February 28, 2009

Deshabille and Marie Antoinette

I have been following a stream of personal interest, coming from I know not where, about Marie Antoinette and her continuing influence on fashion and culture. I have come to the conclusion that she was the one who made the concept of casual fashionable. I believe she is a huge influence in our appreciation of comfort, simplicity and freedom in how we dress and present ourselves. So we owe her something pretty important. Ironic how much the poor hated her, because in many ways she validated their wish to live their lives as people with the freedom to use their bodies for work and pleasure according to their own wishes and to be comfortable doing it.

Now I well know she is seen as the ultimate aristocrat who spent too much money that wasn't hers (people taxed to death to pay for her extravagances). People were angry because they saw her impoverishing a nation by spending incredible amounts of money on herself, and living so deeply behind her own lines of defense she was oblivious to the suffering this caused ("let them eat cake"). So I will explain what I mean when I say she is personally to thank for certain freedoms in dress we now take for granted. Modern people attempt to build a personal style that expresses our enchantment with the energy of physical movement, the pleasures of cleanliness (daily bathing and wearing frequently laundered fabrics like cotton) and the discerning ability to look beyond the signals of power as enforced by dress and self presentation. (Or more than we used to be able to see before M.A. pointed out the very real appeal of a milkmaid/shepherdess un-selfconsciously going about her business with rosy cheeks in comfortable cotton clothing that flattered her).

This style was adopted by Marie Antoinette, and then by the fashionable world around her, and in particular incorporating the state of "undress".

The French term was dishabille, which has a number of shades of meaning, such as half-undressed, loose, comfortable, free, and so to many minds, presenting yourself in an available sexual light. Dishabille meant wearing nonrestrictive clothing and shoes in private, with a relaxed and more natural hairstyle, without corset or stiff collar, around your intimate friends and family. Scents worn would be simple ones, floral, uncomplicated, and cosmetic use minimal. People spent time at home in this way but to go out in public entailed getting ready for hours and wearing what amounted to armor in clothing. It required full makeup, powdered hair and very strong perfumes, in order to make as huge a display of yourself as possible, like a peacock. In public you were the representative of your family, rank and power and your function was to inspire awe or respect for your social position. M.A. allowed herself to be seen and spent a lot of time in what people of her day considered to be dishabille. Going out in public without a corset in those times was considered the height of looseness in all ways, equivalent in our day to going bra-less to the office. One of the first scandals that damaged her reputation and credibility irreparably began when as a 15 year old girl new to France. She refused to wear the special, incredibly restrictive formal corset that was always and only worn by the very highest aristocracy. This particular type of corset ( the grand corps) was extremely restrictive of movement (could not move your arms freely) and even painful, often to the point of causing internal physical damage if you happened to trip and fall (you might pierce a lung or break a rib). She was young and thin enough not to need such stiff upholstering but that didn't make any difference. The public, at all social levels, thought her choice to refuse this corset was a sure sign of a basic character flaw, that she was literally a loose woman, that she was not worthy of her royal privileges, that she had no discipline or respect for France. This was a misunderstanding due to cultural differences because she had been a tom boy growing up in Austria and the formality of aristocratic self presentation in France was a huge adjustment for her. She often did not understand or meet the standards. But dressing and living without this particular form of corset, i.e., the tight formality of the powerful, freed her female body to do all kinds of vigorous activities more comfortably, such as riding horses, running, bending, walking and dancing with wider range of movement. It was also an invitation to relax the posture, to lounge and play around. Even though everyone hated her for it, her personal charisma and fame and prestige as queen was such that everyone imitated everything she did anyway, wanted to wear what she wore, do what she did, so everyone began to copy her thin white cotton dresses bound by thin ribbon sashes.

So to my mind in her own way she was a force for the ideas of the Enlightenment. Over time this idea of comfort and the sex appeal of simple body conscious clothing took hold and translated into the modern style. M.A. even introduced the luxury of indoor bathrooms and daily bathing (considered a wicked luxury at the time) to Versailles though it appears this custom was not much copied. Now no one can tell a millionaire from how they are dressed anymore (of course there are always the very subtle signals that have become very subtle indeed, the $500 jeans that look very much like $30 Wranglers). She is why, along with Chanel who came along so much later and also made a cult of a certain type of working class chic, that women now dress to please themselves and not as encumbered or immobilized objects of display that signal their social status.

This era and the one after it began the rejection of very heavy perfumes and cosmetics to signify social rank and identified instead with the wholesome appeal of a healthy body in deshabille, enhanced by fragrances that recalled the outdoors and cosmetics that heightened the effect of vigorous health.

Above, Kirstin Dunst in the film Marie Antoinette, gardening, from The Costumer's Guide to the Movies, a lovely site.

There are many descriptions of her use of perfume, often simple orange water and other times more complex compositions that still used a dominantly floral motif.

The Washington Post did an informative article on the collaboration of the historian de Feydeau and the perfumer Kurkdjian to recreate the perfume Sillage de la Reine, sadly so expensive as to be unobtainable (8.5 ounces for $10,500) - except by such as the Sultan of Oman, who bought 25 of the one ounce vials for $450 each and one of the 10 larger crystal vials produced.

Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century is excessively diverting.

Of course, The Scented Palace, by de Feydeau, about M.A.'s perfumer Fargeon, is an elegantly told story of the rise of a master craftsman to official court perfumer and the solace M.A. found in the cultivation of her personal beauty. Queen of Fashion by Weber makes a case for the power of M.A.'s self presentation as a social force.


chayaruchama said...

My passionate friend !

It is tragic, that we will never really know all that has gone on before- despite Herculean efforts -To reconstruct the period...
Multiple personal accounts, documents, correspondence, all help,but leave us unsatisfied.

Despite all the luxuries- hers was a lonely, brief existence, greatly misunderstood, I suspect.

Lucy said...

My dear C/I, so like you to have such compassion. It is true, it seems she was so often trying to distract herself from very difficult circumstances beyond her control.
The past was no picnic!
The good old days were anything but that!

trish/pikake said...

Lucy, I love the picture you chose of MA/KD gardening. How could one possibly do that joyful task in a corsette?!?

What a well written, thoughtful, insightful post. I always look forward to a new read on your blog.


Lucy said...

Thanks Trish, yes getting your hands dirty gardening is one way to keep a link to sanity when surrounded by powerful conflicting forces. And you wouldn't do that in a ball gown.

I try, my dear. I think the site is starting to incorporate more about beauty culture in general, and history, which I hope is not coming off as didactic for those who are strictly interested in perfume. Somehow the serious perfume fanatics do seem to keep a foot in those other areas of culture too,...and if anyone has anything to say about my take on these things I would certainly welcome reading it...

trish/pikake said...

Well I for one love the direction you are moving. It all flows organically in the way you write. So props to you!