Caroline Weber: Queen of the Zeitgeist (Yes, Marie Antoinette)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Caroline Weber, an associate professor of French at Barnard College, is the author of “Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.”]

WHY,” the French journalist wanted to know, “do you Americans insist on taking what is France’s and making it yours?”

Like the Cannes audiences who blasted Kirsten Dunst as the vapid, pampered party queen in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” my interviewer seemed indignant that an American-born author of a book on the same historical figure would dare lay claim to this quintessentially French icon.

What these Gallic complaints overlook is that, throughout history, one thing has always remained true of Marie Antoinette: With her glittering rise and shattering fall, her ambiguous political allegiances and unmistakable personal style, the queen has proven multifaceted enough to accommodate most any interpretation, any ideology, any cultural bias. Reinvention and Marie Antoinette go together like cake and frosting.

In the final years of the reign of her husband, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette was a lightning rod for the simmering political discontents that, in 1789, erupted in the cataclysm of the French Revolution. Her clothes, in particular, were construed as symbols of a regime in dire need of a makeover.

After she brought masculine hairstyles and riding coats into vogue, critics reviled her as “emasculating” Louis XVI, whose woefully ineffectual handling of his kingdom’s problems only lent credence to the insult. The future revolutionary leader Honoré-Gabriel de Mirabeau sarcastically deemed Marie Antoinette “the only man left” in the king’s government, and after that government fell, she remained its most despised emblem.

When the revolutionary state went to war against Hapsburg Austria (the queen’s homeland), political pamphleteers identified the Hapsburg-imported muslin chemise dresses she wore as proof of her involvement in a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. By depicting her as the avatar of Bourbon inadequacy and of Austrian menace, her contemporaries projected onto Marie Antoinette the grievances and fears that fueled the Revolution as a whole.

Executed in 1793, Marie Antoinette did not vanish from the public consciousness. Au contraire: 19th-century France continued to reinvent her in its own, ever-changing image.

When, for instance, her surviving Bourbon brothers-in-law returned to power with the Restoration of 1815, the fallen queen was repackaged as a tragic royalist martyr....

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