Marie Antoinette A Stitch in Time


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Marie Antoinette

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.

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By looking at the way people dressed,

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we can learn not only about them as individuals,

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but about the society they lived in.

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I'm Amber Butchart, fashion historian,

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and in the words of Louis XIV,

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I believe that fashion is the mirror of history.

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So taking historical works of art as our inspiration...

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..traditional tailor Ninya Mikhaila and her team will be recreating

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historical clothing, using only authentic methods.

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Oh, look at that! It's changing colour in the air.

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And I'll be finding out what they tell us

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about the people who wore them.

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I'm assuming the king wouldn't be dressing himself though, right?

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And the times they lived in.

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And seeing what they're like to wear.

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Marie Antoinette is seen as history's ultimate fashion icon,

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and its ultimate fashion victim.

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Her extravagant wardrobe is the stuff of legend,

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and yet not a single gown known to have been worn by her

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survives today.

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What we do have are portraits like this one painted in 1783

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by the Queen's favourite artist, Vigee Le Brun.

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And its story, and the story of the dress she wears in it,

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are as scandalous and as intriguing as the Queen herself.

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When this portrait was unveiled it caused huge damage to an already

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unpopular monarchy. It looks really informal for a court portrait,

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especially those of Marie Antoinette,

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who we associate with this very lavish, sumptuous clothing.

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So I'm really keen to unravel the story behind it.

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Now, fashion and dress took on a really ideological role

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during the fall of the French monarchy,

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so I really want to see what this portrait can tell us

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about this tumultuous period in history,

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and especially the place of Marie Antoinette within that.

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The chemise a la reine, as the gown worn in this portrait became known,

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was a radical departure for Marie Antoinette,

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and a complete contrast to the highly structured garments

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favoured by the rest of the court.

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I'm keen to find out from Ninya if the dress is as simple as it looks.

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So, Marie Antoinette, as a figure,

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still looms large in the history of fashion

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and in pop culture in general.

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But this portrait of her is a very different Marie Antoinette

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from the very wide skirts and very elaborate silks

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that we're used to seeing her in. So what is this dress actually made of?

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It's actually made of a very fine cotton muslin.

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So, I've got some samples here.

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It comes in a super, super fine, or slightly more opaque.

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So soft, aren't they?

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It's more like... Well, hence why it was so shocking at the time,

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it's more like a nightdress or underwear, really.

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-Yeah.

-My understanding of the time is that with this style of gown,

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the chemise a la reine,

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you'd still have your stays and your petticoat underneath,

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and they would still be silk, in the tradition.

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So how do we know that she's wearing stays under this?

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It was still a very strong convention at this date.

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It's a very radical thing to be wearing the chemise on the outside

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when it's essentially a piece of underwear,

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but it's a whole other step for a lady to just let go

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-of her stays altogether.

-So how will you make the stays?

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Well, I'm going to get Harriet to make the stays

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and she'll be making them from a linen foundation

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covered with a silk brocade, and

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we've found some really lovely brocade.

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Oh, wow. Look at that!

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I know, it's got little birds and flowers,

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and it feels to me very Marie Antoinette.

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It's very Marie Antoinette, isn't it? Definitely.

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So what particular sort of tools or techniques will you be using

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to recreate this?

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Lots of bone channels to sew, and bones to prepare and insert

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into those channels. It's quite hard on the hands.

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You have to be quite strong, actually,

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to make a good pair of stays.

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And then the chemise, it's really just an awful lot

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of fine hand sewing, because all the sewing is very much on show

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-with the fabric being very sheer like that.

-Right.

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And it's really important that all of the edges of the muslin

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are very, very straight.

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That sounds incredibly fiddly.

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-It is, yeah.

-Very skilful.

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Again, like we so often say, it looks like this'll be a simple one,

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but there's a lot of yards of hand sewing in that.

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As it's held in private ownership,

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we don't have access to the original painting...

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..but its sister portrait hangs

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at Marie Antoinette's Private Versailles getaway,

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Le Petit Trianon, where the Austrian-born Queen escaped

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the stultifying etiquette of the French court.

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And the chemise gown became the unofficial uniform

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among her inner circle.

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It's also where I'm meeting art curator Juliette Trey.

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So Marie Antoinette's pose in this portrait is very similar

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to the chemise a la reine portrait.

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What's the relationship between the two?

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Oh, they're very close.

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This portrait is actually a kind of replica.

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The portrait with the chemise dress was shown at the salon in 1783.

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And it caused a great scandal.

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And so Vigee Le Brun had to take the painting away and replace it

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straightaway. So she kept exactly the same pose,

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but she changed the dress.

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So what was so shocking about this chemise dress portrait?

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So, the salon is a public exhibition that takes place at the Louvre

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every two years and absolutely everybody goes to the salon.

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This chemise dress was worn already at Versailles,

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but it could be worn inside, it could be one at the Petit Trianon,

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but it could not be worn as a formal dress.

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And the problem with the salon is that the Queen appears

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in front of all the people who come to visit the salon.

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It's as if she's here herself,

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and she could not appear in front of everyone in a...

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An informal dress.

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So that was quite inappropriate.

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Cotton and muslin, which were used for the dress,

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were also the materials you would use for underwear.

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It was also shocking that way,

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to see the queen showing herself in her underwear, so to say.

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So it was more the audacity of having this painting

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shown in public, than the actual dress itself, that was shocking.

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Absolutely, that goes completely against the idea

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that she's the queen.

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She should be there for her people,

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and she should assume her responsibility as a monarch.

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How much did this damage the reputation of Marie Antoinette?

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It's hard to say exactly,

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because she was never very much loved by the French people,

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but we could say that it is the beginning of her downfall.

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Well, I've got the lovely silk brocade

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for the Marie Antoinette stays and I'm just looking to see

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where the pattern lies, because obviously we don't want to cut it

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wastefully, and we want the final pattern to be displayed best

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on the actual pieces of the stays.

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Early stays, you have some whalebone, very, very expensive,

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but many stays are stiffened with reeds.

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They were called bents. It's like dried grasses.

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-Like these?

-Yes.

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So you can see, individually, they have no strength at all,

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but when you bundle them up together and hold them very tightly

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inside a channel, it's very good, very flexible.

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It's a wonderful material and even up to the 19th century

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there's records of women, poor women, going and seeking

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down by the riversides, seeking rushes

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to stiffen their own stays with.

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I think this is Marie Antoinette's chemise.

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Wow.

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-That's gorgeous.

-That's exactly, isn't it?

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Really lovely.

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So that's her sash.

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And here's the muslin.

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Lovely, lovely.

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-Yeah, nice choice.

-She's going to look very fresh, isn't she?

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She is.

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As with everything worn by Marie Antoinette,

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the chemise a la reine became the height of fashion.

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Chemise gowns are so delicate, there are only two

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known to be in existence.

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One is held at a small museum near the Palace of Versailles.

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When we think about 18th-century women's clothing,

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we tend to think about court dress - very formal, very structured,

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the silks, the panniers, the enormous shapes.

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Whereas this, I just would love to put it on and roll around

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on a chaise longue somewhere.

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It looks like it would feel luxurious and comfortable

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and soft and just amazing and...

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Looking at it from a 21st-century perspective,

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this dress does look very simple,

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that kind of Pastoral shepherdess style that Marie Antoinette

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was so in love with in Petit Trianon,

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in the grounds of Versailles, wearing something like this,

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swanning around her gardens.

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You've got this kind of romantic, rural ideal.

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But what we also see is that, simple as it is,

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it would still have been very expensive.

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The muslin itself was actually very expensive.

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It was an imported fabric.

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But, crucially, at this time, keeping something white

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is very laborious, very time-consuming,

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and so very, very expensive.

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It's kind of like wearing a status symbol.

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So, essentially, what it is is a very wealthy woman's idea,

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a queen's idea, of how a peasant might dress,

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or how a shepherdess might dress...

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..which is incredibly patronising, when you think about it.

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And you can really see why that misquote, "Let them eat cake,"

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really stuck to Marie Antoinette when you look at a dress like this.

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Wow, lots of different things going on here, lots of different colours.

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We've all got different bits of Marie Antoinette, haven't we?

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So, take me through in stages.

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I have the chemise a la reine.

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A feature of this garment is a very fine hem all the way...

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Well, lots of very fine hems.

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And the only way you can do a really fine hem on a very thin fabric

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like this is if it's dead straight on the grain.

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And the way to get it dead straight on the grain

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is to draw out a thread first.

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You're drawing out one thread from across this whole length of fabric?

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-Yes.

-How, how on Earth do you do that?

-I have a pin...

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I pick up the thread with the pin and lift it up.

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-There, you see. And you see how it makes it pucker?

-Yeah.

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So I'm left with this very faint, kind of, line

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where I've pulled the thread out.

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That's where I'll cut along with my shears.

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And then I'll know that I can do a nice hem on it.

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Wow, that sounds really, really fiddly.

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So, what are you working on, Harriet?

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Well, I'm working on the stays. These get worn underneath.

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So these are quite tough garments.

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They were cut out by men.

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-Really?

-Big responsibility, cutting fabric.

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-Yeah.

-If you ruined the silk, then that's...that's a lot of money.

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A lot of money, isn't it?

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How are you with scissors?

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-OK.

-Let's throw caution to the wind.

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If you cut around this, cut round the edge.

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This... I feel quite stressed about this.

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So do I.

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Gosh. So literally I'm just cutting...

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-You're just cutting.

-..this exact shape.

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And it's all pinned on, so I shouldn't...

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It's pinned on. It can't go anywhere.

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-OK.

-Unless I take it away.

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And if I do that, stop cutting, because something's gone wrong.

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All right, so I'm going in?

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-Going in.

-She's doing it.

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-Keep these upright.

-Keep those nice and upright.

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SHE GASPS AND THEY ALL GIGGLE

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SCISSORS SNIP

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It's a lovely sound, isn't it? Enjoy the sound.

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All I can hear is screaming inside my head.

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-Yeah?

-OK?

-Good.

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-Is that all right?

-Yes.

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I like how you've all stopped work and you're just staring.

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No pressure.

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Well, she's got my shears. I was going to cut this.

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Come along, apprentice.

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Oh, dear.

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I feel like I'm going to lose control of them,

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because they're so...

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I feel like the end of them is so far away from my hand.

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It's tricky, the curves.

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-Yay!

-Lovely.

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-Congratulations.

-Brilliant.

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-And so how, how do you rate my cutting?

-Fair.

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-Very good.

-Can I have my shears back, please?

-Yes.

-Thank you.

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For a real sense of how radical a departure the new look was,

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we have one remaining direct link to Marie Antoinette.

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Her wardrobe book for 1782,

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just one year before our portrait was painted.

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I cannot wait to see this. This is amazing.

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Oh, wow.

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So this book is so exciting to look at.

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Some of these swatches here, you can see tiny, tiny pinpricks.

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Now, some historians have suggested that this is where Marie Antoinette

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would go through this book and choose the fabrics

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that she wanted to wear that day by putting a pin in them.

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If that's the case, then what we're looking at here,

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just in these tiny holes, is her making these aesthetic decisions,

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these fashion choices, that would go on to define her.

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It just feels like such a tangible link to the past.

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The idea that, you know, she may have been looking through these,

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deciding what to wear.

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That's something that all of us do every day.

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We get up, we decide what we're going to wear.

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Wow.

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These tiny embroidered flowers are absolutely exquisite,

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and, again, just really fit into that idea

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of the sort of pastoral romanticism that was so in vogue at this time,

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and that Marie Antoinette herself was such a champion of.

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Really beautiful array of silks.

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Lyon in France was a huge centre of silk production at this time.

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What Marie Antoinette wore was taken up by her fellow courtiers,

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people outside of the court,

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everyone wanted to dress like the queen.

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She really set the fashions, which then, of course,

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filtered down to the rest of society.

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Seeing the extent of the patterns, and the colours...

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..really brings home how much of a contrast it would be to suddenly see

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Marie Antoinette dressed in a very simple muslin gown.

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She was accused of putting tens of thousands of silk merchants

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out of work, silk manufacturers out of work.

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From looking through these wardrobe books,

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we really get a sense of why Marie Antoinette's attempt

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to simplify her wardrobe became an issue of such contention.

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It really went against two of the most important aspects

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of her royal life. She was expected to encourage French manufacturing,

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support the silk industry,

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and she was also expected to inspire respect for the throne.

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And in dressing like this pastoral shepherdess,

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she really didn't do that.

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She was seen as transgressing class boundaries,

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and she became this incredibly divisive figure.

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I am sewing on casings for the drawstrings in the sleeves

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of the chemise a la reine.

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So this is one sleeve...

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..and you can see the three casings that I'm sewing in.

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And at the end of each casing there's an eyelet hole,

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because through those eyelet holes will be threaded a tape.

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Got this nice, thin cotton tape to thread through.

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And it will create this puffy arrangement that you can see

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in the portrait. She's got these puffed up, gathered bits.

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I'm still working on the stays.

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There is a lot of work in a pair of stays,

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which is ironic when you consider that they then get covered up

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and not seen at all.

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The way this stitch goes, you're coming out of one side

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and going down into the fold of the seam allowance

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on the other side.

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You go right across it because it's going to be going through

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all the layers to get as much of a grip on the other side as you can.

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And then you swing it around and you come down into the other side

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and do the same thing and it forms, like, a figure of eight, which,

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again, kind of locks it together.

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And, really, yeah. I mean, that's really not going anywhere.

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You can see light through it. Just.

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But that's...that's breathing holes.

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By 1789, Marie Antoinette's popularity was at an all-time low.

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The previous winter had been so cold the Seine froze over,

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and a bad harvest meant there wasn't enough bread.

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To many, the court, and particularly the foreign-born queen,

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symbolised all that was wrong with the country.

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On July 14, an angry mob stormed the Bastille prison,

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which had become a symbol of royal dictatorial rule.

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The French Revolution had begun.

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Marie Antoinette spent the last nine weeks of her life here

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at La Conciergerie, a medieval palace turned prison,

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where she was completely stripped of her royal prestige

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and was known as the Widow Capet.

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In strict mourning for her husband, Louis XVI,

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beheaded some months earlier, the queen,

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who had railed against the lack of privacy at the French court,

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was under constant surveillance.

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I'm here to meet historian Andrew Hussey to find out more

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about Marie Antoinette's last days.

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So we're here in what I think is quite a beautiful room.

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It's a chapel of remembrance.

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But it's on the site of the cell that Marie Antoinette was held in

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for the last nine weeks of her life.

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Do we know anything about her state of mind while she was here?

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We know that she came here in the early hours of August the 2nd 1793,

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and a bit like now, there was a heatwave in Paris,

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and it was famously sweltering when she got to this cell.

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And she arrived about two or three o'clock in the morning.

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I think probably in 21st-century terms,

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we would say she was in deep shock and trauma.

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And she never really recovered from that.

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What would her life here have been like?

0:21:090:21:11

Do you know what? It's hard to imagine a sharper difference

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between life at Versailles, which was the big society of the

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spectacle, the great open spaces, the great mise en scene,

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the fetes galante, all these big parties they had, and all of this,

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orgies and all that kind of thing,

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to this claustrophobic, sweltering, nightmarish scene out of Kafka.

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But...but the two are interlinked, and in some ways,

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without being too clever about it, this is the direct contrast

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that links the society of the spectacle on both sides.

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Because here, now, she becomes a celebrity criminal.

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How much did her love of fashion, her love of novelty and luxury,

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how big a part did that play in her downfall?

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I don't think Marie Antoinette was guileless.

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She wasn't a stupid woman, and she knew what she was doing.

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And what she was doing was pursuing an aesthetic life

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rather than a political life. The problem was, in France at that time,

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anything you did was political.

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So she was, as it were, caught in a trap, that whatever she did she was,

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you know, going to be judged on,

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you know, how she looked, how she performed and so on.

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So the fashion side of it wasn't the ditzy Austrian queen of legends,

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but it was always going to be portrayed in terms of decadence,

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in terms of the dangers of absolutism.

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Now, the famous misquote, "Let them eat cake" -

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how true is this version of Marie Antoinette that we have?

0:22:390:22:44

I think on both sides of the Channel, particularly in Britain,

0:22:440:22:46

actually, we've got this Carry On Don't Lose Your Head

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version, Blue Peter version, of Marie Antoinette.

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And it's not true. She was a real woman who was really killed,

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and she was killed just down the road in Place de la Concorde,

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in a city that was full of febrile revolutionaries.

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And as late as the early 19th century,

0:23:020:23:05

animals would not cross the bridge over to Place de la Concorde

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because the stench of blood under the pave was so powerful.

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And I think we forget, you know,

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that this was a city that had become a slaughterhouse.

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It was full of killers,

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and it was full of the rabid, ferocious, murderous energy

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that goes with a great, massive political upheaval.

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And she was a woman who lost her life.

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And she started losing it here in this cell in the heatwave in August.

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On October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette shed her widow's weeds

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and slipped on a white chemise she'd managed to keep hidden

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from the guards, over which she wore a simple white dress,

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and went to meet her death.

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Crowds lining the streets were stunned into silence

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when confronted by this modest spectral figure,

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her prematurely white hair matching her carefully chosen clothes.

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And so Marie Antoinette saved her most powerful fashion statement

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for last.

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Whoa!

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It is kind of architectural.

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It's incredible. Oh, my God.

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There's absolutely no way that somebody would think

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this was an underwear chemise. With all of the layers as well,

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it's really not in any way see-through, so I...

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You also get a sense that what really angered people

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was this idea of class transgression,

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that she was trying to dress like some kind of shepherdess

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or farmer's daughter.

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And, you know, when you're wearing this,

0:25:200:25:24

the idea of doing any kind of herding sheep is just...

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It's an horrific pastiche, isn't it? In that respect.

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It's so much more kind of meringuey!

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It is, in effect, Princess Diana's wedding dress.

0:25:370:25:40

-Yes.

-Really.

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But she wasn't wearing the stays that you're wearing,

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so she had a defined, curvy body.

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And you have the conical 18th-century body.

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-The sash is a triumph, Hannah.

-Yes, it is.

-Looks really lovely.

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It is weightless to wear, it completely is.

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Like, the only pressure on your body is the pressure of the stays.

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So then to wear something like this after having worn silks

0:26:050:26:09

would have felt incredibly liberating, I think.

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Very, very freeing.

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It's so fascinating wearing this, having really, you know,

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spent some time inside her life, almost.

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And thinking about the magnitude of that moment when the portrait

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went on display.

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-Yeah, it's quite unlike anything that came before, isn't it?

-Yeah.

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I suppose she was damned for wearing too much silk

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and then dammed for wearing none. Poor thing.

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She really couldn't win.

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She really didn't win.

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Wearing this dress,

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I wasn't expecting how much kind of volume and structure

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all of the interior lacing was going to give it.

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So it had a much more dramatic silhouette.

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And also, of course, you have the physical experience

0:27:050:27:10

of wearing stays, wearing a corset underneath,

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gives so much more structure and formality

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than you're expecting with a garment that has always been

0:27:170:27:21

talked about as being too informal for a queen to wear.

0:27:210:27:25

It really gave me an understanding

0:27:270:27:28

of why it would appeal to Marie Antoinette.

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The lightness of the fabric, it's just completely a world away

0:27:320:27:37

from what she would have been expected to wear at court.

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These very sort of strict rules of etiquette and dress

0:27:410:27:44

that we know she really did not like.

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She felt very constrained by this.

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So the weightlessness, the freedom, the liberation

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that this garment offered, you really get a sense of that

0:27:530:27:56

when you actually have it on.

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Clothes affect the way that we move through the world.

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They affect the way that we stand, the way we hold ourselves.

0:28:050:28:09

And so having the experience of putting these clothes on,

0:28:090:28:13

wearing these clothes on the body,

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feeling the way that these people would have felt

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and would have moved through the world,

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is a really invaluable experience.

0:28:210:28:23