Fusing biography, art and the history of fashion, Amber Butchart explores the lives of historical figures through their clothes. She looks at Marie Antoinette.
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Clothes are the ultimate form of visual communication.
By looking at the way people dressed,
we can learn not only about them as individuals,
but about the society they lived in.
I'm Amber Butchart, fashion historian,
and in the words of Louis XIV,
I believe that fashion is the mirror of history.
So taking historical works of art as our inspiration...
..traditional tailor Ninya Mikhaila and her team will be recreating
historical clothing, using only authentic methods.
Oh, look at that! It's changing colour in the air.
And I'll be finding out what they tell us
about the people who wore them.
I'm assuming the king wouldn't be dressing himself though, right?
And the times they lived in.
And seeing what they're like to wear.
Marie Antoinette is seen as history's ultimate fashion icon,
and its ultimate fashion victim.
Her extravagant wardrobe is the stuff of legend,
and yet not a single gown known to have been worn by her
What we do have are portraits like this one painted in 1783
by the Queen's favourite artist, Vigee Le Brun.
And its story, and the story of the dress she wears in it,
are as scandalous and as intriguing as the Queen herself.
When this portrait was unveiled it caused huge damage to an already
unpopular monarchy. It looks really informal for a court portrait,
especially those of Marie Antoinette,
who we associate with this very lavish, sumptuous clothing.
So I'm really keen to unravel the story behind it.
Now, fashion and dress took on a really ideological role
during the fall of the French monarchy,
so I really want to see what this portrait can tell us
about this tumultuous period in history,
and especially the place of Marie Antoinette within that.
The chemise a la reine, as the gown worn in this portrait became known,
was a radical departure for Marie Antoinette,
and a complete contrast to the highly structured garments
favoured by the rest of the court.
I'm keen to find out from Ninya if the dress is as simple as it looks.
So, Marie Antoinette, as a figure,
still looms large in the history of fashion
and in pop culture in general.
But this portrait of her is a very different Marie Antoinette
from the very wide skirts and very elaborate silks
that we're used to seeing her in. So what is this dress actually made of?
It's actually made of a very fine cotton muslin.
So, I've got some samples here.
It comes in a super, super fine, or slightly more opaque.
So soft, aren't they?
It's more like... Well, hence why it was so shocking at the time,
it's more like a nightdress or underwear, really.
-My understanding of the time is that with this style of gown,
the chemise a la reine,
you'd still have your stays and your petticoat underneath,
and they would still be silk, in the tradition.
So how do we know that she's wearing stays under this?
It was still a very strong convention at this date.
It's a very radical thing to be wearing the chemise on the outside
when it's essentially a piece of underwear,
but it's a whole other step for a lady to just let go
-of her stays altogether.
-So how will you make the stays?
Well, I'm going to get Harriet to make the stays
and she'll be making them from a linen foundation
covered with a silk brocade, and
we've found some really lovely brocade.
Oh, wow. Look at that!
I know, it's got little birds and flowers,
and it feels to me very Marie Antoinette.
It's very Marie Antoinette, isn't it? Definitely.
So what particular sort of tools or techniques will you be using
to recreate this?
Lots of bone channels to sew, and bones to prepare and insert
into those channels. It's quite hard on the hands.
You have to be quite strong, actually,
to make a good pair of stays.
And then the chemise, it's really just an awful lot
of fine hand sewing, because all the sewing is very much on show
-with the fabric being very sheer like that.
And it's really important that all of the edges of the muslin
are very, very straight.
That sounds incredibly fiddly.
-It is, yeah.
Again, like we so often say, it looks like this'll be a simple one,
but there's a lot of yards of hand sewing in that.
As it's held in private ownership,
we don't have access to the original painting...
..but its sister portrait hangs
at Marie Antoinette's Private Versailles getaway,
Le Petit Trianon, where the Austrian-born Queen escaped
the stultifying etiquette of the French court.
And the chemise gown became the unofficial uniform
among her inner circle.
It's also where I'm meeting art curator Juliette Trey.
So Marie Antoinette's pose in this portrait is very similar
to the chemise a la reine portrait.
What's the relationship between the two?
Oh, they're very close.
This portrait is actually a kind of replica.
The portrait with the chemise dress was shown at the salon in 1783.
And it caused a great scandal.
And so Vigee Le Brun had to take the painting away and replace it
straightaway. So she kept exactly the same pose,
but she changed the dress.
So what was so shocking about this chemise dress portrait?
So, the salon is a public exhibition that takes place at the Louvre
every two years and absolutely everybody goes to the salon.
This chemise dress was worn already at Versailles,
but it could be worn inside, it could be one at the Petit Trianon,
but it could not be worn as a formal dress.
And the problem with the salon is that the Queen appears
in front of all the people who come to visit the salon.
It's as if she's here herself,
and she could not appear in front of everyone in a...
An informal dress.
So that was quite inappropriate.
Cotton and muslin, which were used for the dress,
were also the materials you would use for underwear.
It was also shocking that way,
to see the queen showing herself in her underwear, so to say.
So it was more the audacity of having this painting
shown in public, than the actual dress itself, that was shocking.
Absolutely, that goes completely against the idea
that she's the queen.
She should be there for her people,
and she should assume her responsibility as a monarch.
How much did this damage the reputation of Marie Antoinette?
It's hard to say exactly,
because she was never very much loved by the French people,
but we could say that it is the beginning of her downfall.
Well, I've got the lovely silk brocade
for the Marie Antoinette stays and I'm just looking to see
where the pattern lies, because obviously we don't want to cut it
wastefully, and we want the final pattern to be displayed best
on the actual pieces of the stays.
Early stays, you have some whalebone, very, very expensive,
but many stays are stiffened with reeds.
They were called bents. It's like dried grasses.
So you can see, individually, they have no strength at all,
but when you bundle them up together and hold them very tightly
inside a channel, it's very good, very flexible.
It's a wonderful material and even up to the 19th century
there's records of women, poor women, going and seeking
down by the riversides, seeking rushes
to stiffen their own stays with.
I think this is Marie Antoinette's chemise.
-That's exactly, isn't it?
So that's her sash.
And here's the muslin.
-Yeah, nice choice.
-She's going to look very fresh, isn't she?
As with everything worn by Marie Antoinette,
the chemise a la reine became the height of fashion.
Chemise gowns are so delicate, there are only two
known to be in existence.
One is held at a small museum near the Palace of Versailles.
When we think about 18th-century women's clothing,
we tend to think about court dress - very formal, very structured,
the silks, the panniers, the enormous shapes.
Whereas this, I just would love to put it on and roll around
on a chaise longue somewhere.
It looks like it would feel luxurious and comfortable
and soft and just amazing and...
Looking at it from a 21st-century perspective,
this dress does look very simple,
that kind of Pastoral shepherdess style that Marie Antoinette
was so in love with in Petit Trianon,
in the grounds of Versailles, wearing something like this,
swanning around her gardens.
You've got this kind of romantic, rural ideal.
But what we also see is that, simple as it is,
it would still have been very expensive.
The muslin itself was actually very expensive.
It was an imported fabric.
But, crucially, at this time, keeping something white
is very laborious, very time-consuming,
and so very, very expensive.
It's kind of like wearing a status symbol.
So, essentially, what it is is a very wealthy woman's idea,
a queen's idea, of how a peasant might dress,
or how a shepherdess might dress...
..which is incredibly patronising, when you think about it.
And you can really see why that misquote, "Let them eat cake,"
really stuck to Marie Antoinette when you look at a dress like this.
Wow, lots of different things going on here, lots of different colours.
We've all got different bits of Marie Antoinette, haven't we?
So, take me through in stages.
I have the chemise a la reine.
A feature of this garment is a very fine hem all the way...
Well, lots of very fine hems.
And the only way you can do a really fine hem on a very thin fabric
like this is if it's dead straight on the grain.
And the way to get it dead straight on the grain
is to draw out a thread first.
You're drawing out one thread from across this whole length of fabric?
-How, how on Earth do you do that?
-I have a pin...
I pick up the thread with the pin and lift it up.
-There, you see. And you see how it makes it pucker?
So I'm left with this very faint, kind of, line
where I've pulled the thread out.
That's where I'll cut along with my shears.
And then I'll know that I can do a nice hem on it.
Wow, that sounds really, really fiddly.
So, what are you working on, Harriet?
Well, I'm working on the stays. These get worn underneath.
So these are quite tough garments.
They were cut out by men.
-Big responsibility, cutting fabric.
-If you ruined the silk, then that's...that's a lot of money.
A lot of money, isn't it?
How are you with scissors?
-Let's throw caution to the wind.
If you cut around this, cut round the edge.
This... I feel quite stressed about this.
So do I.
Gosh. So literally I'm just cutting...
-You're just cutting.
-..this exact shape.
And it's all pinned on, so I shouldn't...
It's pinned on. It can't go anywhere.
-Unless I take it away.
And if I do that, stop cutting, because something's gone wrong.
All right, so I'm going in?
-She's doing it.
-Keep these upright.
-Keep those nice and upright.
SHE GASPS AND THEY ALL GIGGLE
It's a lovely sound, isn't it? Enjoy the sound.
All I can hear is screaming inside my head.
-Is that all right?
I like how you've all stopped work and you're just staring.
Well, she's got my shears. I was going to cut this.
Come along, apprentice.
I feel like I'm going to lose control of them,
because they're so...
I feel like the end of them is so far away from my hand.
It's tricky, the curves.
-And so how, how do you rate my cutting?
-Can I have my shears back, please?
For a real sense of how radical a departure the new look was,
we have one remaining direct link to Marie Antoinette.
Her wardrobe book for 1782,
just one year before our portrait was painted.
I cannot wait to see this. This is amazing.
So this book is so exciting to look at.
Some of these swatches here, you can see tiny, tiny pinpricks.
Now, some historians have suggested that this is where Marie Antoinette
would go through this book and choose the fabrics
that she wanted to wear that day by putting a pin in them.
If that's the case, then what we're looking at here,
just in these tiny holes, is her making these aesthetic decisions,
these fashion choices, that would go on to define her.
It just feels like such a tangible link to the past.
The idea that, you know, she may have been looking through these,
deciding what to wear.
That's something that all of us do every day.
We get up, we decide what we're going to wear.
These tiny embroidered flowers are absolutely exquisite,
and, again, just really fit into that idea
of the sort of pastoral romanticism that was so in vogue at this time,
and that Marie Antoinette herself was such a champion of.
Really beautiful array of silks.
Lyon in France was a huge centre of silk production at this time.
What Marie Antoinette wore was taken up by her fellow courtiers,
people outside of the court,
everyone wanted to dress like the queen.
She really set the fashions, which then, of course,
filtered down to the rest of society.
Seeing the extent of the patterns, and the colours...
..really brings home how much of a contrast it would be to suddenly see
Marie Antoinette dressed in a very simple muslin gown.
She was accused of putting tens of thousands of silk merchants
out of work, silk manufacturers out of work.
From looking through these wardrobe books,
we really get a sense of why Marie Antoinette's attempt
to simplify her wardrobe became an issue of such contention.
It really went against two of the most important aspects
of her royal life. She was expected to encourage French manufacturing,
support the silk industry,
and she was also expected to inspire respect for the throne.
And in dressing like this pastoral shepherdess,
she really didn't do that.
She was seen as transgressing class boundaries,
and she became this incredibly divisive figure.
I am sewing on casings for the drawstrings in the sleeves
of the chemise a la reine.
So this is one sleeve...
..and you can see the three casings that I'm sewing in.
And at the end of each casing there's an eyelet hole,
because through those eyelet holes will be threaded a tape.
Got this nice, thin cotton tape to thread through.
And it will create this puffy arrangement that you can see
in the portrait. She's got these puffed up, gathered bits.
I'm still working on the stays.
There is a lot of work in a pair of stays,
which is ironic when you consider that they then get covered up
and not seen at all.
The way this stitch goes, you're coming out of one side
and going down into the fold of the seam allowance
on the other side.
You go right across it because it's going to be going through
all the layers to get as much of a grip on the other side as you can.
And then you swing it around and you come down into the other side
and do the same thing and it forms, like, a figure of eight, which,
again, kind of locks it together.
And, really, yeah. I mean, that's really not going anywhere.
You can see light through it. Just.
But that's...that's breathing holes.
By 1789, Marie Antoinette's popularity was at an all-time low.
The previous winter had been so cold the Seine froze over,
and a bad harvest meant there wasn't enough bread.
To many, the court, and particularly the foreign-born queen,
symbolised all that was wrong with the country.
On July 14, an angry mob stormed the Bastille prison,
which had become a symbol of royal dictatorial rule.
The French Revolution had begun.
Marie Antoinette spent the last nine weeks of her life here
at La Conciergerie, a medieval palace turned prison,
where she was completely stripped of her royal prestige
and was known as the Widow Capet.
In strict mourning for her husband, Louis XVI,
beheaded some months earlier, the queen,
who had railed against the lack of privacy at the French court,
was under constant surveillance.
I'm here to meet historian Andrew Hussey to find out more
about Marie Antoinette's last days.
So we're here in what I think is quite a beautiful room.
It's a chapel of remembrance.
But it's on the site of the cell that Marie Antoinette was held in
for the last nine weeks of her life.
Do we know anything about her state of mind while she was here?
We know that she came here in the early hours of August the 2nd 1793,
and a bit like now, there was a heatwave in Paris,
and it was famously sweltering when she got to this cell.
And she arrived about two or three o'clock in the morning.
I think probably in 21st-century terms,
we would say she was in deep shock and trauma.
And she never really recovered from that.
What would her life here have been like?
Do you know what? It's hard to imagine a sharper difference
between life at Versailles, which was the big society of the
spectacle, the great open spaces, the great mise en scene,
the fetes galante, all these big parties they had, and all of this,
orgies and all that kind of thing,
to this claustrophobic, sweltering, nightmarish scene out of Kafka.
But...but the two are interlinked, and in some ways,
without being too clever about it, this is the direct contrast
that links the society of the spectacle on both sides.
Because here, now, she becomes a celebrity criminal.
How much did her love of fashion, her love of novelty and luxury,
how big a part did that play in her downfall?
I don't think Marie Antoinette was guileless.
She wasn't a stupid woman, and she knew what she was doing.
And what she was doing was pursuing an aesthetic life
rather than a political life. The problem was, in France at that time,
anything you did was political.
So she was, as it were, caught in a trap, that whatever she did she was,
you know, going to be judged on,
you know, how she looked, how she performed and so on.
So the fashion side of it wasn't the ditzy Austrian queen of legends,
but it was always going to be portrayed in terms of decadence,
in terms of the dangers of absolutism.
Now, the famous misquote, "Let them eat cake" -
how true is this version of Marie Antoinette that we have?
I think on both sides of the Channel, particularly in Britain,
actually, we've got this Carry On Don't Lose Your Head
version, Blue Peter version, of Marie Antoinette.
And it's not true. She was a real woman who was really killed,
and she was killed just down the road in Place de la Concorde,
in a city that was full of febrile revolutionaries.
And as late as the early 19th century,
animals would not cross the bridge over to Place de la Concorde
because the stench of blood under the pave was so powerful.
And I think we forget, you know,
that this was a city that had become a slaughterhouse.
It was full of killers,
and it was full of the rabid, ferocious, murderous energy
that goes with a great, massive political upheaval.
And she was a woman who lost her life.
And she started losing it here in this cell in the heatwave in August.
On October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette shed her widow's weeds
and slipped on a white chemise she'd managed to keep hidden
from the guards, over which she wore a simple white dress,
and went to meet her death.
Crowds lining the streets were stunned into silence
when confronted by this modest spectral figure,
her prematurely white hair matching her carefully chosen clothes.
And so Marie Antoinette saved her most powerful fashion statement
It is kind of architectural.
It's incredible. Oh, my God.
There's absolutely no way that somebody would think
this was an underwear chemise. With all of the layers as well,
it's really not in any way see-through, so I...
You also get a sense that what really angered people
was this idea of class transgression,
that she was trying to dress like some kind of shepherdess
or farmer's daughter.
And, you know, when you're wearing this,
the idea of doing any kind of herding sheep is just...
It's an horrific pastiche, isn't it? In that respect.
It's so much more kind of meringuey!
It is, in effect, Princess Diana's wedding dress.
But she wasn't wearing the stays that you're wearing,
so she had a defined, curvy body.
And you have the conical 18th-century body.
-The sash is a triumph, Hannah.
-Yes, it is.
-Looks really lovely.
It is weightless to wear, it completely is.
Like, the only pressure on your body is the pressure of the stays.
So then to wear something like this after having worn silks
would have felt incredibly liberating, I think.
Very, very freeing.
It's so fascinating wearing this, having really, you know,
spent some time inside her life, almost.
And thinking about the magnitude of that moment when the portrait
went on display.
-Yeah, it's quite unlike anything that came before, isn't it?
I suppose she was damned for wearing too much silk
and then dammed for wearing none. Poor thing.
She really couldn't win.
She really didn't win.
Wearing this dress,
I wasn't expecting how much kind of volume and structure
all of the interior lacing was going to give it.
So it had a much more dramatic silhouette.
And also, of course, you have the physical experience
of wearing stays, wearing a corset underneath,
gives so much more structure and formality
than you're expecting with a garment that has always been
talked about as being too informal for a queen to wear.
It really gave me an understanding
of why it would appeal to Marie Antoinette.
The lightness of the fabric, it's just completely a world away
from what she would have been expected to wear at court.
These very sort of strict rules of etiquette and dress
that we know she really did not like.
She felt very constrained by this.
So the weightlessness, the freedom, the liberation
that this garment offered, you really get a sense of that
when you actually have it on.
Clothes affect the way that we move through the world.
They affect the way that we stand, the way we hold ourselves.
And so having the experience of putting these clothes on,
wearing these clothes on the body,
feeling the way that these people would have felt
and would have moved through the world,
is a really invaluable experience.