Tag Archives: Marie Antoinette

The Fashion Museum in Bath: Blackout Curtains to Ball Gowns

Bath’s charming Fashion Museum is always worth a wander. And there’s a large central gallery where one and all are invited to try on new identities. How does that wig fit, Sir?

In this town where Jane Austen lived and wrote in the early 1800s, there are always Jane-esque muslin gowns on display. The placard explains that in the 1780s Marie Antoinette and her ladies at Versailles wore similar gowns in their private off-duty hours. In France, these refreshingly simple dresses were called chemises de la reine: dresses of the queen. They were inspired by archaeological discoveries of the ancient world in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

By 1900, fashions had gone fancy and formal again. To appear at court, a lady had to wear a dress with a train that trailed at least three yards from her ankles–nine feet. I’d be hopeless in a getup like that, I’m afraid. I’d trip myself and anyone in a nine-foot radius.

Sailor suits for little boys were popular in Victorian times. The fashion started when the five-year-old Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria, wore a miniature version of a sailor’s uniform from the HMS Victory. It was the flagship of Lord Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.

During and after World War II, blackout cloth was about the only fabric that was not rationed. Enterprising ladies used it creatively for dresses. The one above is from 1945.

In honor of the postwar accession of Queen Elizabeth II, a little girl’s mother treated her to a homemade dress printed with scenes from the coronation.

The smocked dress features a border and collar with the coronation procession.

I lived through the 1960s, but I have to say I would not have appeared in public in a “knickerbocker dress.” Was this really a thing? Mary Quant, the swinging 60s designer, thought so, and actually sold this little number in her boutique in 1961. Not for me, thanks. I do remember wearing geometric minidresses, though.

In 2018, the Fashion Museum features a special exhibit of clothes worn by several British royal women.

The exhibit starts with Princess Alexandra, subject of a previous post.

Next is Queen Consort Mary of Teck. She was married to King George V.

Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, wore this Norman Hartnell ball gown in 1954.

My favorites were the exquisite gowns worn by Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen.

The striped 1949 Dioresque gown above was designed to encourage postwar women to wear British textiles, including reasonably-priced cotton. It was the work of Norman Hartnell.

Best of show, in my opinion? Margaret’s ethereal ivory chiffon evening gown with tied bolero jacket, above.

The Fashion Museum is a bit off the beaten path in Bath, but worth the slight detour.

And did I mention that guests are invited to try on historic outfits for size?

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Slummin’ with Marie Antoinette

Ceiling

What’s a Queen to do when the gilded glories of Versailles get to be a bit much? Early in her reign, Marie Antoinette larked around Paris, shopping and taking in theatre and opera performances.  Adoring crowds applauded her beauty and grace.  That was then. Things changed, for the worse.  Retail therapy became a lot less therapeutic.  The Paris crowds began to turn restive, then hostile, and finally lethal.

The Palace of Versailles was the permanent and mandatory home of at least 3,000 people, courtiers and their servants.

The Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon are elegant, smaller, private palaces conveniently close to the ever-crowded main palace.  They’re great for private dinners away from the majority of prying eyes.  But still, a girl sometimes needs to just get away from the whole kit and kaboodle.

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Marie Antoinette’s haughty pose was set in stone, as far as the angry intellectuals and hungry mobs plotting revolution.  (After all, she had been raised to carry herself like a queen). But she had fond memories of running wild as a child in the wooded grounds of Schonnbrunn Palace, with her many brothers and sisters. She had an idea:  she ordered up her own personal getaway within the vast grounds of the Palace.

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Le Hameau de la Reine, The Hamlet of the Queen, was built for Marie Antoinette in 1783.  It was a large fenced-off area, open only to the Queen, her children, and her dearest friends.  It included private gardens much more informal than the main grounds.  There were pretty, grassy walks and a Temple of Love on an island.

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There was a grotto–a sort of custom-made concrete movie set meant to look like a cave.

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The grotto was perfect for games of hide-and-seek with the many lovers the queen was rumored to entertain. Were the rumors true? In the end, it didn’t matter one way or the other.

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But the most notorious feature of the Hamlet was the Queen’s Farm.  Quaint rustic buildings created a fairy-tale version of a working farm.  The Queen spent carefree days dressed in simple white muslin and a straw hat. She milked carefully groomed cows using specially made Sevres china buckets. There was a special billiards room attached to the main house–naturally, an important room in any farmhouse. There was an actual working farm nearby which provided shampooed and scented cows, sheep, chicken and ducks.  I’m sure her kids loved it.

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Today, the Hamlet is a place to ponder the wretched excesses that led to the French Revolution. When angry mobs arrived at the gates of Versailles, they had no sympathy at all for a Queen who played at being a peasant. For Marie Antoinette, there was no escape from her destiny.

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Petit Trianon: It’s All in the Details

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Not that many tourists make the trek from the over-the-top Palace of Versailles to the much smaller Petit Trianon, built as a retreat from the crowds that filled the main palace as soon as it was built.

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I like the much-more-human scale of the Petit Trianon. So did Marie Antoinette.  OK, I’m sure her critics were correct in accusing her of hosting raucous parties there, but I’m sure she also appreciated the details in her more quiet moments.

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There’s a round salon with exquisite, soothing painted panels.

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The salon has a patterned marble floor, still pristine.

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A long gallery is a mostly-white version of the main palace’s Hall of Mirrors.  It’s calming, not frenetic. I think it’s too bad the royals who succeeded the glory days of the Sun King did not use the peace and quiet of their retreats to think about how they could sustain the monarchy.  In nearby Paris, daring thinkers were meeting in obscure coffeehouses, sowing the seeds of revolution.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

 

 

Versailles Palaces: Grandiose, (Merely) Grand, and Petit

Chapel

Even the Sun King himself sometimes tired of the over-the-top splendor he had created at Versailles.  He heard Mass daily in his spectacular Royal Chapel, around 10:00.

Louis XIV by Rigaud, Public Domain

Louis XIV by Rigaud, Public Domain

I read somewhere that courtiers attending mass were seated such that they looked at the King in his elevated gallery.  Right now I can’t verify that, but it makes some sense.  The chapel was built and carefully decorated to celebrate the association between Louis XIV and his namesake, the only French king who became an actual saint:  Louis IX, AKA St. Louis the Confessor.

Grand Trianon, Azurfrog, Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution

Grand Trianon, Azurfrog, Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution

Louis XIV was anything but saintly in his younger years. He built a smaller palace, the Grand Trianon, as a private retreat where he could take his mistresses and closest friends. It originally had a facade of blue and white porcelain tiles, following the rage for Delft tiles. But the tiles deteriorated quickly.  The Grand Trianon was rebuilt in red marble.  By the time it was finished, in 1688, the Sun King had repented of his wild youth and “secretly” married the Marquise de Maintenon.

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Louis XV, the successor to the Sun King, built himself a smaller palace yet: the Petit Trianon. Not many tourists make the trek to see it.

 

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Marie Antoinette famously frolicked with her friends in the Petit Trianon. It’s my personal favorite at Versailles.

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Louis XIV ended up spending a lot of time away from Versailles altogether, once he had all his nobles gathered there where he could control them.  Instead he went off to the absolutely charming chateau that he gave to the “secret” wife who tamed him in his old age.

Madame de Maintenon, Public Domain

Madame de Maintenon, Public Domain

It seems that even an absolute monarch with the world at his feet eventually can settle down.  Madame de Maintenon came in for a lot of criticism for taking the King away from the goings-on at Versailles, but I like to think the two of them were very happy together.

I wrote about the beautiful Chateau de Maintenon in these previous posts:

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/05/07/chateau-de-maintenon/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/09/03/castle-or-cott…in-the-details/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/05/15/louis-xiv-a-very-thirsty-king/

Maria Christina: She Even Got the Canova!

 

MariaChristinaCanova The Augustinian Church, adjoining the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, contains one of the saddest and most grandiose memorials I’ve ever seen.  It occupies a huge section of wall space in the family church of the Habsburgs. It was exquisitely sculpted by the great Italian artist Antonio Canova in 1805 and remains one of his most famous works.  A procession of downcast mourners slowly climbs the stairs toward an open doorway with nothing but darkness inside. Gazing into the void of that black space is truly terrifying.

 

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A tearful lion lies beside the doorway, disconsolately resting his mighty chin on his paws.  A handsome male angel leans on the lion’s back, clearly overcome with grief. The whole structure is in gleaming white marble. Canova’s funeral monuments were mostly for Popes and Venetian nobles, plus a small one for the British war hero Horatio Nelson. Most people agree that the monument in the Augustinian Church in Vienna is the grandest and most beautiful of them all.

Maria Christina

Maria Christina

This masterpiece honors a woman who never did much of anything: Archduchess Maria Christina, favorite daughter of Empress Maria Theresa. After her death at age 56, her husband (flush with wealth lavished on the couple by the Empress) commissioned the monument.

Who is buried in Maria Christina’s tomb?  No one.  She is actually buried in the Imperial Crypt along with the rest of the Habsburgs. But apparently her husband, with the blessing of her mother, wanted everyone who attended church at the Augustinian to be reminded of her loss.

I can’t help thinking of Marie Antoinette, the unfortunate younger sister of Maria Christina. After her beheading, she was unceremoniously thrown into a common pit along with other victims of the Terror in Paris.  Reportedly, when Maria Christina heard of her sister’s gruesome death, she remarked, “She never should have married.” Of course Marie Antoinette had nothing to say about whether or whom or when she married, unlike the more fortunate Maria Christina.

Why did Maria Theresa favor one daughter so highly, out of all her 16 children?  Was Maria Christina possibly the most intelligent?  If Maria Christina had been the daughter sent off the France, might she have been intelligent and strong-willed enough to persuade Louis XVI, a bit of a dim bulb, to accept some reforms before mobs marched on Versailles? Failing that, might she have persuaded Louis XVI to decamp to a safe haven until things cooled down at home? As it was, he ignored many chances to escape.  When he finally decided to make a run for it, the carriage he chose  was a huge lumbering vehicle that stuck out like a sore thumb on the rural roadways of France.  The royal family was captured and hauled back to prison in Paris.

A previous post about the Augustinian Church is at:

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/12/01/habsburgs-hatc…and-dispatched/

Previous posts about Marie Antoinette are at:

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/03/21/another-tragic…rie-antoinette/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/12/02/marie-antoinet…dow-treatments/

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Maria Theresa was not the most fair or loving mother, but she had her good points.  I wrote about her at:

ttp://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/04/16/maria-theresa-…-lean-in-woman/

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Maria Christina: The Sister Who Got Everything

MariaChristinaWreck

A few months ago in the Albertina Palace and Museum in Vienna, I came upon a small painting that showed the wreck of a carriage–an unusual subject for such grand surroundings. The caption explained that the wreck was an event in the life of the palace’s one-time occupants, Archduchess Maria Christina and her husband Albert of Saxony.  The couple became Duke and Duchess of Teschen and joint governors of the Austrian Netherlands on their marriage. They received an enormous dowry, too, from the bride’s famously parsimonious mother, Empress Maria Theresa.

Maria Christina

Maria Christina

Who were these fortunate people, and why was their carriage wreck such a big deal? Having a painting of a private misfortune, which the victims survived nicely, was the 18th century equivalent of a Facebook post about a fender-bender. And the 18th century was a time when almost no one had access to anything remotely like Facebook. The answer lies in family favoritism.

Empress Maria Theresa, who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 40 eventful years, produced 16 children.  It seems that she only liked one of them: Maria Christina, who happened to be born on Maria Theresa’s own birthday.  Every other sibling was used as a pawn in the empire’s political ambitions.  They were all packed off to strategic foreign marriages, preferably with either royal cousins or other monarchs who might be able to help the far-flung empire. The unluckiest sibling was Marie Antoinette, shipped off to France as a teenager to marry the doomed Louis XVI and lose her head.

Prince Albert

Prince Albert

But Maria Christina was allowed to marry the man she loved, Albert, a minor princeling with no wealth and no throne. Her doting mother kept Maria Christina close, in Vienna, and built her a magnificent palace right next door to the Hofburg, seat of Austrian royalty.

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Maria Christina’s portrait in the Albertina Museum shows her posing (smugly, if you ask me) with her lapdog. In contrast, Marie Antoinette, on arrival all alone at the border of France, was forced to strip down and leave behind every article of Austrian clothing because she became the property of the French state. No one told her, until the last moment, that she also had to leave behind her beloved little dog.

Years later, Maria Christina paid her kid sister a visit in France. I completely understand Marie Antoinette’s reaction. I’ve read that Marie Antoinette retreated to her private mini-palace at Versailles, the Petit Trianon, and pointedly did not invite her big sister along.

Sibling rivalry? There we have it, on a grand scale.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Marie Antoinette: Women and Window Treatments

MarieAntKunst

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has one of the most famous images of Marie Antoinette, painted by Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun in 1779. It was one of her most important paintings, and the artist herself made six copies of it. The young Queen had only reigned for five years; she still had about thirteen years of high living in store, before the Revolution and the Terror that cost her life.

It’s such a familiar image that I haven’t looked at it very carefully.  What struck me on a recent visit was that it’s mostly about fine silks.  All we really see of the queen is her face.  The rest is window dressing.

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I got to thinking that her dress actually looks like a window treatment fit for a palace.

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In a way, her entire life was a kind of window dressing.  She was married off as a teenager for the valuable political alliance between Austria and France.  She was expected to produce royal heirs, and in her spare time, to show off the wealth and power of the French monarchy.  No doubt it took at least a dozen ladies-in-waiting to get her into this dress.  No doubt she would much rather have been playing house in her farm on the grounds of Versailles, where she could dress as a milkmaid and tend her shampooed sheep.  But in sitting for this portrait, she was doing her duty.  Sadly, her duty did not work out well for her.

I went directly from the Kunsthistorisches to the Albertina Palace, where Marie Antoinette’s sister Marie Christine got to live out her life.  Marie Christine was the favorite child of the redoubtable Maria Theresa.  Of all the children, Marie Christine was the only one allowed to marry for love instead of political alliance. Life is not fair.

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Anyway, the window treatments in the Albertina look exactly like Marie Antoinette’s portrait gown, if you ask me.

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How much of a person’s life, in history and in the present, is spent trying to strike an idealized pose?  How much of a life is window dressing?  It’s a question to ponder.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!