Marie Antoinette: pop culture princess


Thoughts and observations inspired by pictorial constructions of renowned portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz.

In 1793 Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, was driven through Paris in an open cart, wearing a simple white dress. At 12:15pm, two and a half weeks before her thirty-eighth birthday, she was executed at the Place de la Révolution (present-day Place de la Concorde).

The French people, although initially charmed by her personality and beauty, came to detest Marie Antoinette, accusing the Austrian princess of being promiscuous and profligate. And so the unfortunate Queen met her death at the bloodthirsty hands of Madame la Guillotine. Centuries later, Marie Antoinette continues to capture the fascination of popular culture. The excess that made her infamous in the eighteenth century has made her gloriously famous in modern times.

Louis XVI’s court was notoriously extravagant. The opulent decadence of Versailles was reflected in the fashion of the time and ‘Marie Antoinette’ has since become a style in its own right; a style that has been pop-culturalised by the melodramatic embellishment of 21st century idealism. ‘Oversized, flamboyantly coloured puff pieces and accessories festooned with spangles, crystals, and ostrich feathers galore; the frothy, candy-coloured frocks, towering feather-sprigged hairdos, and sparkling gemstones’ envelope the fantasy of avant-garde sensibility.

Author Caroline Weber has written a book entitled Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, which attempts to “dispel the erroneous, shopworn idea that the French queen’s extravagant clothing choices reflected her self-absorbed, ‘let them eat cake’ frivolity’.” But Weber’s realism is decidedly dull! We wish Qu’ils mangent de la brioche wasn’t merely a journalistic cliché. We prefer that Marie Antoinette did tell the starving peasants to ‘eat cake instead.’ We like the enigmatic uncertainty that envelops the character of the French Queen because it allows our imaginations to run free with liberal latitude. We don’t want a history lesson.

Sofia Coppola offered the world a highly stylized interpretation of the early years of the French Queen in her 2006 film Marie Antoinette. The film fictionalises fact by humanising history. The artistic liberties taken by Coppola romanticise Marie Antoinette and also heighten the intensity of her loneliness as well as the tragedy of her death. Marie Antoinette inspired a Vogue shoot starring Kirsten Dunst, who played the young Marie Antoinette in the film. Designed and choreographed by American portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, Dunst was photographed at the Palace of Versailles, where many of the scenes for the film were shot. This Vogue shoot was the first authorized by Château Versailles in 25 years.

The style of the shoot mirrors that of Coppola’s film and is premised on the theme of “teen Queen”. Marie Antoinette  was married to Louis-Auguste, Dauphin of France, at fourteen years of age (1770) and  she subsequently assumed the title of Queen of France and of Navarre when her husband, Louis XVI of France, ascended the throne upon the death of Louis XV of France in May 1774 (she was nineteen). The Vogue spread is a poignant pop culture tribute to the many faces of Marie Antoinette. She was a girl forced to give up her youth by a great burden of responsibility, she was lonely, vulnerable and naïve. She was also an innovator who “used clothing to combat her enemies and cultivate an aura of unshakable strength” (Caroline Weber). Leibovitz, like Coppola, assimilates suave modernism with antiquated elegance in a display of exaggerated exuberance. The artist and her muse empathetically expose the great façade of Queenship. As hair and makeup are peeled away under lights and camera, the masks are removed and the titles – Queen, mother, lover, daughter, sister, friend – obliterated to reveal Marie Antoinette the woman.

Amidst all the arrogance and splendour, the girl engulfed in the gorgeousness is often forgotten. Leibovitz reminds us.

Reference: Let Them Eat Lace: Marie Antoinette’s Fierce and Fearless Fashion