In 1783, Marie Antoinette scandalized her subjects when she had court artist Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun paint this portrait of her.
The queen, opined some members of the outraged public, had allowed a portrait to be painted of her clad in little more than a chemise, or what amounted to women’s underwear at the time. The queen should have commissioned a portrait in which she appeared to be more regal, something which her rank and royal custom demanded of her. It was a reaction that contradicted the established French custom of the public being able to have more or less full access to the royal family’s most private moments, from getting out of bed and dressing for the day to dinner to the birth of the royal children. The third example would no doubt still be fresh in Marie Antoinette’s mind as the public had been allowed access to her room during the birth of her daughter, Marie Therese, and it had grown so hot in there that she had almost suffocated had not Louis XVI thought to open a window to let some air in.
While tradition demanded that the royal children also be on public display all the time for their subjects, Marie Antoinette sought to give her children some semblance of the childhood she had. She would often take her children, a nursemaid, and a few of her ladies-in-waiting to the Petit Trianon, a small hideaway on the Versailles grounds where the queen could seek refuge from the daily stresses of court life and raise her family in privacy.
Much of the change in Marie Antoinette’s style of dress coincides with the birth of Marie Therese. Already, she and her friends had begun to dress more simply, eschewing the silk used to make traditional court dresses and instead choosing linen, muslin, and gauze in more subdued colors. It was Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker, who noted that the colonists’ wives also dressed like this to keep cool in the warmer climates, and she copied the style, which would be known as the chemise en gaulle or the chemise à la reine. Caroline Weber writes:
This garment was slipped in over a flexible cloth bodice instead of whalebone stays, and was free of any other structuring elements except a ruffled drawstring neck, puffy sleeves held up by ribbon “bracelets,” and a wide ribbon sash at the waist. Wearers accessorized it sometimes with a saucy white apron, sometimes with a white fichu, and almost always with a soft white bonnet or wide-brimmed straw hat, perched atop hair that was loose and unpowdered.
The style soon became quite popular among women of all social classes, so much so that one writer lamented that no one could tell the difference between rich and poor any longer. Marie Antoinette even gifted one to her English friend, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, who soon made it as popular in England as it was on the Continent. According to a Mademoiselle de Mirecourt, though, “The resulting disappearance of visible social distinctions ‘enabled women of low birth to try to compete with, [or even be] mistaken for, ladies of quality.” Moreover, the change in fashions almost destroyed the silk and satin industries, which relied on the members of the upper classes to buy their goods and keep business booming.
Paying heed to public sentiment, Marie Antoinette began to incorporate more formal attire into her wardrobe, both to represent herself as queen of France and as a wife and mother. Still, the queen’s perceived sartorial faux pas remained fresh in the minds of her detractors and served as another reason for the public’s growing disenchantment with her.
Source: Caroline Weber. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.
This was originally published on Persephone Magazine, a daily blog for bookish, clever women.