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January 16, 2015 by ethelfritha


On May the 7th, 1770, Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna, Archduchess of Austria, having already married Prince Louis-Auguste of France by proxy, was officially handed over to the French court by her Austrian coterie. By this time, the fourteen-year-old had been completely and painstakingly restyled in the French manner. All the clothing she possessed was made up in the very latest French fashions and out of French materials. She had undergone three months of painful, unanesthetized oral surgery to straighten her teeth so as not to scandalize the French court. He hair, worn in natural loose curls down her back all her life, was tamed, powdered, and oiled. This all-encompassing and fantastically expensive makeover was at the insistence of King Louis XV, grandfather of the bridegroom, who would not approve the girl as a potential Dauphine of France until she was entirely á francais. (The randy old man, when presented with Maria Antonia’s portrait, inquired worriedly of her mother about the apparent smallness of her 14-year-old daughter’s breasts.)

Off Maria Antonia went to meet her new family. A special meeting place on the banks of the Rhine was hastily constructed, and the Austrians arrived on a cold, rainy day. Scarcely had the girl arrived than she was subjected to the ritual stripping, a brutal tradition she had not known about until it began. There, in an unheated, drafty antechamber with water leaking around her, she was literally stripped naked right down to her jewelry and shoes, in front of the entire Austrian coterie, many of whom were men. The ladies confiscated her personal items and even took away her pet dog. There was to be absolutely no tie linking her to her old life. She was then–at long length–redressed in new clothes. She was painted with the traditional cosmetics–stark white powder and great circles of rouge–and sent into the banquet hall to begin her new life.

All of this before she even met her husband, the awkward, ugly, 15-year-old Louis-Auguste, Dauphin of France. Little did she know that the ritual stripping was to be repeated practically every day of her life upon rising in the morning, with an absurd protocol surrounding who should be attendant upon the naked princess, and which lady was allowed to hand her which garment. With so little privacy inside her own chamber, Marie Antoinette was made to understand that she would have absolutely none outside it. From the day she entered France, she was on relentless display.

It is little wonder, then, that this 14-year-old (the age of your average 8th grader) was left with the impression that her power was bound inextricably to fashion, clothing, and appearance. In the years to follow, the princess (later the queen) made herself the center of the fashionable world, singlehandedly pioneering such iconic fashions as the pouf:


The radically simple gaulle dress:


And the masculine-style tricorn hat:


At first the French people were charmed by Marie Antoinette’s eagerness to appear in the public eye, something most French queens had always avoided. But anti-Austrian factions both within the court and around the nation, coupled with rising Revolutionary sentiment, turned public sentiment against her. The pouf. How wasteful. (It didn’t help that she continued to wear the extravagant hairstyle–which was powdered with flour–during a time of heavy famine.) How damaging to the morals of French women, to be spending so much time and money on such a frivolous thing. The gaulle. Why, it was practically underwear. (Never mind that it became de regueur among female revolutionaries just a few years later.) What an indecent display–surely the gossip pamphlets were right when they called the queen a wanton. The tricorn. How tastelessly masculine. Perhaps she was a lesbian. (Pornography of the time often showed illustrations of her in compromising positions with her female friends in the court.) Later in life, with the Revolution marching inexorably nearer, she was given a new nickname–Madame Déficit, implying that the country’s financial troubles were solely the fault of a wasteful, wanton, unwomanly Autrichienne (literally “Austrian bitch”) whose loyalties to France had always been in question.

This was, of course, exceedingly unfair; Marie Antoinette spent excessively but was hardly the sole or even the main reason why France was bankrupt. But by the time the queen was put to death–led from a squalid cell after being forced to remove the mourning clothes she had been wearing for weeks–one thing was very clear. From the day she was born, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, Archduchess of Austria, Queen of France, had been groomed for the guillotine in every possible way.


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