240 years ago, the portraitist Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun showed the most natural side of the monarch in a painting where she appeared with a discreet design far removed from the opulent Rococo aesthetic of Versailles. Her outfit was perceived as provocative and angered the French people, however soon after it became one of the characteristic garments of the French Revolution.
Frivolous, superficial, carefree and obsessed with fashion and jewelry. This limited portrait is what film and literature have historically offered us around the figure of Marie Antoinette. The queen consort’s waste of haute couture designs ended up becoming a matter of state, but curiously one of her most controversial outfits was one of the simplest and most affordable. It was a light muslin dress, baptized with the name of shirt dress. A discreet garment that, in a trick of fate, would become popular years later as the characteristic costume of the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette appeared in this dress in a portrait from 1783, 240 years ago today, and caused a scandal that negatively affected the image of the monarch, increasingly battered by public opinion.
It’s never too much in life rococo
Marie Antoinette, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, came to the French court as a teenager to marry the Dauphin Louis XVI. The wedding took place on May 16, 1770, and the young couple reigned from 1774. Marie Antoinette was just nineteen years old and had few worries on her head beyond having as much fun as she could. The ostentation of Versailles, marked by the aesthetic opulence of the Rococo, awakened her taste for fashion and jewelry. Marie Antoinette’s senior dressmaker, Mademoiselle Bertin, had more power over her than many of her ministers. In fact, the queen received her alone in her rooms, something unusual since the entrance to the queen’s apartments was prohibited for the bourgeois.
In the well-known biography of Marie Antoinette written by Stefan Zweig in 1932, the Austrian author devotes an entire chapter to the sovereign’s daily routine when choosing a dress. “Marie Antoinette has to decide what dresses she wants to wear today: what a difficult, what a responsible decision, because each new season there are prescribed twelve new state dresses, twelve fancy dresses, twelve ceremonial ones, not counting the other hundred that are acquired every year. ”, he wrote in the chapter titled rococo queen.
Painters of the time recorded the fashions of the moment championed by Marie Antoinette: dresses of colossal dimensions, full of ribbons, lace and complicated artifices, combined with hairstyles that defied the force of gravity long before lacquer existed. But among all the artists, there was one who became the favorite portraitist of the monarch, Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. The daughter of a painter and the wife of an art dealer, she was the same age as the queen. They met her at the age of 23 and worked for her for a decade, being the architect of some of her most emblematic paintings. She portrayed her on more than thirty occasions, but there was one work of hers that caused a special stir.
The controversial dress
One day in 1783, Vigée-Lebrun put the last brushstroke on the most controversial portrait of Marie Antoinette. In it, the queen appeared showing the lesser-known side of her, away from the splendor of her dresses and headdresses and dressed in a simple white dress. One of those models that she limited herself to wearing in private when she was safe from the prying eyes of the populous Versailles court.
The dress in question was a comfortable, even loose fit, with ruching on the sleeves, taping under the bust, and ruffle detailing to enhance its ethereal look. That light air is also achieved thanks to the material with which it was made: muslin. In addition to the dress, the straw hat that she wears in the painting is also characteristic, placed on her hair without powdering or ornamentation, another gesture of simplicity. Although Versailles’ extravagance, often epitomized exclusively by Marie Antoinette, infuriated a society increasingly disgruntled with royalty, this low-key, casual attire was perceived as provocative and unfit for a queen. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI had interceded for Vigée-Lebrun to join the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (one of the very few women among its hundreds of members) and at her 1783 exhibition she unveiled the portrait of Marie Antoinette. The joy was short-lived because the painting had to be withdrawn after the criticism received. The reason was the shirt dress, a garment considered inappropriate for the public representation of royalty. To calm things down and replace the work, Vigée-Lebrun made a second version soon after, where Marie Antoinette appeared with all the pomp that normally surrounded her person in a pose almost identical to that of the original painting.
The controversy had to do, on the one hand, with the audacity of Marie Antoinette to wear a garment typical of the bourgeoisie. The original shirt dress was a common garment among the ladies of the French colonies in the Antilles, where the climate required clothing suitable for heat. Years later, paradoxically, the queen’s shirt dress was the most characteristic outfit of the French Revolution. That is, even when the people asked for her head, the influence of Marie Antoinette was still alive. On the other hand, it didn’t help that the dress was made of cotton muslin, an imported fabric, instead of French silk.
The shirtdress adored by the aristocracy
In addition to its use becoming popular in the French Revolution, the suit also captivated the aristocracy. As stated by the Museo del Traje on its website, in 1785 the magazine Gallery of Modesa very popular fashion publication between 1778 and 1787, included in its pages an engraving of a dress very similar to the design of Marie Antoinette, baptized in the magazine as chemise à la reine. Museums hang numerous evidences of the success of the shirt dress among the wealthy society of the late 18th century and early 19th century, but perhaps the most representative example in Spain is found in the Goya Hall of the Palacio de Liria in Madrid. This space is chaired by the portrait of the XIII Duchess of Alba, María Teresa Cayetana de Silva Álvarez de Toledo, made by Goya in 1795. The aristocrat, like all highborn ladies, had Paris as a point of reference for the fashions of the time and did not hesitate to import any novelty in terms of style . In her work you can see her dress, her shirt, adorned with a red sash under her chest and a large bow of the same tone on her neckline.
After Marie Antoinette’s fall from grace in the French Revolution, Vigée-Lebrun had to go into exile, as her name was too closely linked to the figure of the queen. In October 1789 he fled to Italy, then traveled through Prague, Dresden, and Berlin, before reaching St. Petersburg, where he remained for several years in tsarist circles. For years, he continued working and came to paint more than 200 landscapes and 600 portraits, including personalities of the time such as Madame de Staël or the Prince of Wales. The artist returned to France for good around 1810. In addition to the portrait of her in her shirtdress, Vigée-Lebrun painted Marie Antoinette dozens of times over the years. One of her most significant paintings was Marie Antoinette and her children, a portrait commissioned by Louis XVI in 1785 with the aim of improving the image of the monarch in public opinion. In the work, she shows the maternal side of her, with hardly any jewelry and revealing the empty bed of Sofia, the queen’s fourth daughter, who died before finishing the painting. Despite the painter’s efforts, it was already too late to change the perception of royalty in pre-revolutionary France.
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