Thursday, 8 February 2018

"A stitch in time": the chemise à la Reine

La Reine en Gaulle by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783.  Oil on canvas, 93.3 x 79.1 cm.
Private collection of Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg, Germany

If you haven't seen it already,  be sure to catch on iplayer the final episode of BBC Four's A Stitch in Time, introduced by fashion historian Amber Butchart.  In each of this series Nottingham-based costumier Ninya Mikhaila and her team,  recreate a different  costume based on a historical portrait;  this week was the turn of Vigée Lebrun's Marie-Antoinette en Gaulle.  The reconstruction of the dress was gorgeous, the locations well thought out and Amber's commentary insightful.  Here are a few notes.

Amber Butchart introduces the programme by observing that  Marie Antoinette seen as "history's ultimate fashion icon and its ultimate victim":  The portrait  by Vigée Lebrun,  caused a furore when it was exhibited in 1783; the dress was "as scandalous and intriguing as the queen herself". The chemise à la Reine was "a complete departure for Marie Antoinette and a complete contrast to the highly structured garments favoured by the rest of the Court".

How the dress was made

2.25: At Ninya's workshop Amber finds out how the dress would have been made. Was it as simple to create as it looked?  Well, not quite - the material was a very fine cotton muslin and the style required a lot of painstaking hand stitching;  it was extremely important that the edges of the fabric were straight - later Ninya draws out a single thread to establish a perfect line.  Although muslin was used for underwear, it is Ninya's understanding that, with this style of dress, stays and a silk petticoat would still be worn. Fellow costumier Harriet Waterhouse is given the difficult task of sewing the stays, which were were made from linen stiffened with bone and covered in beautiful silk brocade.  

In the Trianon - interview with Juliette Trey

4.58:  Amber interviews curator Juliette Trey, an expert on royal fashion, at the Trianon in front of Lebrun's companion portrait of Marie-Antoinette, à la rose.   Juliette Trey explains that, although the chemise was an accepted style among the queen's inner circle at the Trianon, it appeared shocking in a Salon portrait, which was in effect a formal public appearance. Cotton muslin was a material associated with underwear. The Queen was seen as eschewing her royal responsibilities.  

How much did this damage her reputation?  "It is hard to say", replies Juliette Trey.  "She was never very much loved by the French people, but we could say it is the beginning of her downfall."

The Musée de la Toile de Jouy

 "Her extravagant wardrobe was the stuff of legend and yet not a single gown known to have been worn by her survives today."

Chemise gowns are so delicate, only two are known to be in existence.  Amber takes us to view one in the Musée de la Toile de Jouy a few miles from Versailles.  Although simple in style, such dresses  were still very expensive.  The muslin itself was an imported luxury fabric.  It was also very difficult and laborious in the 18th century to keep fabrics white. The chemise was a wealthy woman's idea of how a peasant/shepherdess dressed and was condemned as patronising; it was of a piece with the Marie-Antoinette of "let them eat cake".

Marie-Antoinette's wardrobe book

14:15 Amber peruses Marie-Antoinette's Wardrobe book in the splendid surroundings of the National Archives.  Were the pinpricks on the swatches of fabric Marie-Antoinette's way of selecting her outfits for the day?  The book is full of elaborate patterned silks which contrasted with the simple muslin of the chemise. The Queen was accused of putting the French silk industry out of work. Thus she went against two aspect of her royal duty: encouraging French manufacture and inspiring respect for the throne. She was seen as transgressed class boundaries and became a divisive figure.
On the wardrobe book:

Marie-Antoinette in the Conciergerie

19:25:  Amber moves on to the Conciergerie, to discuss the last days of Marie-Antoinette's life.  Here she meets social historian Andrew Hussey (who lets the side down a bit on the sartorial elegance front).  He confirms that Marie-Antoinette's likely state of mind on her arrival at the prison, in the middle of the night in a August heat wave, was one of "deep shock and trauma".  There could not be a greater contrast between Versailles and the Conciergerie but both are part of the Marie-Antoinette myth;  they are linked, says Andrew, by "the society of spectacle on both sides".  Marie-Antoinette was not guileless, but  she was pursuing an aesthetic life rather than a political life - at a time when everything had become politicised. She was bound to be judged on how she looked and how she performed; fashion was always going to be portrayed in terms of decadence and absolutism.

Andrew Hussey, historian of violent, malodorous Paris, can't quite resist the opportunity to digress from the silk and muslin:

 [Marie-Antoinette was]  a real woman, who was really killed... in a city full of febrile revolutionaries and where as late as the early 19th century animals would not cross the bridge to the  place de la Concorde because the stench of blood under the pavée was so powerful. This was a city which had become a slaughterhouse; it was full of killers and it was full of the rabid, murderous, ferocious energy that goes with a great massive political upheaval.

The pathetic remains of the plain white chemise worn by Marie-Antoinette on the day of her execution are on display in the Conciergerie.  She slipped on the chemise she had managed to keep hidden from the guards, over which she wore a simple white dress.  Crowds were stunned into silence by this modest spectral figure, whose prematurely white hair matched her carefully chosen clothes.  As Amber comments, Marie-Antoinette "saved her most powerful fashion statement for last".

"Marie-Antoinette being taken to her execution" by William Hamilton,
 Musée de la Révolution française Vizille

Amber in the dress:

Wearing this dress, I wasn't expecting how much volume and structure all of the interior lacing was going to give it; so it had a much more dramatic silhouette.  Also of course you have the physical experience of wearing stays.... The lightness of the fabric is a world away from what [Marie-Antoinette] would be expected to wear at Court which we know she really did not like. The weightlessness, the freedom,the liberation it offered, you really get a sense of that when you actually have it on.


BBC Four: A Stitch in time (website)

Amber Butchart's webpage

Ninya Mikhaila, historical costumier

If you are interested and want to know more, get hold of a copy of:
Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie-Antoinette wore to the Revolution (2007)

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