Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Book 2: Queen of Fashion

NUMBER: 2
TITLE: Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
AUTHOR: Caroline Weber
STARTED: January 5, 2007
FINISHED: January 22, 2007
PAGES: 412
GENRE: Non-Fiction

FIRST SENTENCE: Designed for his 2000 Christian Dior "Masquerade and Bondage" collection, John Galliano's "Marie Antoinette" dress tells an unexpected story.

SUMMARY: [From barnesandnoble.com] In this dazzling new vision of the ever-fascinating queen, a dynamic young historian reveals how Marie Antoinette's bold attempts to reshape royal fashion changed the future of France.

Marie Antoinette has always stood as an icon of supreme style, but surprisingly none of her biographers have paid sustained attention to her clothes. In Queen of Fashion, Caroline Weber shows how Marie Antoinette developed her reputation for fashionable excess, and explains through lively, illuminating new research the political controversies that her clothing provoked. Weber surveys Marie Antoinette's "Revolution in Dress," covering each phase of the queen's tumultuous life, beginning with the young girl, struggling to survive Versailles's rigid traditions of royal glamour (twelve-foot-wide hoopskirts, whalebone corsets that crushed her organs). As queen, Marie Antoinette used stunning, often extreme costumes to project an image of power and wage war against her enemies. Gradually, however, she began to lose her hold on the French when she started to adopt "unqueenly" outfits (the provocative chemise) that, surprisingly, would be adopted by the revolutionaries who executed her.

REASON FOR READING: It crossed my desk at work, and I remember being intrigued by an ad I saw.

THOUGHTS: I have to hand it to Caroline Weber, she found a very ingenious way of documenting the life and impact of Marie Antoinette. While I know that clothes are a form of expression and always have been, it never would have crossed my mind to write a book about one woman's wardrobe. Queen of Fashion is a unique and compelling look into how Marie Antoinette's love of fashion made her an icon and, at the same time, helped doom her in the eyes of her people. Weber's book may drag through description in spots but, on the whole, it is an intriguing read.

Since the key to Queen of Fashion is its description of Marie Antoinette's clothing, Weber dives into very intricate detail about the ribbons, jewels, bobbles, and whathaveyou that went into each item of her clothing. She describes the color, the cut, the style, and, most importantly, the reasons behind Marie Antoinette's fashion choices. Weber does a phenomenal job of pinpointing why a dress of hairstyle altered the French public's perception of the Queen. When most of the country was burdened by heavy taxes, the Queen spent a fortune clothes that were encrusted with diamonds. She powered her hair with flour, while the people went without bread. At the same time, Marie Antoinette was a fashion icon. Women depleted their dowries to copy her clothes and hairstyles - including the sky-high poufs that made her famous.

Weber goes even deeper than these obvious points, she also discusses how the Queen's shifting style earned her a damning reputation. When Marie Antoinette flounced around her country estate in a garment that closely resembled a shift, the public thought her to be a whore, sharing her favors with everyone (women included) except her husband. The choice of colors in her wardrobe made political statements. She chose specific hues to indicate her support of the royal line (both French and Austrian). At the time of her demise, she used color as propaganda. First, she wore the tricolore of France to indicate her support for the revolutionaries. When she plotting her escape out of the country, she ordered clothes made in hues of the royal houses in which she lived her life. Clothes were Marie Antoinette's way of making a statement, politically and socially.

The main strength of Weber's book is that she takes each period in the Queen's life (from before her betrothal to her death) and outlines how fashion played an essential role in how the public and court viewed her. Weber's writing is consistently strong. She creates vivid scenes in the reader's mind, recreating life in revolutionary France. Her prose is punctuated and, for the most part, flows from one costume change to the next. If one is not an 18th century fashion expert, however, the terminology can be confusing. Weber throws vocabulary in without fully developing the new words for a modern audience. Since the book is essentially a biography of fashion, a glossary (with pictures) would have been extremely helpful.

Marie Antoinette's clothes have always been remarked upon, but few have delved into the massive role they played. In using this framing for her biography, Weber has offered up a fascinating new view of an often studied woman.

MISCELLANEOUS: Whatever happened to simple elegance?

KEEP/SHARE/CRINGE(?): Back to the library.
RATING: 7/10 [Very Good]

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