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.
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.
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.
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.
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.