Book Review

{Book Review} Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

** Note: I’ve decided to start a new blog series of Book Reviews  where I review non-fiction works that relate to fashion history. Have a suggestion of a book I should read and review? E-mail me at annaintechnicolor@hotmail.com or leave a comment below. Thanks!

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Marie Antoinette is a subject of endless fascination for me (I’ve read both the Antonia Fraser biography about her, and own the 2006 Sofia Coppola movie it inspired), which is why I was pleasantly surprised to discover Caroline Weber’s fabulous work, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution through this YouTube video. Published in 2006, Weber’s fascinating book is exhaustively researched and surprisingly the first to focus solely on Marie Antoinette’s clothing choices and the role they played in her arranged marriage at 14, life at Versailles, and death at the guillotine in 1793.

From the moment Maria Theresa – Marie Antoinette’s mother and the Empress of the Hapsburg empire – set out to arrange the marriage between her youngest daughter and Louis Auguste (the future Louis XVI), the Queen-to-be’s fashion and personal style were pivotal considerations. Indeed, one of the emissaries involved in the deal commented on the state of Marie Antoinette’s teeth, to which Maria Theresa responded by having her daughter undergo 3 months of dental work (which was not pleasant thing to have done in the non-anesthetized 18th century!). After leaving Vienna for France, Marie Antoinette was literally stripped down naked and re-dressed in all French-made clothing during the hand-over ceremony (famously depicted in the 2006 film), which Weber very effectively shows cemented for the Dauphine the incredible importance of appearance at Versailles and what was expected of her in her new role.

Forced into an utterly foreign world at the age of 14 where every move she made was watched (including her morning toilette, which was a court ritual), Marie Antoinette quickly learned that her clothing choice was one way to instill a sense of autonomy and semblance of political power (Weber later illustrates how this backfired during the Revolution, as Marie Antoinette’s personal style convinced the French that she was the one pulling Louis XVI’s puppet strings and effectively ruling France, when, in fact, she had no real political power at all). For example, in the early 1770s, Marie Antoinette for a brief time refused to wear the grand corps, an especially rigid pair of stays (corset) that was decorated with diamonds and reserved for members of the French nobility. This so shocked the people at Versailles that an annulment of the marriage (and thus an end to the the Franco-Austrian alliance) was considered. Eventually, with proding from Maria Therese (she sent many stern letters to her daughter), Marie Antoinette agreed to wear the corset, although this episode was never forgotten by courtiers. In addtion, Marie Antoinette also took up equestrian hobbies and donned male riding gear, (much to her mother’s chagrin) both to assert her independence, as well as provide a much needed respite from the exhausting social engagements of the French court.

Her initial refusal of the grand corps, cross-dressing, non-consummated marriage, and status as a foreigner meant Marie Antoinette came to be despised at the French court, despite an initial very warm welcome. That being said, Weber argues that despite the hatred many of the French people felt for Marie Antoinette (they often called her Le Autrichienne and thought she was a Hapsburg spy), they still had an overwhelming desire to mimic her fashion choices. This was seen first with the pouf hairstyle of the 1770s and then the gaulle (later known as the chemise a la reine) in the 1780s, which fashionable women all over France and even abroad instantly sought to copy. Fortunately, dressing like a member of the nobility was made infinitely easier during Marie Antoinette’s reign, as she decided not to impose the previously held restriction that dressmakers employed by members of the royalty were not allowed to take on other customers. This effectively meant that actresses and prostitutes could – gasp! – dress like they were a duchess or queen, thus blurring the rigid class lines between nobility and commoner (not surprisingly, Marie Antoinette got a lot of flak from courtiers at Versailles for this, despite the fact that they were also going to Rose Bertin to purchase goods and quickly adopted the “simplistic” and non-regal chemise a la reine as everyday dress). Unfortunately, this would come back to bite her in the arse during the infamous Diamond Necklace Affair, as the prostitute hired to impersonate Marie Antoinette was dressed in a chemise a le reine (Cardinal Rohan stated during his testimony that he believed the prostitute he met with to discuss the necklace was Marie Antoinette because of this clothing choice).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the chemise a la reine and other simplified modes of dress that Marie Antoinette popularized in the 1780s would eventually come to be the standard outfit for the French Revolution. Indeed, one of the things I found most interesting was the French people’s hypocrisy towards Marie Antoinette’s clothing choices that they themselves later adopted. They criticized her during the 1780s for her dissemination of the chemise a la reine, as it was made using imported cotton fabric, thus significantly hurting the domestic silk industry (based in Lyon) which relied heavily on orders from the nobility for silks to fashion into court dresses. Yet, during the Revolution, one was considered unpatriotic if they didn’t wear a simplistic dress made from imported cotton! Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until Marie Antoinette and her family were imprisoned in the Tuileries at the start of the Revolution that she reintroduced her silk gowns into everyday use, as a way to show the French people that despite their insistence that there was no longer a monarchy and commoner and royal were equals, the fact that they couldn’t purchase high-end silk gowns meant that they actually were not, and should not pretend to be.

Weber also effectively illustrates how much of the hatred Marie Antoinette endured from the French people after 1775 was as a direct result of the sexually-challenged Louis XVI not taking a mistress. During previous reigns, royal mistresses bore the brunt of the wrath of the French public, as they were the ones lavished with excesses of clothing and jewellery (in fact, the necklace at the heart of the Diamond Necklace Affair was actually commissioned by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry). Louis XVI during his reign gladly allocated these resources to Marie Antoinette, who employed a so-called “Ministry of Fashion” (essentially her hair stylist Monsieur Leonard and dressmaker Rose Bertin), which was heavily criticized during the 1780s when there was so much political and economical turmoil in France.

While I immensely enjoyed this book, there were a few things I didn’t particularly like. Weber has some very interesting notes about her sources, but these are listed as end notes rather than footnotes, so I had to keep flipping to the back of the book to read those (if you’re less of a nerd than I, this probably won’t bother you). In addition, Weber spends a majority of the latter half of the book delving into some of the grittier details of the French Revolution (which makes sense as she is, after all, a French studies professor at Barnard). Some of these details I felt weren’t necessary to the telling of Marie Antoinette’s story of personal style, although they were interesting.

Despite these few reservations, I cannot recommend this book enough! While a knowledge of French and 18th century fashion terms is helpful when reading this book, it certainly is not necessary, and there are some fabulous images (in color!) included that help to illustrate Weber’s points. This book is definitely not a biography of the ill-fated Queen, but nor does it purport to be. Instead, Weber shows through amazingly detailed and meticulous research that Marie Antoinette was the true definition of a fashion icon and, unfortunately, ended up paying the ultimate price for this status.

Finished! · Modern Sewing

Black & White Polka Dot Top

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Modern tops that fit are sorely lacking in my wardrobe (I’ve had a bit of a weight gain since moving to Portland, but that’s a whole ‘nother post), and so when I saw this pattern in the Simplicity catalog on a recent fabric shopping trip, I knew it would be a great staple to have. I made version E almost exactly (sans the black strip down the middle), but I did decide to fully line it (polyester chiffon is so sheer, who knew!), which the pattern doesn’t call for. Including a lining made this project take twice as long as it should have, but you can’t really see my undergarments through it, so mission accomplished.

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I also made my own bias tape out of the lining fabric to finish the raw edges of the armholes ( I like to use self-fabric bias tape whenever possible, as it wears better with the garment, uses up more of the project fabric, and you can cut it to any width you need, as opposed to the packaged stuff).

 

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The top is closed with a button-fastening at center back, which makes it super easy to wear.  I also made my first thread loop (there’s no buttonhole! Yay!), which was way easier than I thought it would be. The pattern also has great instructions on how to do this, along with a diagram, which was super helpful. That being said, the back is a bit saggy, and I don’t know if that’s due to the pattern design, or my button choice being too heavy. In any event, it’s still very comfortable and versatile to wear, especially when making friends with neighborhood cats (this one happened to only have 3 legs, but she was such a sweetie!).

Me and Montage

All in all, I’m quite pleased with how this project turned out and will definitely be making another! Do you have a go-to top pattern? Let me know down in the comments!

1850s · 1850s sewing · 1860s · 18th century · corset · Edwardian/Teens · Historic Costuming · Millinery · Personal · Regency era costuming · Underpinnings

Help Save YWU and Foundations Revealed!

Your Wardrobe Unlock'd: The Costume Maker's Companion

Foundation Revealed: The Corset Maker's Companion

Though less and less of my sewing these days is of the historic costuming nature (I’ve had to cut back on reenacting since moving to Portland), I still geek out over quilted petticoats, Edwardian foundation garments, and 19th century millinery –  and I know many of my readers here do, too! It is with this common interest that I implore you to become a member of Your Wardrobe Unlock’d and/or Foundations Revealed before they are forced to shut down due to financial issues.

Run by Cathy Hay, a professional costumer based in the UK, Your Wardrobe Unlock’d (YWU) and Foundations Revealed are the best resources out there for the historic costumer and corsetmaker, but they are at huge risk of not being available in the very near future.  Both websites pay professional and amateur costumers to write tutorials and in-depth articles covering all aspects of historic costuming and corset-making, and the way they do this is through monthly subscriptions (your first month is only $5.97). Sadly, their subscription numbers are not where they need to be in order to stay afloat, and that’s where we, as historic costumers and seamstresses, can help out. You can either subscribe to one or both to keep Cathy in business (you do get a better deal subscribing to both!)

Even if you’re not a costumer, there are some great articles about sewing in general, including Organizing Your Sewing Space, How to Fit Yourself (super helpful if you don’t have a sewing buddy to help with this!), and How to Sew with Ease and Pleasure.

For the vintage seamstress, Foundations Revealed has several articles and tutorials worth reading, including how to make several different styles of 1920s chemises, how to pattern and make your own seamed stocking with either a French or Cuban heel (!), and a tutorial on how to make a your own girdle (yes, you can make your own girdle! No more scouring the internets trying to find one that might fit!)

Thanks for reading my little internet PSA and I hope you will be inspired to subscribe to one or both of these fabulous websites! Seriously, there is no other resource like it out there on the web, and the patterns they have available for members alone are worth it. If you have a relevant historic costuming or sewing business, Cathy is also implementing an advertising program to help with generating additional revenue, and you can find more info about that here.

Outfit · The Vintage Closet · Vintage

The Ava Bergman Swirl

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Although Swirl is a vintage brand most known for their wrap-around dresses from the 40s and 50s, the company was still manufacturing these ingenious pieces of clothing well into the 1970s and 1980s. Enter the Ava Bergman Swirl, my latest vintage clothing purchase and second Swirl dress (you can see my first one here). While I don’t tend to buy vintage from later decades, this dress was just too perfect to pass up (polka dots AND floral appliques that also include a snail!?).

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Designed by Ava Bergmans, this Swirl incorporates a number of similar design features to its predecessors, including pockets (earlier Swirls have patch-pockets, whereas this Swirl has pockets sewn into the side seams of the skirt) and a very forgiving shape. Though this dress isn’t a wrap dress, it is essentially one big tube of fabric that is cinched in at the waist with a belt to fit the wearer.

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While I absolutely adore this dress, there is one design feature that I would change  – I would prefer to have the darker polka dot fabric extend all the way around the bottom of the skirt, and not just in the front. I definitely plan on taking a rub-off of this dress at some point and reproducing it, so that should be an easy fix.

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Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find much (if anything) on Ava Bergmans, although there is a ton of information about Swirl dresses out on the web if you are interested (this article provides a great overview). That being said, I did think it was a nice homage to the designer that her first name is embroidered on one of the leaves of the applique flower.

 

1940s · Finished! · Sew alongs · Vintage

Sew for Victory Apron!

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Feeling rather victorious

Just in the nick of time I’ve finished my project for Sew for Victory! For those not familiar, Sew for Victory is a non-competitive 1940s-themed sew-along hosted by Rochelle of Lucky Lucille where participants recreate a sewn item from the 1940s using authentic or reproduction patterns. There are some fabulous garments over in the Flickr pool that you should definitely check out!

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For my entry, I decided to I really wanted to make a reproduction 1940s apron after watching one of my favorite documentaries, Time Warp Wives (the series follows vintage-enthusiasts in Britain and is a much-watch for those interested in the vintage lifestyle). The apron was such a ubiquitous part of everyday life for women in the 1940s, and I really wanted to pay homage to that (plus, heart-shaped pockets!!!!).

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The pattern I used is this reproduction one by Wearing History. This was my first time using a Wearing History pattern, and I had a little bit of trouble with the directions (it probably partially was my own fault, as I’ve been sewing for so long that I tend to skim over instructions, which sometimes backfires). My apron is made from a reproduction 1930s fabric that I found locally at Fabric Depot. I used olive green bias tape to both finish the edges, as well as provide a contrast to the red, black, and green in the print. The method I used for bias binding (and there are several options included in the pattern) is to sew the bias binding right-sides together to the fabric, then open and press to the back, and stitch-in-the-ditch on the right side to secure all layers.

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With my 1944 Life Magazine!

By far, the hardest part for me was mitering the corners (I don’t quilt nor make napkins, so I don’t really use this technique). After some seam-ripping, I finally consulted the Googles, and found this really helpful tutorial on how to miter corners with bias tape.

While I loved the finished apron. there are definitely some things I would change if I were to make this again (which probably won’t be for awhile, as OMG! So much bias tape!), namely making the waist ties a little longer (they were a bit on the short side for me, although the yardage requirement for this pattern is definitely in keeping with fabric restrictions of the time).

Vintage Saturday

(Semi) Vintage Saturday: Springtime English Tea

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British Boyfrend (TM) and I had the distinct pleasure of attending a Springtime English Tea this afternoon, put on by the United Methodist Church here in Portland. The Tea is an annual fundraising event for the church, and we were invited to attend by Peter’s Grandma Margaret, one of the sweetest older ladies I’ve ever met!

Grandma Margaret!
Grandma Margaret!

The event organizers did a fabulous job, and there were several courses, from scones with cream to cucumber sandwiches, a plethora of desserts, and savory sausage rolls. While the tea was organized by the women’s group at the church, Peter was allowed to attend, although I do believe he was the only male guest in his 20s (all other male guests were either under 10 or over 80), and he being English definitely helped (one of the event organizers actually came up to us after the tea had ended and asked him how they did and how authentic it was!).

 

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A fabulous hat was definitely in order for this event, especially with today also being Derby Day here in the US, an event notorious for its hats. The hat I wore is actually an 80s does 40s Saks 5th Avenue hat with feathers and veiling, courtesy of AlexSanra’s Vintage Emporium. While the crown is black, the brim is red, and so I wore this black and white skirt that has pops of red flowers, and accessorized with red Mary Janes.

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Finally, I just have to share what came in the mail today – 1953 bobby pins to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth!

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Being a complete Anglophile, I was ecstatic when I found these on a vintage selling group I frequent, and jumped at the opportunity to purchase them.

Anyone else snag any fun vintage finds lately?

Contemporary Pattern · Dress · Finished! · Modern Sewing

A Starburst Yellow Moneta

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Look, Ma! I made my first knit dress!

Living in Portland, I was fortunate enough to be a pattern tester for Colette Pattern’s first knit dress pattern, the Moneta (which made its debut this past Tuesday). It was *so* hard for me to keep this from you guys, because I love this dress so much! I made Version 1, which is sleeveless and has a really neat collar.

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It is incredibly comfy and soft and so easy to wear (no zip! Just slips on over the head!). I think that has a lot to do with fabric choice. I wanted to make my Moneta out of a fabric that was the highest percentage of cotton I could find (easier to work with, and a lot of the poly knits out there are just too slinky for me), and so I snagged this starburst printed cotton by Robert Kaufman. Luckily, I was able to find my fabric locally at Fabric Depot, but you can also find it online here.

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Regarding my experience sewing knits prior to this, I’ve made a basic cardigan before using this Simplicity pattern. Not having a serger has always detracted me from sewing knits, but luckily, my machine as a stitch that is specifically designed to sew seams on knits (you can also use a zig-zag stitch, as well).

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Besides the relative new-ness of sewing with knit fabric, there were also several techniques that this pattern uses that I had never done before. For example, the skirt is gathered using clear elastic, a notion that I had never used before (luckily, the Colette Patterns blog has a handy tutorial about how to use it).

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I definitely plan to make this dress again (I already have the fabric!), but there are a few changes I would make:

  • Shorten the bodice by about 1/2″. I don’t know if it’s the stretchiness of the particular fabric I chose, but the bottom of the bodice doesn’t hit quite at my natural waistline (hence the belt).
  • Edgestitch along the neckline. Right now, the collar has a tendency to roll up, and edgestitching would help it lay flat.

Despite these future changes, I’m completely chuffed with my first knit dress, and would definitely recommend this pattern to any seamstress (or seamster!) wanting to get started with sewing knits.