of Fashion was easily one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. Weber’s voice and presentation were compelling and entertaining and totally won me over; it was well researched for the academic snob in me, but still easy enough to digest while riding the subway. While reading I couldn’t help but think of other women who have seemed to follow in her footsteps–women who for whatever reason weren’t afforded a voice of their own who had to use other means to portray power. Fashion became that avenue with which to express themselves when words could not. Women like Princess Diana and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis–married to political (or royal) leaders, held no powerful position themselves, and yet created a name and voice for themselves through their fashion. Women’s fashion voice is louder than their actual voice. Hell, I see it happening with Michelle Obama. Although she is a well-educated and successful woman in her own right, she is married to the president elect and all people want to talk about is her Narciso Rodriguez dress from November 4th. The people don’t want to hear her voice, they just want to see her dress.
More arguments and more questions for another post for another day. But really, this book was an enjoyable read that gets the highly recommended stamp of approval from missy mayhem. C’est tout, maintenant mis sur quelque chose de fabuleux.