Power Dressing: How a dress changed the world

La reine en gaulle, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783. At the National Gallery in Washington DC.

The impact of fashion on the world is many. As I explored the history of fashion, I was much intrigued by the fashion French revolution and how a dress worn by the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, had contributed to that movement.  It made me question how something so “frivolous” such as fashion could inspire such a tragic flow of events. So what exactly happened and why? How did Marie Antoinette change the world?

via GIPHY

Marie Antoinette: The out of touch Celeb-Royalty

While I won’t go into the details of who this prolific queen was, there are vital points to note on who she was and the context in which she lived. Marie Antoinette was an Austrian who married into French royalty; King Louis XVI.  The royals reigned during a time of severe financial difficulty. She didn’t have a lot of official duties and would spend her time socialising and ‘living her best life’. Which included things like dressing as milkmaids with her ladies-in-waiting.

While she “did her”, newspapers would ridicule her and her lifestyle choices. As time went by, it became fashionable to blame her for everything going wrong in France.

One of those instances was how the press blamed her as the primary opposer of a tax reform plan developed by the King. Part of that reform included taxing French Nobility (you could consider them as the 1%). There were many others of the wealthy class who were against such reforms. During this time, average French citizens felt they were unfairly taxed and were growing aggravated by the unequal, inefficient taxation system. It was instances like these that build that negative perception of her in the eyes of the public. 

Too Insta-worthy? 

Portraits and photos have the power of shaping perceptions and narratives. When the White House or Kensington Palace publish a picture, there is a specific message that they are trying to deliver. Portraits in the past played the same role. Royal Portraits were a messaging tool. It would communicate the prosperity of a nation or a leader respected and liked by its people. A portrait: the La Reine en galle, in particular, had propelled the dress to its current status. In 1783, a portrait earlier commissioned by the queen herself was showcased in the Salon De Louvre along with other portraits of royalty. In that portrait, she is seen wearing the Chemise á la Reine.  

La Reine en galle, 1783 portrait by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
 Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

Chemise á la reine: The dress that changed the world.

The Chemise á la reine, a white muslin empire waist adorned with a gold sash wrapped around her waist. Although seemingly harmless, this dress had triggered the French nationals on two levels.  

  • The Chemise á la reine resembled women’s underwear. It was a dressing unbecoming of a queen. 
  • The Chemise, made of muslin, was a product of British manufacturing. This signalled to the French citizens how she did not support the French silk industry. An unpatriotic act. Just like when Jackie O wore a pink bouclé suit that strongly resembled a Chanel suit. Myth has it that Chanel supplied a New York dress shop the materials to recreate a Chanel suit to reduce any political backlash over wearing a non-american designer.
  • Aristocrats were angry that the queen had made such an inexpensive garment “fashionable”, blurring the class lines. Making the luxuries of nobility accessible to the masses. 

The Queen had alienated her subjects. It didn’t help that the queen was not French and there was already a growing public disdain for her.  Returning to the issue of royal portraiture, what message did the queen try to convey allowing the presentation of La Reine en galle at the Salon de Louvre? What was the message she wanted to send to the people? Was the dress too comfortable to not share with masses? Was it a move to communicate her irreverence towards the traditions of the French? 

Beyond the French Revolution

No spoilers here; Marie Antoinette was beheaded, ten years after the release of the La Reine en Galle. Marie Antoinette had worn the chemise to her beheading. Her last words were, “Pardon me, sir. I did not do it on purpose.”  Whether an act of rebellion or merely finding comfort in what else she had left, the queen’s last outfit made the Chemise a symbol of pro-revolution. Cotton became the fabric of choice. The East Indian company could not meet Europe’s demands. The Europeans thirst for cotton motivated America to quench it by investing in machinery aiding textile production. Plantation owners looked to slaves for labour. As that industry grew, so did the number of slaves. The boom in the cotton industry, sparked by Marie Antoinette’s Chemise á la reine, had perpetuated a system of slavery that echoes till the present. 

It just ain’t about fun

This garment, that pretty much was underwear of that era, was hugely iconic and momentous. It makes you question the frivolousness of fashion. The Chemise á la reine embodies the inherent strength of the fashion industry. The dress caused a market shift, a rebranding of cotton and placed a system of slavery in America. The incident is also an ode to consumer-market relationships. If a dress could change history, imagine what brands could do. Imagine what consumers could do if they activated themselves. What the French revolutionists did was by accident. Imagine what consumers could do purposefully. 

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Citations and Resources

History.com: Marie Antoinette
Learnodo.com: Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette’s Dress and Slave Trade 
Information on Portrait: La Reine en gaulle
History of French Taxation
History of French Taxation2

Lydia Katherine, D. (2008). THE POWER OF THE PORTRAIT: MARIE-ANTOINETTE AND THE SHAPING OF A REPUTATION THROUGH ART. BA. Texas Christian University.

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