Marie Antoinette: Fashion, Third-Wave Feminism, and Chick Culture

Article excerpt

In 2001 Antonia Fraser published a biography of Marie Antoinette, an unsurprising subject given the author's long-time interest in recounting the lives of famed European women, from Mary Queen of Scots to the wives of Henry VIII. What was surprising, however, was the sudden explosion of interest that followed. Suddenly Marie Antoinette was the It Girl. She was featured on hip teen TV shows (Hannah Montana), in advertising (Juicy Couture, Sephora), in couture collections by John Galliano and others, on countless websites, in a PBS documentary, and - most importantly for our purposes here - in three attention-getting texts that appeared in 2006: Abundance, a novel by Sena Jeter Naslund; Queen of Fashion, a historical study by Caroline Weber1; and Marie Antoinette, a film by Sofia Coppola. The simultaneous occurrence of popular and scholarly interest suggests the widespread, magnetic nature of Marie Antoinette s current appeal.

Not only was Marie Antoinette's pouffed image popping up everywhere: she had undergone a radical transformation. No longer viewed as a heartless, elitist, antirevolutionary wicked witch, she had now morphed into a sympathetic, unfairly maligned victim - one who had successfully made the transition from literal teen queen to mature, elegant wife and mother. As the promotional materials for the 2006 PBS documentary Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution argued, she was "a tenderhearted, complex woman, whose tragic awakening came too late to save her from the guillotine."

What could explain this surprising popularity? Historians argue it stems from "historical illiteracy," that "most Americans don't have even the flimsiest grasp of who she was," while cultural critics muse that, as consumers, "we're an entire nation of Marie Antoinettes" (qtd. in Königsberg). However, we think the answer can be found in the contemporary popular phenomenon of chick culture. What we refer to as "chick culture" is a group of mostly American and British popular culture media forms arising in the mid-nineties and focused primarily on twenty- to thirty-something, middleclass - and frequently college-educated - women. The most prominent chick cultural forms are chick flicks, chick lit, and chick TV programming, although other pop culture manifestations such as magazines, blogs, music - even car designs and energy drinks - can be included in the chick line-up.2 In studying the phenomenon of chick culture, we have become interested particularly in the intersection of postfeminism or third-wave feminism,3 consumerism, and popular media. And here is where Marie Antoinettes popular resurrection is located. Marie Antoinette is capturing the Spirit of the Third-Wave-Feminist Age.

This is not the first time a revised view of Marie Antoinette has corresponded significantly with the prevailing social and political climate. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, the Empress Eugénie was admired and imitated for affecting the earlier French queen's lavish style (Weber, "Queen of the Zeitgeist"). At the turn of the twentieth century, Marie Antoinette, a trendsetter then as now, pops up in novels by Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. A character in Wharton's House of Mirth (1905) names her daughter Mary Antoinette, influenced by a then-popular play based on the Queen's life. Her rubies receive reverential mentions in Wharton's Custom of the Country (1913) and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The 1930s saw a similar reevaluation featuring a favorable 1933 biography by Stefan Zweig and a sympathetic 1938 film portrayal starring Norma Shearer. Indeed, as Weber asserts, the attitude toward the infamous queen might provide a clue to the Zeitgeist during any period in Europe and America since her own time ("Queen of the Zeitgeist").

Today's revisionist portraits of Marie Antoinette highlight typical third-wave feminist preoccupations. In her biography, Fraser provides evidence defending the much maligned wife of Louis XVI against the charges of disdain for the masses and lascivious behavior. …