Book Review: Queen of Fashion by Charlotte Weber
Queen of Fashion by Charlotte Weber
In the past decade or so it seems like there's been a wave of renewed interest in Marie Antoinette. From Sofia Coppola's film adaptation to John Galliano's runway show, the French queen appears to have become something more than just a historical figure. The fascination with her luxurious lifestyle and rebellious attitude seems to have transformed her into a mythic hero of sorts. However, these many interpretations of her are often quite one dimensional, and even those that dig a little deeper tend to differ sharply from one another. I have read accounts that describe her as an innocent, cherubic figure and others who ascribe to her all manners vile and selfish intentions. Perfectly demonstrated by the infamously false quote, “Let them eat cake,” we are all too willing to believe things about Marie Antoinette which may not be true, but which seem to fit in to her mythology.
I began reading Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber in the hopes of finding a source which reconciled the many disparate images people have of her. I wanted a factual examination of her history and life in order to better understand the reality of the woman rather than just the myth, whether it was positive or negative. In this, I have to say that I was quite pleased with Queen of Fashion. Weber includes an astounding eighty pages of notes, much of which are citations, and then a further sixteen pages of bibliography. While citations alone don't make a story true or objective, they certainly go a long way towards establishing her credibility and demonstrating the depth to which she investigated the subject. She references both modern scholars and period sources relatively often in the book, and throughout, it remains clear that the narrative is grounded in its sources. She also makes skilled and frequent use of images, which are indispensable in a book that discusses historical fashion. I came to the book knowing relatively little in the way of sartorial vocabulary. For instance, I had to look up the word 'sartorial' (adjective: of or relating to clothing). Now I'm throwing out words like coiffure and gaulle like a seasoned pro. All of this to say that the book is well-researched. This is obvious throughout. The objective authority with which it approached the subject matter was immediately appealing to me and made for quality reading.
Additionally, I found the premise of the book to be intriguing. Rather than portraying Marie Antionette as an entitled, capricous queen, or as an innocent, martyred girl, Weber acknowledges from the start that there is more to the story. She proposes that Marie Antoinette began using clothing early on in her life in the French court as a sort of social currency, an attempt to gain and control power when all other means had been taken from her. She then systematically examines how clothing and fashion play a role in the life of Antoinette individually, but also in how they contributed to the French Revolution as a whole. For me, admittedly a non-expert on the subject, this is a refreshingly new and broad examination of the subject. It paints her as an intelligent woman thrust willingly into a highly rigid society in which she possessed little to no power. Pushing against established restrictions, she followed in the footsteps of her forebearers and attempted to assert herself in court through the use of fashion. Though she seemingly never bore ill will to to the people of France, and indeed often sought to emulate the simple lifestyle of the lower class, throughout her life she remained out of touch with the real circumstances of the poor and remained deeply entrenched in her beliefs that monarchy was the only possible way to find prosperity in France. It's an image that I find compelling, and which Weber supports well with evidence.
Unfortunately though, the book does have a number of issues which distract from what is otherwise a well-studied and thoughtful narrative. Namely, the organization is troublesome. The book is ordered chronologically, beginning with Marie Antionette's journey to France and ending at the time of her death. However, the timeline of the book is often elusive. Rather than moving consistantly forward, I often found myself confused as to where I was in time. For instance, in a series of eight paragraphs, events from the years 1778, 1775, 1776, 1782, and 1781 were all discussed, in that order. While at first this is an easily manageable problem, as the book moves forward and historical events become more numerous and complex, the quick shifts through time become quite confusing. I often found that I wasn't sure when things were happening, which made it difficult to understand the significance of political actions or clothing choices as I wasn't sure how they related to other events. I often found that I had to stop and go back through several pages in order to reorient myself. Sometimes, an event wouldn't be mentioned until long after the point when it was supposed to have occurred, seemingly for the sake of making a connection to fashion. While I can see a certain thematic value in this, it made the book slow to get through. Though it was less than 300 pages, it felt like more than twice that length as it took me so long to progress through it.
Weber also develops a heavy-handedness as the book progresses. She skillfully explains social and historical implication of many details that might otherwise be overlooked early in the book, but these explanations come to feel wearisome after reading them fifteen or sixteen times. For instance, in the first chapter she describes the underlying significance of the term “rose and lily complexion,” roses being the flowers of the Hapsburgs and lilies that of the Bourbons. However, nearly every time that roses or lilies are mentioned thereafter, Weber once again describes their political implications, up to the very end of the book. There are a number of subjects which receive this repetitive treatment. This hand-holding is unnecessary and furthermore only adds to the slow pace. At times, after reading, I felt that I'd made very little progress forward and instead had just spent several pages reviewing.
As a whole, I enjoyed the book, but I enjoyed it less by the end than I had in the first few chapters. It isn't what I would call light reading, nor would I recommend it to the faint of heart. For me, it required patience and quite a bit of concentration. Though I can typically read in any environment and just tune out distractions, that wasn't really possible with “Queen of Fashion”. However, if you're interested in the topic, prepared for the commitment and undeterred by the organizational difficulties, then I heartily recommend it. I thoroughly enjoyed the central points of the book and feel that it really analyzes Marie Antionette's life in a unique way. Fashion is so often regarded as frivolous, but Weber demonstrates just how important it can be, and in fact was to Marie Antoinette. I admire the way in which Weber manages to portray her as a strong woman, who had both sharp intelligence and glaring ignorance. I found myself in equal parts empathizing with her as well as condemning many of her actions, and that tension was what kept me moving forward. A skillfully researched, and somewhat cumbersome, jaunt through history, Queen of Fashion is a unique and enjoyable take on a topic that has otherwise come to feel overdone and mythologized.
To sum it up:
-Slow, but though-provoking read.
-Nice counterpoint to most everything else I've read about Marie Antoinette.
-Highly educational regarding fashion in general, which I knew little about previously.
-Informative and interesting regarding French monarchy and caste system of Pre-Revolutionary days.
-If you have any experience with the French language, you'll have an advantage in reading this book. (I don't. I spent a lot of time looking up definitions and pronunciations. I learned a lot though!)
Provocative ideas raised:
-The place of fashion within cultural identity.
-Fashion as a legacy, a tool, and a weapon.
-The role of fashion in all socioeconomic levels of society- specifically, how it differs.
-The power and dangers of social unrest.
-The degree to which fashion impacts how a person is viewed by others.
You might like this if you're interested in: Marie Antoinette, historic royalty, the French Revolution, historic fashion, women's issues, French history, socioeconomic issues
If you liked this, you may also like:
The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle
Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh
Missed in History: Rose Bertin (podcast) by Stuff You Missed in History Class (Marie Antionette's dress maker)
Marie Antoinette (film) directed by Sofia Coppola
The Royal Diaries: Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, Austria-France, 1769 by Kathryn Lasky (for ages 8-12, not necessarily historically accurate, but good for younger audiences)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (French aristocratic intrigue, set in 1782, during Marie Antionette's reign)
The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas (set in France, 1625)
The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogan (examines similar aspects of court life in Heian period Japan, inlcuding fashion)