Rose Bertin ... Marie Antoinette's "Fashion Minister"...?
Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin (2 July 1747, Abbeville, Picardie, France – 22 September 1813, Épinay-sur-Seine) was the French milliner and dressmaker to Queen Marie Antoinette. She was the first celebrated French fashion designer, and is widely credited with having brought fashion and haute couture to the forefront of popular
Bertin came from a family of small means, her mother was a sick nurse. Rose and her brother Jean-Laurent received a modest education but a superior sense of ambition. Rose moved to Paris and became apprenticed to a milliner, Mademoiselle Pagelle, eventually becoming her partner. Rose Bertin’s early success can be attributed to her good relations with the Princesse de Conti, the Duchesse de Chartres and the Princesse de Lamballe, who would one day arrange her fateful meeting with Marie Antoinette.
Rose Bertin opened her own clothing shop, Le Grand Mogol, on the Rue Saint-Honoré in 1770 and quickly found customers among influential noble ladies at Versailles, many of whom followed her from Mademoiselle Pagelle’s, including many ladies-in-waiting to the new Dauphine, Marie Antoinette.
When Marie Antoinette arrived in France from Austria, she embraced France's new styles and fashions as one of the ways in which to show her sincere appreciation of her new country. She was introduced to Bertin in 1772. Twice a week, soon after Louis XVI’s coronation, Bertin would present her newest creations to the young queen and spend hours discussing them. The Queen adored her wardrobe and was passionate about every detail, and Bertin, as her milliner, became her confidante and friend.
In the mid-18th century, French women had begun to "pouf" (raise) their hair with pads and pomade and wore oversized luxurious gowns. Bertin used and exaggerated the leading modes of the day, and created poufs for Marie Antoinette with heights up to three feet. The pouf fashion reached such extremes that it became a period trademark, along with decorating the hair with ornaments and objects which showcased current events. Working with Léonard, the Queen's royal hairdresser, Bertin created a coiffure that became the rage all over Europe: hair would be accessorized, stylized, cut into defining scenes, and modeled into shapes and objects—ranging from recent gossip to nativities to husbands' infidelities, to French naval vessels such as the Belle Poule, to the pouf aux insurgents in honor of the American Revolutionary War. The Queen's most famous coif was the "inoculation" pouf that she wore to publicize her success in persuading the King to be vaccinated against smallpox.
Marie Antoinette also asked Bertin to dress up dolls in the latest fashions as gifts for her sisters and her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. These dolls were called "Pandoras," and were made of wax, wood or porcelain. There were small ones the size of a common toy doll, or large ones as big or half as big as a real person. They were in vogue until the appearance of fashion magazines.
Called "Minister of Fashion" by her detractors, Bertin was the brains behind almost every new dress commissioned by the Queen. Dresses and hair became Marie Antoinette's personal vehicles of expression, and Bertin clothed the Queen from 1770 until her dethronement in 1792. Bertin became a powerful figure at court, and she witnessed—and sometimes effected—profound changes in French society. Her large, ostentatious gowns ensured that their wearer occupied at least three times as much space as her male counterpart, thus making the female figure an imposing, not passive, presence. Her creations also established France as the center of the fashion industry, and from then on, dresses made in Paris were sent to London, Venice, Vienna, Saint Petersburg and Constantinople. This inimitable Parisian elegance established the worldwide reputation of French couture.
Under the Queen's generous patronage, Bertin's name became synonymous with the sartorial elegance and excess of Versailles. Bertin's close relationship with the Queen provided valuable background into the social and political significance of fashion at the French court. The frequent meetings between the queen and her couturière were met, however, with hostility from the lower classes, given Bertin's high prices: her gowns and headdresses could easily cost twenty times what a skilled worker of the time earned in a year.
During Marie Antoinette’s imprisonment, Bertin continued to receive orders from her former prized customer, for much smaller, almost negligible, orders of ribbons and simple alterations. She was to provide the former queen’s mourning outfit following the execution of Louis XVI, recalling a dream that Marie Antoinette had had years before of her favorite milliner handing her ribbons that all turned to black.
During the French Revolution, when many of her noble customers were being executed or were fleeing abroad, Bertin moved her business to London. For a while, she was able to serve her old clients among the émigrés, and her fashion dolls continued to circulate among European capitals, as far away as Saint Petersburg. She eventually returned to France in 1795, where Joséphine de Beauharnais briefly became a customer, but Bertin found that the fashion excesses of the era had waned after the French Revolution ended.
As the 19th century dawned, Bertin transferred her business to her nephews and retired. She died in 1813 in Épinay-sur-Seine.
Marie-Antoinette’s fashion supplier
The career of the milliner and dressmaker Marie-Jeanne Bertin, called Rose Bertin, took off when she was introduced to Marie-Antoinette, the young queen of France, for whom she became her “Minister of Fashion”. Alongside the queen, the dressmaker was to have a considerable influence on the fashion scene of her period and lay the foundations of haute-couture.
Entrusted by Louis XVI with organising the pleasures of the Court, Marie-Antoinette took a passionate interest in all matters relating to fashion. To ensure the success of her appearances, the queen did not hesitate to receive the commoner Rose Bertin in a tête-à-tête to hear her fashion advice, in breach of the Court’s Etiquette.
Rose Bertin influenced the fashion of her time by constantly launching new trends such as the Formal Court Dress, high hair styles and the muslin country gowns worn by Marie-Antoinette at Trianon. She quickly became known as the “Minister of Fashion”.
An intimate friend of the queen, this position enabled her to become the leading fashion supplier of the kingdom and to amass a considerable fortune. Her customers included the royal family, the portrait painter Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, the Marquis de Lafayette and foreign queens. As the Revolution approached, while people were dying of starvation, numerous pamphlets denounced Rose Bertin as a “corrupt and corrupting maker of luxury goods”.
During the early days of the Revolution, milliners and dressmakers took their inspiration from the events to introduce new designs, such as the garters “à la Mirabeau” and hats “à la Desmoulins”. Rose Bertin was reticent, however, to design dresses “à l’égalite” or headscarves “à la Constitution” and produced only some cockades. But, after the arrest of the royal family, the dressmaker continued to deliver garments to Marie-Antoinette, although more modest in their design. The last outfit worn by the queen during her transfer to the Conciergerie prison were made by “Le Grand Mogol”, the Paris shop of Rose Bertin.
After the execution of Marie-Antoinette, Rose Bertin went into exile in London to escape from the Terror and did not return to France until February 1795. But the Revolution swept away her celebrity and completely changed fashion: her articles, symptomatic of the abuses of the monarchy, were rejected. Rose Bertin had long been forgotten when she died on 22 September 1813.
Lucy Moore reviews Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber in The Telegraph
When Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles in 1770, she knew that her one duty was to produce an heir to the French throne. During her first years there, her humiliating failure even to consummate her marriage placed her in a dangerously exposed position. Even after she became queen and had her first child, she was all too aware that the king did not depend on her politically.
For a woman who claimed descent from the Caesars of Rome and whose mother was empress of the Austrian empire, being sidelined in this way was unacceptable. Unlike many queens of France (one exception being Catherine de' Medici), Marie Antoinette was determined to shine. Very quickly she grasped an essential truth: that at court, the appearance of power was as important as power itself. As Caroline Weber writes in Queen of Fashion, "in this rarefied world, the surface was the substance".
In order (as she told her brother Joseph) to persuade "the public to believe that I have more credit [with the king] than I do in reality", Marie Antoinette began to dress increasingly extravagantly, often assuming the Sun King's motifs. Her unrestrained spending demonstrated to the world that she controlled Louis XVI, and through him the French throne – and created a direct link in his subjects' minds between his unpopular absolutism and her expensive image. It was, as Weber observes, a dangerous game to play.
The first attacks on the queen to appear in the popular press were the result of her appearance in 1775 with a dramatic new hairstyle, the pouf. The style was castigated as politically insensitive, given its profligate use of hair powder (made from flour) in the wake of a severe flour shortage earlier that spring. Later poufs, including her commemoration of a French naval victory in 1778 with a ship in full sail in her hair, were derided as gross and costly trivialisations of current events.
Perhaps more serious still was the sense that through her choice of clothing Marie Antoinette was destroying the traditional social order. The queen's trendy poufs were adopted by the prostitutes in the arcades of the Palais Royal as well as by duchesses; she slipped out of Versailles to dance anonymously at public masked balls; at Le Petit Trianon, she and her ladies dressed as milkmaids in simple muslin frocks. For Marie Antoinette, pretending not to be royal was, as Weber puts it, yet "another transgressive and exhilarating costume"; for the people of France, it was a kind of betrayal.
When the revolution came, precipitated in large part by the bankruptcy of the French crown, Marie Antoinette made efforts at economy. She reduced her household spending by nearly a million livres in 1787 and more than a million in 1788, and for the first time a bill survives for a dressmaker repairing and retrimming a dress instead of it being given away after one wearing.
At first, eager to show that she was willing to work with rather than against the revolution, she made a point of sporting patriotic tricolour ribbons and feathers. When she and Louis decided that flight was their best hope of restoring the monarchy to its former prestige, though, she began ordering a lavish new wardrobe in defiantly royalist colours: imperial violet, the green of Louis's brother Artois, Bourbon white, Habsburg black. So significant was this change in her shopping habits that one of her wardrobe women actually warned people before they left the Tuileries in June 1791 that the royal family were planning to escape.
Brought back to Paris from Varennes and placed under virtual house arrest, Marie Antoinette began to contemplate her fate. She told her favourite marchande de modes, Rose Bertin, that she had had an unnerving dream: "You were bringing me ribbons of all colours, my dear Rose, and I chose several. But as soon as I had taken them in my hands, they turned black, and I threw them back into your boxes in horror. I took up others: green, white and lilac, and no sooner did I hold them than they became covered with the colour of death. I was weaker in that dream than I am ordinarily; I began to weep, and you wept also."
When the royal family were imprisoned a year later, Marie Antoinette's wardrobe – which had once occupied three rooms at Versailles – was sacked and emptied by the mob. Significantly, it was her clothes that were the focus of their attack: the furniture, tapestries and paintings were left untouched. For too long, she had made her clothing into a political statement, and it had become an essential element of her downfall.
"The Queen is constantly in Paris, at the Opera, at the theatre," complained a courtier soon after Louis ascended the throne. "She runs into debt; she is adorned with plumes and furbelows, and makes fun of serious things." Queen of Fashion is a brilliant refutation of this commonly held view of Marie Antoinette. By looking in fascinating detail at what she wore – at the very fripperies that caused so many of her critics to underestimate her political aims and importance – Weber reassesses her historical role and creates a mesmerising portrait of the doomed queen.
What Marie Antoinette really wore. By Anne Hollander in Slate
As Queen of France, Marie Antoinette attracted enough public loathing to ensure the French monarchy's downfall. That loathing, as Caroline Weber points out in Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, was largely focused on the queen's clothes. After the royal family was imprisoned in 1792, a mob invaded the Tuileries—their palace in Paris—and made straight for the queen's wardrobe, to festoon themselves in her rich garments and then rip into shreds whatever they didn't take. Earlier, at Versailles, another mob had rushed to the queen's dressing room just to smash all the mirrors, leaving the priceless furniture and paintings untouched.
This book's theme is the way young Queen Marie Antoinette took up pointed, disturbing fashions to give herself a visible autonomy and personal force that tradition didn't provide. Weber sees this as a deliberate strategy, although it makes more sense as an instinctive maneuver. French queens had no political role, could never inherit the throne or exercise royal power, and this future queen had arrived at Versailles politically ignorant and inept. She found the court riven with faction, she had few reliable supporters of her own, and her distant imperial mother's advice soon proved useless. Marie Antoinette might well have felt that her personal style was all she could manipulate.
As the new wife of the crown prince, her one legitimate function was to produce offspring, but the young heir seemed unable to do his part at the beginning. She had her first child only after eight and a half fruitless years; and after four of them, the new queen began to focus her creative energy on clothes. She didn't invent fashions. She promoted radical new ones through her public persona, in the modern, celebrity-culture way—and that's why we like her today, instead of automatically despising her as the last century did. Sofia Coppola's film reflects our present sympathy for an eager-to-please teenager's fashion-addictive responses to unbearable demands, especially when cut off from family love—and we, of course, are safely cut off from the assumptions governing the upbringing of 18th-century royal children.
Marie Antoinette's mother, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, had destined her for this marriage from birth, grooming her appearance and behavior for all levels of French scrutiny. While commoners hailed her angelic blond looks as an augury of better times, the court delighted in her fine grasp of the French tongue, French manners, and Bourbon history. But the empress may have had an unsubtle sense of current French style. Paris had long since ruled European fashion, regularly sending elegant fashion dolls as models to foreign capitals, including the Vienna of Archduchess Marie Antoinette's childhood. The little girl was always dressed accordingly. Weber describes a painting of an imperial family group showing the nonmarriageable oldest daughter plainly dressed, while the 7-year-old future dauphine and her toy fashion doll have on the same formal French dress with a train.
The empress may not have realized that in teeming Paris, avant-garde fashion then went along with refined sexual license, class intermingling, and free political talk, whereas fashion at Versailles remained chiefly an important aspect of court etiquette. Marie Antoinette's first experience of the difference occurred halfway through her journey from home, at the ceremony called remise, or handover.
In a small pavilion situated between French and Austrian soil, a troupe of French ladies stripped the girl naked, while French and Austrian diplomats watched. Then they replaced every atom of the Paris-inspired finery she had worn out of Austria with similar garments and adornments made in France, symbolically transforming her from an Austrian imperial archduchess into a French royal princess with completely new allegiances.
The dauphine found that her court duties demanded unfashionably heavy dresses supported by old-style, extra-long, extra-rigid corsets, accompanied by thick rouge and stiff curls. These items were ritually applied every day by a phalanx of noblewomen, while lesser court ladies watched; and, at night, the whole process was reversed. She rebelled, soon and permanently, risking her mother's anger, the court's disfavor, eventually the people's scorn, and her own neck.
Once queen, she steadily ordered the newest looks from Rose Bertin, the leading Paris couturiere—among them the provocative "robe a la polonaise," with its bosom-enhancing bodice and its billowy, ankle-baring skirts, the whole crowned by a "pouf," a 3-foot mountain of powdered hair decked with plumes, veils, and other objects arranged as saucy references to current events. All this and more she wore at court and in town, with swiftly contagious effect; and Bertin became known as the Minister of Fashion.
Marie Antoinette was not a beauty (she had the Habsburg jaw); but she was an enchantress, effortlessly wearing the wildest fashions with the utter conviction of a star. The fashion she followed was moreover the new commercial mode of the larger society, not the old hermetic style of courtiers using their rich garb to reflect the Sun King's glory. It was soon obvious that her expensive modern glamour was enhancing only herself, not the monarchy.
It hadn't occurred to Maria Theresa that by training her pliable daughter from age 3 to sit, stand, walk, and bow gracefully—and dance divinely—wearing tight stays, long trains, and wide skirts with all eyes upon her, she was giving her the tools of self-creation and self-possession wholly in terms of striking costume and polished movement, as if preparing her for professional ballet or competitive ice-skating.
Weber convincingly suggests that Marie Antoinette felt those tools being stripped from her at the remise and the dressing and undressing ceremonies at court; and that she exerted herself to get them back. She began clothing and wielding her body to attract the forms of respect she understood: wonder and delight, shock and awe, the sincere flattery of imitation. Her skimpy moral education had left her unprepared for contempt and disgust.
As we all know, she met with both. The dauphine's sartorial boldness emerged early, and drew swift disapproval. She went riding astride with her husband's grandfather, the libertine Louis XV, wearing a man-tailored habit with breeches; and she even wore the shocking outfit for an equestrian portrait, modeled on one of Louis XIV. After that, the flavor of forbidden sexual adventure, and of poaching on royal male preserves, tainted her reputation and never disappeared.
Later she flouted court etiquette when she drove off her noble dressers, sacrilegiously inviting plebeian Bertin (even plebeian Leonard, the chic male hairdresser) daily into her private apartments to clothe, coif, and advise her behind closed doors. This was even more unseemly because the one court lady for whom ultra-chic fashion was appropriate was the king's mistress—a post then vacant—whereas the queen was expected to look like the king's dutiful First Subject, not his costly Favorite Object.
Still later, she offended French patriots when she adopted Anglophile fashions and spent her time with congenial foreign nobility. At the Petit Trianon—a small palace with its own grounds that served as Marie Antoinette's personal retreat—she introduced thin muslin chemises with sashes, linen caps, or straw hats above lightly powdered fluffy hair, no jewelry. This casual look, worn by countless European ladies, seemed shameless on the French queen, who (naturally) had her portrait painted in it. Her little palace was closed to the public, and her total privacy there (conspiratorial? sexual?) made a scandal of the queen's flimsy foreign clothes and foreign friends.
Most shocking in Queen Marie Antoinette was her extravagance, well-documented in the yearly records of her clothing expenses, in dressmakers' accounts, and in memoirs saying that the queen wore nothing twice. Worse was the expensive toy farm she built at the Petit Trianon, complete with livestock and crops, where her friends played at being milkmaids and shepherdesses. It's still considered her chief crime, but the queen had no sense of its effect. The French treasury was depleted, the deficit increasing, the people protesting against unbearable taxes and shortages, but Marie Antoinette, never taught to consider the people's troubles, had no clue.
While fashion plates wore her face, pamphlets and pornography made her a monster—dissolute Messalina, lesbian predator, traitorous conspirator, snake-haired Medusa, harpy with claws, vampire in foreign muslin spending state millions to mock local rustics, wasting pounds of flour on her hair while the people starved for bread. Once angelic, Marie Antoinette was now plotting with hostile powers, including Lucifer, to undermine the well-being of France.
And when the Revolution exploded and prevailed, she instinctively abandoned new trends. Nervous burghers and nobles, even the king, sported Republican tricolor cockades with modishly simple tricolor outfits. But the queen's cockade was Bourbon white, her rich new dresses were purple and gold, and she got out her diamonds. Everyone could see that Marie Antoinette had no politics, only blind faith in royal privilege. Her fate, more firmly than the accommodating king's, was sealed when the Bastille fell.
Weber occasionally makes too much of Marie Antoinette's power. She repeatedly notes that the modest "Republican" dresses worn by most women in the early 1790s resembled those Marie Antoinette had introduced as avant-garde among aristocrats in the early 1780s, as though the queen personally influenced even the fashion of her enemies. She forgets that fashion runs under its own power, compelled toward desirable new forms. In fact, thin white chemises came into fashion everywhere in Europe around 1780 and stayed for nearly 40 years, no matter who was attaching what significance to them. This probably had more to do with the invention of chlorine bleach in 1774 than with anyone's fashion influence.
But Weber is certainly right to emphasize the queen's undeniable gifts when describing her solitary imprisonment after the king's execution. Visible to curious onlookers, Marie Antoinette wore her one increasingly stained and frayed black mourning ensemble day and night for two long months, even though her daughter had sent her some other clothes. At her trial, its tattered blackness aroused considerable sympathy, and she was forbidden to wear it to her execution—no public mourning for the tyrant.
So, chalk-pale Marie Antoinette rode to her death wearing a brand-new white chemise she had secretly saved, a pretty white fichu around her shoulders, and a pleated white cap on her prematurely white hair (she was two weeks short of 38), while thousands of dazzled citizens watched in stunned silence. The queen showed her unquenchable talent for inspired public display in all her last costumes, a sign of her true self-possession.
Weber is a serious historian, and nearly every sentence of her account is footnoted to one of her many sources, some not tapped before, some conflicting, as she explains. Her writing about the period is succinct and detailed, but what's most welcome is her use of her own feeling for clothes and their importance. This popular subject has been trivially belabored by numerous cultural-studies academics with no personal stake in dress history or in actual garments. It's refreshing to find solid interpretive work and historical responsibility in an impassioned book on clothing's power over perception and self-perception.
Sofia Coppola's film makes deft cinematic use of this material, though it leaves out Rose Bertin. Coppola instead conveys Marie Antoinette's fashion appetite as an unappeasable lust for fabulous shoes and fabulous sweets, both shown perpetually being reached for and consumed with great speed to a musical beat, along with endless champagne being poured and swilled. This strikes a sharply modern chord, and Caroline Weber herself, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, has approved its warning note.
Guillotine chic Veronica Horwell has a rummage around Marie Antoinette's wardrobe courtesy of Caroline Weber's Queen of Fashion
The Guardian, Saturday 10 February 2007
Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
by Caroline Weber
The only arresting portrait is reproduced in monochrome among the text, and it's hard to guess the subject's identity. A cap of fine linen supports a black veil. The dress is dark, its neck filled in with a fichu. The date is 1793, so the emphasis on a heightened waist is le denier cri, as is the cap shape. All so plain, though. Whose were these frail features? A friend of Charlotte Corday's mother?
She was the Widow Capet, formerly Marie Antoinette. After her husband, Louis XVI, had been executed, her jailers granted her plea for the proper gear of bereavement and permitted its purchase from the boutique of her "minister of fashion" Rose Bertin, which would explain the cap's crisp pleats. Although the artist painted the portrait from memory after a snatched visit to prison, it's a most composed image, and the composure is the queen's. Considering her dire circumstances, she has retained command over self-presentation.
That's Caroline Weber's theme: Marie Antoinette's control over her image through the simulation of autonomy that is fashion. She regards the queen's life as "a story ... that can be read as a series of costumed events". Her book had the same genesis in Antonia Fraser's biography as did Sofia Coppola's giggle of a movie, and Weber covers the same scenes, beginning with the ceremonial stripping of the affianced teen princess on the border between empires. (Though Weber usually describes stills, single images she can decode: nobody talks.) Once the Austrian import had been reclad à la française and wed to, but not bedded by, the heir to the throne, she had to construct an alternative public identity to maintain her celebrity at Versailles until her husband impregnated her with a brood.
The Dauphine's first act of defiance, a 15-year-old's strop, was her refusal to wear the grand corps, the rigid corset permitted only to the court elite. Her second was to learn to ride, and don not only male-style upper-body garments (nothing novel about that, female royals and courtiers had galloped about in similar equine fig since the 1660s), but to wear, and be painted in, breeches, while astride the saddle. Hunting Frenchwomen hid "culottes" under skirts; only the awesome Catherine the Great of Russia and comic actresses flaunted their lower limbs in breeches.
The marriage was at last consummated when Marie Antoinette was 18, and the couple crowned when she was 19; but she still was not a mother and was blocked from political influence, so, according to Weber's reading, she resorted to the Queen of Hearts approach. Rather than get on with the job of wife, she dressed, spent and partied like a king's maîtresse en titre. But she lacked the original identity for it, the rococo cool of Pompadour or the earthiness of Du Barry. She looks more like the lifesized doll of herself, with a trunk of the latest Paris modes, that toured Europe's capitals. In all portraits except that prison image of grief, she has the vestigial features of a fashion plate. Her clothes matter so much more than the woman in them.
They were mostly designed by Bertin and were almost couture in a modern sense. Although Weber is gushingly starstruck by Marie Antoinette, from the princess diaries debut to the death (which Weber overwrites as a sartorial martyrdom), the most charismatic character in her book turns out to be Bertin. As a single, plump, vulgar milliner aged 24, she opened a Rue St Honoré emporium, the Grand Mogol, evading restrictive laws by stocking fabrics, luxury accessories and lace and passementerie trimmings. What she really sold was her genius in putting these together: Bertin combined the shock chic of Schiaparelli with Chanel's appropriation of lower-class cuts and cloths. She didn't merely execute court orders, she proposed modes: to avoid the stately robing rituals of Versailles, Marie Antoinette closeted herself daily for hours with Bertin and her hairdresser, Léonard.
Between them, they repositioned the queen as a flashier brand, in light short skirts and high, heavy hair: the pouf do - a plinth for plumes, puffed caps and preposterous set-pieces. The extreme exaggeration of that mode was then collapsed into the simplicity of the gaulle, Bertin's adaptation of Caribbean and Louisiana colonial dress - a voluminous chemise and not a lot else - in harmony with Rousseau-esque sentiment. Just the garb for A-list rusticity at the Petit Trianon, where mirror shutters were cranked over windows so that its façade was as arrogantly blank as Victoria Beckham in outsize RayBans. Whatever happened personally or politically, Bertin could be relied upon: for coronation robes; diamonds under pale fur with a wheat-starch powdered coiffure during a famine winter; a revival of elitist whalebone once the queen's bust expanded to 44 inches after she delivered a dauphin and two more babes.
True, after the Bastille fell, the queen ordered tricolour cockades from Bertin's rival, Madame Eloffe, in the rose and sky-blue colourway favoured by aristos. But when Marie Antoinette planned a family escape in 1791, she returned to Bertin. The two dallied for months devising a magnificent trousseau for an exile the Bourbons failed to reach. ("A queen of France will be able to get the dresses she requires where ever she may find herself," her wisest attendant advised; but the queen wanted her Bertins.) The queen's death-day white outfit, improvised from quality underwear and a housecoat a supporter had sent her in prison, was probably by Bertin. The last cap is dignified even in Jacques-Louis David's brutal sketch of its wearer en route to the guillotine. (Bertin, by the way, fled France; after her return she assembled a few ensembles for Napoleon's Josephine.)
Weber isn't interested in the frocks as frocks: she's an academic, pernickety over the semiotics of their perceived meaning, but her wardrobe vocabulary is as lax as glossy-mag captions - "fashion statements", "opulent", "furbelows" and even lazier imprecisions. She has no space for the clothing currents that affected Bertin and the queen, whose chemise-dresses and coat-dresses came out of a Europe-wide, all-classes drift to plainer garb; and she provides no textile context - it's page 206 before cotton gets a mention, although its semi-industrial production in France was a revolution that prefigured political shifts. She doesn't care - doesn't know? - how the things were made, describing both silk stockings and lace as being "woven". Weber's adoration of Marie Antoinette made me dislike more the greedy silly, who charged the millions in credit that she spent like a demented mall-rat to a nation in debt and decline, and didn't deliver minimum service to the state in exchange. Shop until the blade drops, cherie, and I'll knit as I watch it fall
Rose Bertin - Couturière de Marie-Antoinette by Michelle Sapori How did a young person, an unknown and without relation, become the ear, the eye and the advisor of the queen of France Marie-Antoinette and, in her trail, of all the feminine aristocracy of her time? The talent and the intelligence allied to an extraordinary creativity explain this spectacular social ascent that Michelle Sapori tells us with talent.
So surprising is in the country of the elegance and the fashion, no real biography had been dedicated to "Miss Bertin", as well as called her contemporaries. By undermining the bases of the Ancien Régime clothing, by substituting for pinafores a light, fluid and comfortable fashion which will triumph completely under the Empire, by developing accessories? Hats and gloves? Rose Bertin invented a new wardrobe.
With thirty salaried workers, of multiple suppliers and subcontractors, her store "Grand Mogol" situated near the Palais-Royal, in the heart of Paris, received a prestigious and demanding clientele, with which Rose Bertin maintained ambiguous connections, oscillating between submission and arrogance.
Appointed to the head of the quite new feminine corporation of the traders of fashions, the "enjoliveuse", qualified also as " female Minister " or as Marie - Antoinette's " evil genius ", has to emigrate in the Revolution. This outstanding woman, with a sturdy character, comes back from Thermidor to try to save what can still be her. In her death in 1813, Rose Bertin already entered the legend, in the lively and contrasted colors.
Michelle Sapori is a historian, author of a thesis and numerous articles on Rose Bertin
18th century court costume and Marie-Antoinette by historical novelist Catherine Delors, author of For the King
I saw the Court Pomp and Royal Ceremony exhibition at Versailles on its closing day last June and would have hated to miss it. My expectations were very high, and yet I could not help being somewhat disappointed, not by the quality of the objects on display, which were magnificent, but by their scarcity. I should have known better, of course: how many 18th century court costumes could have survived till the 21st century?
Interestingly, the few that did have been preserved in the royal collections of northern Europe, for instance the coronation gown (below) of Queen Sofia Magdelena of Sweden. It was made in Paris of silver cloth, and consists, like all French court gowns, in three separate pieces: bodice, skirt and train. Indeed in the course of the 18th century all European courts had adopted the Versailles court costume. Note the width of the panniers: 3 meters (12 feet!) The depth is no more than 2 feet, which gives the gown the shape of a very elongated oval.
The shape of the 18th century court costume, for men and women, originated at Versailles during the last decades of the reign of Louis XIV, and remained unchanged until the Revolution. It does not mean that court attire was immune to the dictates of fashion: fabrics, colors, ribbons and other decorative elements varied over time. But the cut of the garments was immutable.
Court costume was highly codified. Wearing a court gown was a privilege reserved for the Queen, the princesses of the royal blood and “presented” ladies. I have written a prior post on the preparations of dressing for Court. Wearing a court gown was mandatory for all ladies entitled to it, even for the Queen herself, on every formal occasion. The only acceptable excuse was an advanced pregnancy, obviously incompatible with the close-fitting shape of the bodice and the underlying grand corps (a special corset) that covered the entire abdomen.
Marie-Antoinette once apologized to the Venetian ambassador, who had come to Versailles to present his letters of accreditation, for not wearing a court gown on account of her pregnancy. If she had not done so, her wearing “regular” clothes on such an occasion would have been construed as a grave slight, and created a diplomatic incident. Court dress was no simple fashion matter.
One of the most beautiful pieces on display at Versailles was this shimmering wedding dress of Edwige Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess of Holstein-Gottorp, who married into the Swedish royal family.
The fineness of the silver lace on silver cloth creates a garment of ethereal beauty in spite of its bulk. Note the extreme thinness of the waist. The sleeves, which would have been made of rows of matching lace, are unfortunately missing. I can only guess they were reused by another Swedish princess.
This makes the comparison between these 18th century court gowns, in their pristine, unadulterated condition, with the famous “Marie-Antoinette” dress from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (below) all the more striking. Here the skirt was altered to fit a round 19th century crinoline, and the plain ivory silk of the bodice does not match the exquisite embroidery work of the skirt and train. It should be noted that the Toronto gown was simply presented as “attributed to Rose Bertin” without any mention of prior ownership by Marie-Antoinette. I can only assume that such claim was not established to the satisfaction of the show’s curators.
After visiting the show, I purchased the (very highly recommended) Connaissance des Arts special issue dedicated to it, and read therein an interview of Pascale Gorguet Ballesteros, Chief Curator of the Musee Galliera, and co-curator of the exhibition.
When asked whether Marie-Antoinette’s taste in fashions was copied at Court and beyond, Ms. Gorguet Ballesteros explained that the Queen was the the “number one fashion model” in France and greatly contributed to the success of the fashions she liked. But Marie-Antoinette did not “invent” any distinct style of dress. She launched nothing, she simply adopted some of the fashions available at the time.
Especially as a young woman, the Queen loved clothes, and other ladies tended to follow her taste. It was the Duchesse d’Orléans, then Duchesse de Chartres, who introduced her to the famous dressmaker Rose Bertin in 1774, as, incidentally, she also introduced her to Madame Vigée-Lebrun. “Marie-Antoinette,” says Ms. Gorguet Ballesteros, “sits at the border of two worlds, the sclerotic world of the Court and the world of fashion, where one is led to believe that one is going to express one’s individuality. But she has the misfortune of being of being the Queen.” When she sat for Madame Vigée-Lebrun “en gaulle,” in a simple white muslin dress, she created a scandal.
Marie-Antoinette was never forgiven for abandoning the traditional court costume in what may now be the most famous of her portraits.