The Power of a Little White Dress 30


Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Vigee le Brun, 1783

Princess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna was born November 2, 1755 to Francis I and Maria Theresa, Emperor and Empress of Austria. Beautiful and privileged, she lived the life of a fairy tale princess. She enjoyed the pleasures of a close-knit family and many friends of both noble and common birth. Though she had little interest in academic subjects, she did like playing music and dancing as well as more rough and tumble activities such as horseback riding and hunting. Her fairy tale, however, came to an abrupt end when she was not yet 12-years-old. In an effort to unite Austria with France, its long time enemy, her mother began negotiating a marriage between her and Louis XVI, the future king of France. The two were married by proxy in 1768 without having ever met and in 1770, she was sent to France for the formal marriage ceremony. Marie Antoinette, as she would now be called, was 14 and Louis was 15. Austria and France had been enemies for hundreds of years, so it is not surprising that many of the French distrusted the new Austrian princess from the moment she arrived. Despite efforts to prepare her for her new role, she hated the stringent French court etiquette that put her on display and made grand ceremonies out of simple everyday activities. The strict court regulations governing when, how, and in whose company she dressed continually reminded her that she was no longer her own person, but the property of the Crown. In the beginning, she obediently adopted the appropriate “external honors” that marked her as royalty, but once she became queen in 1775, she began rebelling against the the strict court etiquette in an effort to reclaim her individuality. She found her greatest voice in her clothing and hairstyles and for a time brought the opulence and grandeur of court dress to a whole new level. Unfortunately, Marie’s independent spirit drew attention at the wrong time. France was in the midst of an economic crises, and although her spending spree was only a miniscule part of the problem, she received a large portion of the blame.

Shortly after the birth of her first child in 1778, Marie Antoinette retreated to Trianon, a private residence given to her by her husband, where she could raise her children in privacy. At Trianon, there was no ceremony or etiquette, only the quiet company of friends. Everything was to be simpler, including her wardrobe. Her dress designer Rose Bertin, inspired by the muslin dresses worn by the women in the French West Indies, created a loose flowing gown tied at the waist with a large colorful ribbon.  (Speaking of ribbons, I just added some 100% silk ribbons to my Etsy shop!  Leave a comment below about Marie Antoinette to be included in a drawing for a 6 yard sample pack you can use on your own Chemise a la Reine.  I will be giving away a dragonfly blue pack and a pomegranate pack on New Years Eve!)   The new dress played into Marie’s romanticism of the simple life that she longed for and she quickly cast off her her opulent court outfits in favor of the new style. One would think that this simpler dress, representing a more democratic spirit and costing much less than the queen’s previous court wear, would have been celebrated by the people. However, when Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun painted her in it, the portrait launched a scandal. The dress looked too much like a chemise and the people thought their queen had been painted in her underwear! Despite the public reaction to the queen, the Chemise a la Reine as it had become known, was quickly adopted by the fashionable ladies of France and England and soon became quite popular among women of all social classes. One writer lamented that no one could tell the difference between rich and poor any longer. After being strongly criticized for her excesses in court, Marie Antoinette was again to be found at fault. Now, not only was she accused of lowering the prestige of the monarchy by being too casual, but of trying to put the French silk merchants out of business in favor of her brother’s Belgian and Alsatian weavers. Paying heed to public sentiment, Marie Antoinette began to incorporate more formal attire into her wardrobe again, both to represent herself as queen of France and as a wife and mother. Still, the queen’s perceived faux pas sealed the people’s negative sentiment toward her and fanned the flames of the French Revolution which had been smoldering for some time.




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30 thoughts on “The Power of a Little White Dress

  • gloria

    Always loved Marie Antoinette’s clothing. And now I find out that she was an early women’s libber. Yea, for casual clothing!!!

  • Rebecca

    I love these articles! Poor Marie, I’ve never known that much about her. Thanks for the historical background on your upcoming pattern. Love it!

  • Sue

    Good morning Shari! The new gown is lovely. I had the pleasure of visiting Marie Antoinette’s Trianon on a visit to Versailles and remember how stunningly beautiful and, to me, opulent it was. Thanks for bringing back the memories.

  • Debbie

    I knew history blamed Marie Antoinette for a part of the French Revolution. I did not know she tried to tone down the opulence and liked a quieter life for her family.
    I haven’t researched her extensively but amnow considering it.

  • Tara

    I love your blogs; as a fan of History in general, and an aficionado of sewing and dolls alike, it is the perfect combination on all accounts.

  • Kate

    I have never read/heard about this side of the wardrobe choices of Marie Antoinette, it is fascinating to learn new things!

  • Sophie T

    Shari, that was, again, so very instructive and delightful! I love reading French History through the History of Fashion! It is quite an interresting insight into what shaped our world. I’ve never had much sympathy for Marie-Antoinette, but any time I read about her something that brings her back to what she really is, a woman and a mother, I change my mind a little more, and see her differently. Thank you!

  • Carol M

    Ah, pauvre Marie! Her fashion faux pas that began a Revolution has left us with this unique design that you’ve made into a pattern….quelle belle! Si Bon! Merci!

  • Karen Loke

    Poor Maria Antonia! She was far too young to be married off to another child, and France’s expectations were too great. She did have some beautiful clothes – both the formal, regal attire and the more relaxed garments. She was a trend setter even though it brought her disdain.

  • valeri vejrostek

    Thank you for the article . I will print it out and keep it with the pattern so the granddaughters can read it as well .

  • Donna Cotterman

    Historical fashion dictated the woman. The woman attempted to dictated the fashion. Her fashion was a success, but being innovative was the beginning of her downfall.

    Comfortable, creative clothing on a Queen clashed with the populace personal perception of royal attire.

  • Suzanne

    Thanks for the history lesson of Marie Antoinette. I didn’t know about her wardrobe issues with the public.

  • Jessica

    Marie Antoinette is such an interesting person. I really enjoyed reading your article on her. It really gave me a new perspective and a lot of sympathy for her.

  • Cris White

    Thanks, Shari. I loved reading about Marie Antoinette. I admire her desire to be her ownself, but at the same time being cognizant of her duties, obligations, and perceptions as Queen.

    Her clothing style was so indicative of her personsality. She wanted the simple life unencumbered by traditons and public expectation. The muslin, lace, and pretty ribbons that make her style seemed to be very popular today.

  • Ramona Curtis

    Marie Antoinette was definitely a fashion icon of her time. It is unfortunate that she was married so young and forced into a lifestyle she did not desire. With that said, it is my belief that Marie was a good mother, doing the very best she could in her circumstances to raise her children.

  • Melodie Hess

    Besides loving your patterns for their historically correctness, I really enjoy the history you share about the how’s and whys of clothing design!

  • Jessica Beery

    It totally cracks me up that they thought it was underwear and I think it is downright gorgeous! So sad they never really forgave her…I can’t wait to make this pattern up myself! Thanks for such fabulous patterns, Shari! 🙂

  • Rebecca

    Thanks for sharing! I think Marie Antoinette is such a fascinating figure, partly because opinions about her cover such a great range. I’m probably somewhere in the middle.

    Also, the new pattern is lovely!

  • Carolyn

    I have always admired Marie Antionette’s fashion sense and at the same time felt sorry for her being a victim of those who opposed the French crown. Such a tragic story.

  • janet S

    Marie spent lavishly on clothing and jewels, creating a deficit that the French nation could not fill with their taxes. She certainly had an eye for fashion but tried to be comfortable at the same time – unlike most of her counterparts who seemed to think that “the look” was worth any amount of pain and suffering!

  • Shari

    Congratulations to Karen Loke and Chris White for winning the drawing for the Silk Ribbon Sample Packs!