Fashion is often dismissed as trivial and inconsequential; a shallow industry that evokes images of emaciated models and air-head fashionistas. So, are a pair of fabulous shoes really insignificant? Not in Marie Antoinette’s case. Fashion’s long storied history of importance goes back further than the likes of Coco Chanel, back to 1870 where a young girl was thrust into France’s politically hostile environment. Earlier this year, with a winning bid of £36,000, a successful auctioneer walked away with a symbol of the lavish expenditures which changed the face of fashion and western history: a pair of Marie Antoinette’s slip-ons.
Otherwise known as Madam Deficit, the French queen had no actual power and used clothing to project a sense of identity, power and absolute autonomy. Lavish outfits adorned in the colours of her Hapsburg origin along with flour scattered hair during a famine are but two examples of how Marie Antoinette’s attire was politically charged. She was the modern day teenager with a limitless credit card. In an age where the queen’s dress was to reflect the greatness of the king, Marie Antoinette’s famous gaulle dress resembled a chemise and was deemed scandalous, but this risky choice of attire inspired the Jane Austin generation of simple white muslin. Not only that, but this lavish French Queen can be blamed for inspiring the outrageous headresses seen at Ascot and upon the head of SJP. By challenging the outmoded rigidity of Versailles, Marie sought to project individuality and autonomy. She had a style unto herself, but paid the ultimate price. For evidence that the queen and her lavish fancies caused loathing amungst the French population, the invasion of the monarch’s Tuilerie speaks volumes. After the royal family had been imprisoned in 1792, the mob made straight for Marie Antoinette’s wardrobes, they festooned themselves in her expensive garments before smashing the mirrors and destroying all that was left. The last queen of France and her controversial attire were a symbol of the wanton extravagance of the eighteenth century monarchy, and it was this which helped incite the nation into a revolution that would transform western history. Accredited for her enduring influence by no less than Wintour herself, Marie Antoinette gave rise to Paris as a style capital and remains a symbol of all that is powerful about fashion.
Marie Antoinette did not only have a contagious effect upon the vogues of early modern Europe. Louboutin designed yet another pair of lust-worthy shoes in her name and Karl Lagerfeld displayed a lavish Spring/Summer 2013 collection inspired by the ‘frivolity of the eighteenth century court’. The collection, showcased within the fairy-tale gardens of Versailles, had guests surrounding scenic water fountains as they gazed upon a modernised Marie Antoinette with a rock ‘n’ roll edge. Models wore leg baring shorts and metallic platforms combined with wide-hipped skirts and nods to eighteenth century bloomers. But the Antoinette effect didn’t stop there; the models even wore tiny Chanel logos under their eye to reflect her signiture beauty mark. A mix of candy coloured cropped wigs played with a sense of androgyny and came together to reflect the collections sense of rebellious eighteenth century glamour.
Throughout history, fashion has remained closely tied to political movements and traces the dynamic social changes of an era. To some it may be the simple act of getting dressed, but to others an expression of identity, power and even a secret weapon. To see the power of fashion, one only has to look to Kate Middleton, Thatcher, or even London Fashion Week, where sports-inspired clothing, straight from the tracks of the Olympics, stormed the catwalks. Clothing is a visual language which Louis XIV described as a mirror, and it would be this that would add fuel to the flames of a revolution which destroyed the French monarchy.