I have done many alarming things over the years, but searching for a dead woman's clothes has been about the most alarming. I have leafed through dusty old costuming books, scoured museums, written to curators, and searched the web until my eyes were glazed and wide like a zombie - all in search of a gown, a slipper, or a scrap of a chemise that may have once belonged to my idol, Marie Antoinette. I have written to the royal palaces of Schonbrun and Hofburg in Austria as well as Versailles in France. I have spoken with officials at the Musee Carnavalet in Paris, the home of many well-preserved Marie Antoinette artifacts. The answer is always the same, "I am sorry Madame, but we do not have any of zee queen's gowns here. Perhaps you should try..."
Just when I would decide to give up the hunt, someone would raise the flag and off I would go.
I am asked all sorts of questions about the queen - from what her sexual inclinations were to the types of foods she preferred. The most popular questions, however, have to do with the queen's attire. I have been surprised by the number of inquiries about this aspect of the queen's life. That people who live two hundred and fifty years after she was born want to know about her clothing marks her as having been a fashionable woman.
A few years ago, I discovered the Queen's corset. It is preserved at the Musee Galliera in Paris, France. It is ironic that this particular piece of clothing has survived not only the ravages of time, but the ferocity of the Revolutionaries, and the avarice of thieves. Marie Antoinette hated corsets!
Whalebone or wire corsets were part of the regular wardrobe of a woman living in the 18th century. Even a pregnant woman was expected to wear a corset, though hers had side ties which could be loosened to accommodate growth. Children were put in corsets to help them with their posture.
As a girl, Marie Antoinette was expected to wear full court dress, like a diminutive adult. Her pint-sized wardrobe included a corset. It was probably a stiff whale-boned contraption with ties in back and front, but made of the finest materials of course. Visitors at her mother's court commented on the young Marie Antoinette's superb posture and bearing, surely due to the corset!
Once she moved to France, and out from under her mother's thumb, she decided to let it all hang out. She took to dressing without her corset. In no time at all, her mother found out about her wild ways and sent her a flurry of admonishing letters. How dare her daughter, the future Queen of France engage in such wanton behavior?
In a letter to Marie Antoinette's mother, Maria Theresa, the Austrian Ambassador writes:
"...HRH has finally agreed to wear a corset quite regularly."
In another letter, this one written by Maria Theresa to her daughter, she writes:
"...If you did not reassure me about the corsets you are wearing, I would be worrying about that, for fear of, as they say in German, auseinandergehen, schon die Taille wie eine Frau, ohne es zu sein. I ask you not to let yourself go: this would suit neither your age nor your place; it brings with it uncleanliness, negligence, and even a general carelessness; that is why I keep tormenting you about it..."In still another letter, Maria Theresa offers to have some Austrian corsets made, which are not as "stiff as the ones in Paris."
Later, as Jean Jacques Rousseau's ideas of nature and simplicity began to take root, women all over France gladly traded their wire or whale-boned corsets for softer linen corsets. Some discarded the constrictive devices all together (Gasp)! Marie Antoinette joined the scandalous masses, preferring to romp around le Hameau Commando style - that is, sans corset!
Want to learn how to make a corset, find out where you can buy a corset, or get a pattern to make a corset? Click on one of the links below to learn more than you ever wanted to know about what one 18th century physician called "the greatest degradation to the human species."
All Tied-Up: The Corset in Contemporary Fashion
The Corset Connection
How To Make An 18th Century Corset
Historically Inspired Corsets and Corseted Wedding Gowns