This month’s Bad Decision in History features Marie Antoinette, which seems particularly timely given my book deal announcement last week. It really is a coincidence, I promise; I am a spreadsheet nerd and I actually planned out all my Bad Decisions topics for the whole year back in January.
Marie Antoinette isn’t a surprising topic for Bad Decisions in History. One could argue that she made an enormous list of fatal errors. One also might argue that, while she undeniably had some leadership failings, she was really the product of decades of decadence and royalty and the belief in the divine right of kings.
However, for the purposes of this post, I’ve chosen one instance in history where she definitely made a bad decision, and it did not help her in the long run.
Bad Decision: Wearing diamonds to an event meant to solve very serious financial crises; less specifically to Marie Antoinette but in the same mindset, failing to recognise the increasing severity of economic and societal problems.
On May 5th in 1789, the Estates General met at Versailles. The Estates General was an assembly representing the estates of France, of which there were three: the First Estate of the clergy, the Second Estate of the nobles, and the Third Estate of everyone else. The 1789 meeting of the Estates General was the first one since 1614, so clearly it wasn’t a big priority for the monarchs of the day. We can’t blame Louis XVI for this one, since there were three different French kings reigning between the 1614 meeting, and the one he held in 1789.
The Estates General was called in order to resolve financial issues. In spite of having meetings for several weeks through May and June, the assembly was unable to agree on the first item, that of whether they should vote by estate or vote all together. Voting by estate would have given the First and Second an advantage, in spite of the fact that they made up a small fraction of the population. Voting all together would have allowed the Third, comprised of by far the largest population, a strong advantage. The Third Estate wanted their fair representation, and the Second and First Estates wanted to keep their advantage, thus creating what turned out to be an insurmountable impasse.
On the first day of the Estates General’s meeting, the King and Queen made an appearance before the crowds at Versailles. In spite of the country’s financial troubles (the reason for calling the first Estates General in 175 years, remember?) and the growing political unrest sweeping through France, as evidenced by Abbé Sieyès now-famous pamphlet, What is the Third Estate, published earlier that year, Marie Antoinette chose to dress for the occasion with great opulence.
Instead of wearing something modest, something looked simple in spite of its inevitable high quality, she wore a white and purple gown dripping with diamonds. As the French Revolution unfolded, colour in clothing became very important, a symbol of revolutionary support – or not. If simple, white was acceptable. Partnered with red and blue, it became ideal. White on its own, especially with jewels, symbolized the Bourbon house. Due to the expensive dye, purple was always considered a royal colour. By combining white and purple, and the cascade of diamonds, Marie Antoinette portrayed herself as impossibly luxurious, a demi-goddess of wealth, in front of a crowd of poor working-class families, currently struggling to afford bread and losing belief in the divine right of kings. They wanted equality, and Marie Antoinette appeared to have done everything she could to make herself look better than them.
I can’t resist sharing a brief excerpt from my novel, The Wardrobe Mistress. This scene takes place at the opening of the Estates General, where the main character Giselle has found a spot to watch the King and Queen’s entrance:
In her purple and white satin, trimmed with a ransom of diamonds and paillettes, Marie Antoinette stands out like a swan among ravens. The King matches her well, dressed in his fancy velvet jacket and with a few jewels of his own, and across the distance, her elegance lends him dignity.
The crowd of Third Estate onlookers shuffle their feet, shoulders hunched in resentment. A few people whisper to each other, their faces sneering. They are all dressed in somber, plain colours; black, grey, brown, dark blue. Sensible clothing, for those who cannot afford a diverse wardrobe and make do with the same coat for all occasions in order to scrimp for bread.
“She looks every inch a Queen,” murmurs Madame Campan fondly.
“Yes.” By keeping my response to one syllable, it helps to hide my sour tone. I admire the Queen’s beautiful gown – who could not? – but seeing the contrast of her with the people makes me cringe.
“Oh – look – the sun is coming out even though it’s still raining a little.” Madame Campan gestures, forgetting her fingers clutch the edge of the curtain, making the whole fall of cloth wiggle. “Look at the rainbows.”
As a sunbeam overpowers the thinning rainclouds, it lights up the droplets cascading over the courtyard and through the air like diamonds. And the diamonds themselves catch the light and shatter it into hundreds of colours, rainbow pinpricks after the other, hovering around the Queen, dancing with each of her steps and floating away from the people as she progresses through the courtyard.
“It is like she is made of light,” says Madame Campan poetically.
It is like she is stealing the light from everyone else, I think.
Of course, the King was dressed very expensively and elegantly as well, but I think he made less impact. For one, even in finery, Louis XVI didn’t have a very commanding presence, whereas his wife had more charisma, being beautiful and slender. She was also foreign, originally a princess of Austria, and even though political alliances were de rigueur for royal families, large portions of the Third Estate never overcame their mistrust for her, never saw her as French even though she lived in the country most of her life.
Worse, Marie Antoinette’s name was already soiled by the context of diamonds. In 1781, the Diamond Necklace Affair tarnished the Queen’s reputation badly. I could write a whole post about the Diamond Necklace Affair, but very briefly: a countess tried to purchase a diamond necklace worth 1,600,000 livres under pretense of being Marie Antoinette, going through a cardinal (who appeared to be innocent of the deception) and using forged letters. When the necklace was not paid for, the whole scandalous affair came to light. Even though Marie Antoinette had nothing to do with it, the incident damaged her reputation.
Wearing diamonds at such a sensitive event as the opening of the Estates General sent all the wrong messages. While Marie Antoinette cannot be blamed for the failure of the Estates General to come to any agreements, the short-sightedness she displayed in her wardrobe choice corresponds with the attitudes of many First and Second Estate people. They continuously dismissed the concerns of the Third Estate, to the point of escalation leading to the Revolution itself.
Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine in October, 1793. Louis XVI had been guillotined already, in January of that year.
Outcome: Collapse of the governing body – in July 1789, the Estates General became a new entity called the National Assembly, formed by the Third Estate. Rise of the revolution. Eventual execution.
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