A Time Traveler’s Guide to Dressing like a French Revolutionary

Okay, so in the event that time travel becomes a real technology (she says optimistically), probably not many people will want to visit revolutionary France. On one hand, I’d be tempted – I’d possibly get to meet some of the historical figures featured in The Wardrobe Mistress, and wear some of the fashions I pored over paintings and descriptions of, at least until the longing for modern yoga pants inevitably returned. But on the other…the guillotine. It’s a risky time period, that’s for sure, and that’s without even considering the advances in hygiene and medicine we have today.

Fine, maybe this is really more of “A Nerdy Costume Party Attendee’s Guide to Dressing like a French Revolutionary.” Whichever it is, I’ve got you covered. Here are my superfluous top tips for dressing like you belong in 1790s Paris.

Wear a hat

You’ve probably heard of the revolutionary bonnet rouge. King Louis XVI was forced to wear one when an angry mob of revolutionaries stormed through the Tuileries, but he submitted to the unwanted hat-wearing happily enough when he saw that it calmed their wrath. And he looked great in it:

Louis XVI, King of the French, 1792. The 1775 engraving was reworked in 1792 to record the king’s donning of the bonnet rouge during the invasion of the Tuilleries Palace

It wasn’t the first hat incident Louis had, though. In 1789, when the Estates General was opened for the first time since 1614, the representatives of the Third Estate (which made up the bulk of the population, excluding only royalty and clergy) put their hats back on at the end of Louis’ speech, even though custom dictated that only the king and his entourage could do so at this point in the ceremony. Commoners were supposed to stay kneeling, clutching their hats to their chests in awe at the blue blood before them or something. It was quite shocking when the representatives shattered this custom, but Louis, in a moment of uncharacteristic quick-thinking, removed his own hat once again, prompting everyone to follow suit.

For women, plain white bonnets are a safe bet. Conservative enough not to draw attention and easily decorated with a tricolor rosette if needed. Straw hats could also be worn, but not everyone liked them because Marie Antoinette favoured them.

You know, I think part two of this hat advice is to study a treatise on hat etiquette, as well.

 

 

Wear a tricolor rosette

Show your rebelliousness, or protect yourself from sharp-eyed and judging revolutionaries, by challenging the monarchy with colours. Rosettes can be easily pinned to hats or coats, and just as easily removed when you have dinner with that older family friend who drinks too much wine and then lectures about the divine right of kings. Most rosettes or cockades are tricolor – red, white, and blue – but not always. Red and blue is an acceptable combination. Red and white with no other colours is not, since it reminds people of the uniforms for the queen’s staff at Trianon.

Green rosettes are absolutely out of the question. Green is the livery color for the Comte d’Artois, the king’s younger brother, and no one likes him. He even fled France after the storming of the Bastille, fearing for his life. 

Don’t wear white rosettes. That will just remind people of the Bourbon fleur-de-lys, and what have the Bourbons ever done? Just wasted a bunch of tax money building Versailles and not helping with the bread crisis, that’s what. White is acceptable in some forms, such as bonnets, fichus (shawls), shirts, or dresses, as long as the whole ensemble isn’t pure white as the expensive snow that the Bourbons probably shipped in to keep their wine cold.

Black isn’t a great colour either. You get a slight pass if you’re in mourning, but it better be for a close family member and not a national personage like Marie Antoinette’s son who died in 1789. Sure, it’s sad that a poor little boy died, but his mother was a witch who hates the French so you can’t display any sympathy. Plus, black reminds people of the Hapsburgs, and no one likes them either. Especially Marie Antoinette. The other Habsburg colour is yellow, so avoid that too. Bees are also out, probably.

Oh, and forget about the fact that tricolor had also been the colour of the French king’s livery, historically. It’s infused with new political meaning now (waves to American revolutionaries) and no one talks about its dark past. 

Red is a good colour to wear, especially the very popular shade called sang de Foulon, or Foulon’s blood. Monsieur Foulon was a minister in Louis XIV’s cabinet and was murdered by Parisian revolutionaries, so clearly you’ve got your priorities straight if you add a ribbon in Foulon’s blood to your white bonnet. Just don’t forget that touch of blue somewhere!

 

Dress to celebrate the fall of the Bastille

Now that all seven prisoners have been freed from the prison, the building is torn down and its stones are up for grabs as souvenirs. The possibilities are endless. You could line a walkway or build a low stone fence or maybe even design some jewelry with the smaller rocks. Necklace made of demolished walls? Sure.

If you’re rich enough, ironically add some diamonds to spell out the word Liberté and you’re set.

You can even make a replica of the Bastille for your hair, using white satin “towers” and black lace to represent the balustrade. Just watch your head going through doorways.

(As with most good things in life, you can’t make them up. These are both recorded revolutionary fashion items).

That great inspiration of jewelry, the Bastille

 

Dress like Marie Antoinette

Yes, I know everyone hates her as a symbol of ostentation and everything wrong with society, but there’s no denying the appeal of her Petit Trianon casual wear.  Her white muslin gowns might be decried as looking like nightgowns – called chemise á la reine, but they’re certainly more comfortable than heavy velvets over panniers to keep the skirts wide. Plus, wearing a dress like this is proof that you’re unfussy, virtuous, and believe in equality. After all, anyone can afford these. That’s partly why the other nobles hated Marie Antoinette’s muslin gowns at first. Just make sure to add a patriotic tricolour cockade, of course. You don’t want to risk looking like a wanna-be milkmaid like Marie Antoinette. Even better, women can wear a jaunty red and blue muslin scarf to kick this simple outfit to revolutionary heights. If it’s cold, try a blue redingote with a white scarf and a red cap. If anyone mentions that Marie Antoinette also made the somewhat masculine fashion of wearing riding attire popular years before, just gaze at them blankly and mutter “vive la revolution.”

This is Princes Louise Auguste of Denmark, in the chemise a la reine style of gown

If all else fails, bring your son (or your friend’s son) with you and dress him in the uniform of the National Guard (white pants, navy coat, red-trim). It worked well for Marie Antoinette when she brought the dauphin to the fête de la fédération to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Bastille

There – now you know what clothes to pack before you time-travel to revolutionary Paris to hang out around Café du Foy talking philosophy with Robespierre. Alternatively, you know what to wear to a Halloween party before you get drunk enough that you can’t be bothered to explain your costume anymore.

 



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The Scandal of Marie Antoinette’s Gowns

While writing The Wardrobe Mistress, I researched a lot about the queen’s famous fashion. After all, the main character, Giselle, works in the queen’s household as one of her tirewomen, tasked with taking care of Marie Antoinette’s fabulous wardrobe. I expected to uncover a scandal or two – probably about outrageous cost or the sheer number of gowns. Instead, the biggest scandal came from the simplest style of dress.

This white muslin shift known as the gaulle was much plainer and more comfortable than the formal court gowns, with their whalebone stays constricting the waist, and the panniers at the hips to make the skirt very wide. Inspired by the style of dress that the Creoles and colonialists’ wives wore in the Caribbean, where the heat meant silk was not an option, these muslin gown lacked the stiff structuring elements of traditional silk court gowns. They usually had a ruffled drawstring neck, puffy sleeves decorated with ribbons, and a wide sash tied at the waist. To complete the pastoral look, a soft white bonnet or a wide straw hat usually perched on natural, unpowdered hair. Marie Antoinette displays the fashion in her portrait, Le reine en gaulle, painted by Madame Vigée Le Brun in 1783.

La reine en gaulle, by  Vigée Le Brun, 1783

This dress doesn’t sound very scandalous, you might be thinking. Nor does it look scandalous in that painting. To our modern eye, it doesn’t, but to a conservative person of the 1780s, it resembled a chemise – a slip-like piece of clothing that a lady wore under her other clothes, or occasionally as casual-wear when relaxing in the privacy of her boudoir. Basically, it looked like the queen posed for a portrait in her nightgown. This dress style became known as chemise á la reine, forever connecting the queen to the garment’s resemblance to a slip.

In comparison, this gown from 1775 looks a lot heavier and more formal than the muslin gaulle gowns.

There were also social and economic factors fueling Marie Antoinette’s fashion detractors. On the social side, wealthy nobles disliked the idea that the simpler style of dressing meant that poor, lower class people could blend in by wearing similar outfits. And economically, by not wearing silk, Marie Antoinette was seen as unpatriotic, failing in her duty to support the French silk industry. One of her contemporary sources even declared that three quarters of the silk workers in Lyon lost their jobs in the 1780s due to her patronage of foreign textile plants to serve her love of muslin.

However, Marie Antoinette can’t be solely blamed for the decline in the French silk industry at the time. Fashions all over Europe were growing increasingly simplified, as were hairstyles. The Duchess of Devonshire in England, a trendsetter herself, also wore airy chemise á la reine gowns. Even Marie Antoinette’s rival, Madame du Barry, wore them, as this portrait of her from 1781 – two years earlier than Marie Antoinette’s –  shows.

Madame du Barry, by Vigée Le Brun, 1781

In spite of the heavy criticism after her 1783 portrait, Marie Antoinette did not stop wearing them, either. The chemise á la reine was kind of like the yoga pants of the 1780s – once tried, there was no going back. In Austria, Marie Antoinette’s brother, Emperor Joseph, even tried to ban the expensive and uncomfortable accoutrements of official court dress, such as panniers, which could be so wide that women had to go sideways through the door. He was not successful, but the innovative clothing ideas had already permeated culture all across Europe. In France particularly, as the revolution advanced, simpler fashions like the chemise a la reine became the height of fashion. The virtue of equality idealized by the revolutionaries made the suitability of the garment to all economic classes a perfect fit for everyone. By Empress Josephine’s time, the simplicity of fashion had progressed to a renewed love for the influence of classical Roman dress. In comparison to the bared arms of these gowns, the chemise á la reine may have seemed quite conservative again.

Empress Josephine

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution and love for a fervent revolutionary, is available now.

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Feuding with Marie Antoinette – guest post

I examined a couple of Marie Antoinette’s most prominent feuds, and you can find the details – and determine if they were justified or not – over at Jenny Q’s wonderful blog, “Let Them Read Books.” Definitely check out her site – she has some exciting book giveaways running right now!

I met Jenny at the Historical Novel Society Conference in June, and even though she was extremely busy helping to make sure it was the best conference ever (and it was), she found time to chat with me and is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. I’m so excited to have a guest post with her today.

Speaking of posts elsewhere on the internet, I also have an interview with Carrie Pestritto, and an essay about my inspiration behind The Wardrobe Mistress over on Women Writers, Women’s Books.

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In Which My Book Becomes Completely Real

Today is publication day for my novel, The Wardrobe Mistress, the story of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution.

I feel a bit dream-like, my thoughts blurred around the edges. It’s almost hard to believe that a story I wrote is actually sitting on shelves, available for readers to pick it up. It’s becoming a real thing – not just a bundle of paper, but something that someone might connect or react to. It made me think of a quote by Ursula K. Le Guin: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

If that’s true, then the book has been gradually sparking to life for a while now, since publishing is a team effort and I’ve been lucky and grateful to have some early reviews and lovely quotes from other authors and very supportive friends. But today, the book is out there for everyone, and it makes it different, more vibrant. It’s a live thing. It’s not just mine anymore. And I can hardly describe how exciting that is. Happy Book Birthday, The Wardrobe Mistress!

 

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The Myth of ‘Let Them Eat Cake’

For many people, the first thing that jumps to mind upon hearing Marie Antoinette’s name is the phrase ‘Let them eat cake.’ This quotation is frequently ascribed to France’s doomed queen, given as her careless response to the famine affecting the people as the revolution began.

‘Let them eat cake’ is evidently a catchy phrase, because it’s been recorded in use multiple times, dating back to sometime earlier than 1737. It was first ascribed to a Spanish princess, Marie Thérèse, who was the wife of French king Louis XIV, who reigned several decades prior to the French revolution. Marie Thérèse’s apparent use of the phrase was slightly different, being more in reference to crusts of bread left in the pan.

In 1751, four years before Marie Antoinette was even born, the phrase was again attributed Madame Sophie of France and other times, to Madame Victoire of France. Sophie and Victoire were both great aunts of Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis XVI, and high-ranking within the royal family.

But the most telling proof of its origin prior to Marie Antoinette’s reign as queen is that it can be found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, which was a popular work during the queen’s lifetime. Completed in 1769 but not published until about twenty years later, the work contains the line, “At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, “Then let them eat cake!”’ Sometimes it is translated as pastry, but the sentiment remains the same – an utterly naïve royal lady betrays a lack of comprehension and sympathy by making such a frivolous remark.

It must have been particularly frustrating for Marie Antoinette to hear slander that attributed the quotation to her. After all, she would have been familiar with Rousseau’s work since it was very popular at the time, and one of her closest ladies in waiting, Madame Campan, often read aloud to her. I had some fun writing this scene in The Wardrobe Mistress.

It’s often thought that the cake of the quotation refers to brioche, a rich type of bread, which could account for the alternate translation to pastry. The texture of brioche is a cross between pastry and bread, with an even crumb and a dairy-sweet flavour – due to the high butter content. The richest brioche (which the upper classes would have eaten) can contain up to 80% butter! It’s best baked in a metal tin, to create a delicate, hairline thin crust. Less decadent brioche is closer to 20% butter, and ranges in the middle can be baked as well.

It’s especially delicious with strawberry jam, as I can personally attest.

Since Marie Antoinette undoubtedly would have eaten brioche sometimes, even if she never suggested it as an alternative to plain bread for the peasants, I wanted to try baking it. My mom and I made it together, so now I can not only recommend brioche as tasty, if rich, but it was also a fun activity to do together. I couldn’t help but think of Marie Antoinette while I ate it, enjoying the connection to history.



The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, is available now.

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Everything I Learned about Marie Antoinette’s Perfume

In my research for The Wardrobe Mistress, I learned a lot about the intimate details of Marie Antoinette’s life, from clothing to perfume. For instance, I discovered she changed her outfit several times a day for various court functions, and she kept a book full of fabric swatches from which she’d select which garments she wanted to wear each day by putting pins in the appropriate swatches. In my novel, all the undertirewomen dream of getting to look through the book, stroking the soft chiné fabrics, and I wished I could do that too. I also loved imagining the fragrance of flowers pervading the Queen’s chambers, which were often so heaped with fresh flowers that a person could be scented just by spending time in the room.

Flowers were one of Marie Antoinette’s most consistent interests, a passion which combined her love for the pastoral luxury of her favourite retreat, Petit Trianon, and her enjoyment of perfume. She had her own perfumer, an innovative expert named Jean-Louis Fargeon. Upon Marie Antoinette’s request, he created a signature scent for her called Parfum du Trianon, meant to capture the fresh scent of the location so that she could carry its essence with her wherever she went.

The picturesque mill in the queen’s hamlet of Petit Trianon (Photo credit By Starus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15697249)

In general, Marie Antoinette loved concentrated perfumes, especially those with hints of rose, violet, jasmine, and jonquil. For her baths, she preferred more herbal scents as well as amber and bergamot. Unsurprisingly, her baths were also examples of queenly luxury, since the water was lightly scented and Fargeon also created sachets filled with blanched sweet almonds, bran (for exfoliation) and perfumed for her to use.

Sachets for use outside of the bath were also popular, usually made of taffeta or silk, and filled with a pot-pourri of aromatic plants. The Queen liked to present these sachets to her friends as gifts. Since she also took care to ensure the scent matched the personality of the recipient, they would have been quite a prestigious present to receive. For the liquid perfumes, Marie Antoinette kept them in a special cabinet full of gleaming coloured glass bottles with silver stoppers. She loved her perfumes so much that she placed an unusually large order with Fargeon before she and Louis XVI undertook their attempted flight to escape the Revolution (and we caught in Varennes). She also tried to pack most of them, in spite of having limited space for belongings. 

Marie Antoinette also liked to wear gloves in shades of white or pearl grey, and they weren’t only decorative accessories for one of her elegant gowns. Fargeon was skilled in the traditional Montpellier specialty of making perfumed gloves with flowers, and he also took pride in treating the gloves so they had restorative qualities for the skin. One of his pairs of riding gloves would soothe the Queen’s hands while she dashed through the countryside on a graceful horse. The gloves were perfumed with simple flowers such as hyacinths, violets, red carnations, and jonquilles á la reine, which had to be picked an hour after dawn or before dusk for the purest scent. Marie Antoinette typically ordered about eighteen pairs of these gloves per month, which would seem to suggest she likely only wore them once.

At the height of the revolution, when the royal family were imprisoned in the Tower, Fargeon sent a phial of parfum du Trianon to Marie Antoinette to comfort her. She also used his eau de vie de lavande to soothe her anxiety. Of course, Fargeon was not paid for these items, since Marie Antoinette didn’t have funds at her disposal in prison and the guards had no interest in paying him on her behalf. It was a kindness that must have provided some small consolation in her final days. 

For anyone interested in more details of historic perfume, and Fargeon’s methods in particular, I highly recommend A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer by Elisabeth de Feydeau.

 

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, is available now.

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Interview at 17 Scribes

Earlier this year, I joined a really wonderful group called ’17 Scribes. Everyone is a 2017 debut author, and it’s been an invaluable resource for asking questions, sharing experiences – and making friends! I’ve got an interview about The Wardrobe Mistress on the ’17 Scribes website, and I’d encourage you to check out the other interviews as well. There’s a lot of amazing talent and diverse projects in this group. All my Book Addiction posts since February have featured other 2017 debut authors and their excellent books – more to come in the fall, as well.

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