French fashion and politics in the time of Marie Antoinette

Fashion to Die For: “Fast fashion might seem like a modern invention, but in the turbulent world of 18th-century France, when Marie Antoinette was calling the shots, fashion moved at light speed.” Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, art historian specializing in fashion and textiles, gives a delightfully rich interview to Collectors Weekly. Through the prism of fashion, she touches on class fluidity and lack thereof, gender roles, textile trades, guilds, self-expression – all elements that rapidly metamorphosized at the end of the Ancien Régime and inexorably led to the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror.

“French queens had always dressed magnificently but within the confines of very rigid court etiquette, and they were also answerable to the royal treasury. So in general they followed fashion rather than leading – they didn’t want to rock the boat. But then Marie Antoinette comes along. Louis XVI didn’t actually have a mistress, so there was a void in the fashion hierarchy. Marie Antoinette was enamored with the vibrant Paris fashion world, as everyone was at the time. Paris had replaced Versailles as the center of society and style, so she wanted to take advantage of the wealth of talent there in Paris, rather than having one official dressmaker who only dressed her, which is what previous queens had done.”

“Most milliners [FR] were low-born women, like Rose Bertin, but Bertin was very unique in her success. Bertin was extremely talented, obviously, and one of her major clients was the Duchesse de Chartres, who was related by marriage to the King and was the richest woman in Paris in her own right. She introduced Bertin to Marie Antoinette, and once that happened, Bertin became unstoppable.”

“In hindsight, it’s pretty easy to see the French Revolution in fashion even a decade before it happened. Even at the time, certain astute observers were commentating on this in a ‘what is the world coming to’ kind of way. People were wearing black for everyday life, which was seen as a sinister omen. Throughout the 1780s, fashion workers like the embroiders’ guild or the weavers’ guild [FR] were constantly petitioning the King and Queen for help because they were losing so much business, as over-the-top luxury went out of fashion in favor of this self-conscious simplicity. The writing was on the wall.”

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