Thursday, 22 April 2010


Would Rose Bertin be credited as the first fashion designer in the history without the personality of Marie Antoinette?

Catherine de Medicis used fashion to correct her deficiencies (she was very short). Her cobbler came up with the idea of the first pair of high heel shoes, which she wore at her wedding. Jacqueline Kennedy used fashion to promote White House ideals as well as her political image. She therefore did not choose a well-known fashion designer to coordinate her wardrobe, but instead Oleg Cassini, a famous Hollywood costume designer. Also Princess Diana, wearing beautiful outfits by Catherine Walker and Bruce Oldfield, successfully spun the notion that she was doing it for British fashion.

Unlike all these famous women, Marie Antoinette used fashion as a personal statement, to make her voice heard and to gain some autonomy at a largely unfriendly foreign court .The dresses, and even more the hair, became Marie Antoinette's personal vehicles of expression. She surrounded herself with extravagant and fashionable things, forming alliances with architects, landscape designers, and most notably the couturier Rose Bertin and the hairdresser Léonard.

No doubt, Rose Bertin, called Minister of Fashion by her detractors, was the mind behind almost every new dress commissioned by Marie Antoinette, clothing the Queen for more than 20 years, but what she did the most was actually reflect moments in Marie Antoinette’s life. As Bertin also states in her memoirs, it was the result of their collaboration, their common work. She was more that Marie Antoinette's milliner, she was her confidante.

Therefore, in the history of fashion, the destiny of Marie Antoinette is somehow entwined with the French milliner and first celebrated French fashion designer, Rose Bertin. Without the personality of Marie Antoinette and the social conditions of the period, Rose Bertin would perhaps not be credited today as the first fashion designer to have brought fashion and haute couture to the forefront of popular culture.

This paper discusses  Marie Antoinette’s approach to fashion, her personality  and the social bases  which enabled  “ Marie Jeanne”  to become “Rose Bertin” the successful business women, owner of  “le Grand  Mogol”  and the first fashion designer in history.[1]

Marie Antoinette came to the French court, where appearances were indeed everything, at the age of 15. The Queen’s body was the site upon which the continued success of the monarchy depended, even from her early days as Dauphine , and was also a primary means of calling into question the Austrian-born Queen’s true allegiance to France . Even her morning toilet was public, symbolizing an integral part of the successful functioning of the monarchy. A tradition coming from her great-great grandfather-in-law, Louis XIV, who created Paris and Versailles as style centres to outshine London and Venice . The well known scenes of the Sun King's ritualistic toilette are considered the precursor to today's fashion advertising. [2]

 By the time of Marie Antoinette, the guild of female seamstresses was already officially recognized, the new word, "couturière," was created and Jacques Necker, one of the finance ministers of the time, could say with sincerity, "for the French, taste is the most fruitful of businesses”. For Marie Antoinette all that meant to do her best to “appear” more French then the French but also find her place in this foreign court. Especially after her husband ascended to the throne, this need become even more important since Louis XVI didn’t intend to involve her in affairs of state. As Marie Antoinette wrote in a letter to her brother, Joseph II: ”he does not often talk to me about great decisions. I can tell you that political affairs are those over which I have the least control”.[3]

Although her first two attempts ( horseback riding  like a man, dressed in man’s breeches, and the whalebone corset embargo which ended up by readopting it couple of months later) weren’t really a great success) her need to find her own expression was such that she soon found better ways to vehicle fashion.

Women in France had already begun to raise their hair with pads and pomade and wore big luxurious gowns, and so Marie Antoinette embraced France 's new styles as one way to show her sincere dedication to her new country.  She discovered high hair in 1774 when Rose Bertin, its promoter, was presented to her by the Duchesse of Chartres. Bertin already had her own clothing shop, established in 1770 “Le Grand Mogol”, and had influential noble ladies as customers.[4]*

The notion of hair that ascended several feet high not only enchanted Marie Antoinette but, because it was designed explicitly to convey topical messages, also allowed her to play at politics and look fashionable at the same time.

The headdress, “built on scaffolding from wire, cloth, gauze, horsehair, fake hair, and the wearer’s own tresses, teased high off the forehead” would often include a theme, commemorating an event near to the wearer’s heart, such as the birth of a child, or a favourite new opera playing in Paris, or dear to the country., also relating recent gossip and infidelities of husbands. Marie Antoinette exploited this idea cleverly on many occasions.

One of the earliest collaborations with Rose Bertin, was  the “ coiffure à l’ Iphigénie”, which paid tribute to  Gluck’s opera  Iphigénie and Aulide, that she supported  against Madame Du Barry’s backing of the Italian composer Nicola Piccini, resulting in Gluck’s stellar début in Paris.  When the French came to the aid of the American revolutionaries, Marie Antoinette wore a pouf containing the model of a frigate which won a battle against the English in 1778, called after the French naval vessel “Belle Poule”. Her most famous coif was the "inoculation" pouf that she wore to publicize her success in persuading the King to be vaccinated against smallpox. (From which Louis XV had actually died).

So began the collaboration between Rose Bertin and Marie Antionette. Twice a week, soon after Marie Antoinette's coronation, Bertin would present her newest creations for the young queen and spend hours discussing her creations. The Queen adored her wardrobe and was passionate about every detail, and Bertin, as her milliner, became her confidante and friend. Endless parties (and she had carte blanche for organizing them), made effective use of such costumes and established her as a leader in the realm of fashion, to set the tone at Versailles . Her parties imbued her with an aura of influence that she otherwise sorely lacked as she confided in her letters to her brother “without ostentation or lies, I allow the public to believe that I have more credit with the King than I do in reality”.[5]

After the success of pouf, the new collaboration with Rose Bertin was something completely different. While she was driving her subjects to excess, imitating her extravagant, implausible headdresses, Marie Antoinette simultaneously cultured a simple, country life for herself and her circle of intimates in the Petit Trianon, a little palace in the grounds. She personalized the pastoral current fed by the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau with her own unmistakable flair.

This move managed to reinforce her autonomy from the court, as the rules of the Petit Trianon were her own and mostly related to getting away from court traditions. She was surrounded by her friends and instead of her dame d’atours, she kept Rose Bertin on hand to help her dress.

The life at the Petit Trianon started to form another of her revolutions in fashion .This new look, instead of pouf was the milkmaids bonnet (bonnet à la laitière, also a known model: bonnet à la Rousseau ): a large soft crowned cap made from plain white cloth. Bertin responded to this trend by confectioning other new styles, such as the the informal lévite or chemise and Polonaise.

Polonaise, in keeping with the principles of Rousseau, was a critique of artificial, aristocratic dress and a bold iconoclasm of Marie Antoinette while introducing a radical silhouette. It eliminated the restrictive panier, replacing it with a little bustle made from layers of glued cotton. The cut of the overdress was loose, like a waisted coat, and its overskirt was looped up around the hips into three jaunty swags (named after the three way partitioning of Poland by Austria , Russia and Prussia ). Instead of grandly sweeping the floor, it exposed the wearer’s feet and ankles.

The lévite, a loose fitting gown made mostly of white muslin or cotton, inspired by the costumes of classical French theatre, eliminated not only the panier but also the corset, as it was worn over a simple cotton bodice accentuating the waist with a simple, loosely knotted scarf worn as a belt. The pared down look and feel of the Queen’s Trianon of neoclassical purity and pastoral simplicity, everywhere trumped the overdone elegance of Versailles . By 1782 the boulevards of Paris were flooded with plain white dresses.

As illustrated by the fact that  Marie Antoinette even called her daughter “ mousseline” during the Petit Trianon period, fashion for her was indeed was all personal. Early in 1785, she announced[6] to Rose Bertin, that as she would be turning thirty that November, she intended to reform her accessories which were better suited to a younger women and stop wearing feathers and flowers. Thus the new hairdresses of Rose Bertin made from gauze satin and velvet and trimmed with fur or regal jewelled aigrettes came into the picture. She also took back the whalebone robe a la française and adopted a less higher hairdo.

These changes had been motivated more by vanity, she was worried about losing her complexion, she was growing insecure about her hair, much of which had fallen out during her pregnancy with the Dauphin (higher coiffures requiring extensive frizzling were even more damaging) and her proportions had ballooned in recent years.[7]

 The queen continued to develop a few new experimental styles for her own enjoyment. Chapeau à la Marlborough was named after an old time ditty “Marlbourough goes off to War” that the nurse of her children hummed to lull them to sleep.[8] The mode spread like an epidemic throughout all France[9], a similar story to the one of the “colour of flea”; which sparked a frenetic new appetite for “puce” garments among the fashion forward. Every lady at the court wore a puce coloured gown: old puce, young puce, ventre de puce, dos de puce and so on.[10], which indeed was just a comment of Louis XIV about a weird odd pinkish/tan  coloured taffeta made by Rose Bertin, showing how personally life shapes fashion.

 After all fashion to Marie Antoinette was something so personal that it even became “unimportant “ when replaced with what she was really seeking. The king had become increasingly overwhelmed by tensions and conflicts among his remaining ministers and had turned to his wife as the only person he could genuinely trust. By 1877 she had a new vocation that was consuming much more of her time than fashion. She was now for the first time, actively helping to shape the politics of her husband’s government.

Marie Antoinette also created the conditions necessary to make fashion really work: she made it public. Instead of shunning the limelight and staying hidden away at Versailles like the queens before her, she actively sought publicity for her voguish coiffures. More even than her weekly costume parties, she began travelling to Paris two or three times a week[11] as the right place to show them off. These venues provided her with the wide audience that she craved and that her new hairdos deserved.

In a break with a long standing royal tradition, which required those in a sovereign’s service to cut ties to all other patrons, she allowed Rose Bertin to retain both her shop and her other clients in order not to fall behind the times. Moreover, Rose Bertin could sell copies of the pieces that she had done for Marie Antoinette, 15 days after she had unveiled the article in question. Rose Bertin produced fashion dolls endowed with the Queen’s face, figure and hair, as a mannequin for her latest clothing and coiffure designs[12]. As long as Marie Antoinette’s reputation as France ’s most à la mode woman alive was not damaged, she was perfectly untroubled by the existence of copies.

She even urged Rose Bertin and Leonard to publish the philosophy of their art in a paper “Le Journal des Dames” as a means of educating the reader on women’s news costume choices. Needless to say, such formulations created the monumental, international influence that Bertin and the Queen achieved in their stylish collaborations.

The stories of Marie Antoinette and Rose Bertin are entwined. If Marie Antoinette hadn’t had her affinity for styles and colours, and the constant urge to establish her position in a foreign world, Rose Bertin would never have become so important. If Marie Antoinette hadn’t stayed loyal to Rose Bertin for over 20 years and hadn’t had the sense that fashion needs an audience, Rose Bertin would never have been so popular. And if Marie Antoinette hadn’t chosen fashion as her main medium of communication, her personal life would have never found shape and colour in the hands of Rose Bertin.


Caroline Weber “Queen of Fashion”, New York , Ed. Picador 2006

Joan deJean , “The Essence of Style”, New York , Ed. Free Press 2005

Catherine Guennec , “ La Modiste de la Reine ”, France,  Editions Jean- Claude Lattès 2004

New York Times, Article published April 9, 1995 by Bill Cunnigham

Antonia Fraser ,“Marie Antoinette: The Journey”,

Rose Bertin, Brittanica and Wikipedia

“Marie Antoinette” Movie by Sofia Coppola, 2006

[1] Although as a marchande de mode Bertin was not supposed to sew dresses herself, she collaborated  extensively with her clients in the design as well as the adornment of their gowns, whose fabrics were often wowen, dyed, cut and stitched to her precise specifications.

[2] The Essence of Style, Joan de Jean, p. 38

[3]  The Queen of Fashion , Caroline Weber, P.97

[4] La Modiste de la Reine , Catherine Guennec, p.48

[5] Correspondance de Marie Antoinette I, 205., Queen of Fashion, Caroline Weber p.100

[6] La Modiste de La Rei ,ne, Catherine Guennec, p. 226

[7] Queen of Fashion, Caroline  Weber, p. 171

[8]  extremely wide, flat straw hat warn low over the forehead and tilted up a the back by a gigantic bow

[9]  Queen of Fashion, Caroline  Weber, p.117

[10] Mémoires de la Baronne d’Oberkirch sur la court de Louis XVI et la société française avant 1789, Ed. Suzane Burkard,Paris Mercure de France, 1975

[11] Queen of Fashion , Catherine Weber, p. 105

[12] La Modiste de la Reine , Catherine Guennec p. 121

Queen of Fashion, Caroline Weber, p.110

No comments:

Post a Comment