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Marie Antoinette: Telling a story through costume

A good costume design should be able to tell the story solely through dress, creating an interdependence between the costume and the character, both becoming two inseparable parts of a same whole.

And on that note, the best costume design I've seen in the last years is, undoubtedly the one from Marie Antoinette. The 2006 movie was directed by, at the time, third time director, Sophia Coppola, and the costume design was done by Milena Canonero.

Canonero is one of the heavyweights in the business, having been nominated 9 times for best costume at the Academy Awards, and having won 4 of those. Barry Lindon (1975) was her first win, which was followed by the Oscar for Chariots of Fire (1981). Marie Antoinette was the movie that gave her the awaited third Oscar. And this past year, she took home another with The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

Among her body of work we also find A clockwork Orange (1971), The shining (1980), Cotton Club (1984), Out of Africa (1985)and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).

When put into context, the brilliancy of her work in Marie Antoinette is not so surprising. She manages to turn the dresses into relevant elements to the narrative itself. And so, the narrative of the movie is linked to the design itself.

"I start with the original source: then move away – I am not a teacher. 
I am a Costume Designer."

- Milena Canonero -

The first thing you'll realize upon watching the movie is that it is not a standard period piece. It's an impressionistic take on character that places it's accent on the personal, not on the historical. The movie focusses on her personal life, on her feelings. It's not concerned with action, but with emotion. Because of this it's a rather fragmented and episodic narrative that meanders through the runtime as much as the character meandered through her own life.

In this context, clothing is employed as a creative reinterpretation of the character.

The movie opens with Marie Antoinette being woken by servants who, then, proceed to dress her. This action would normally be cut from any movie. She's just getting dressed. Yet the fact that it was kept, that the director took the decision to hold and make us watch this apparently useless action so early on in the movie marks it as important. The act of dressing or, more specifically, of being dressed by others is essential to the movie.

Why is it so important? dressing is an essential part of constructing an identity. And this movie is about Marie Antoinette's identity; her true persona. Here enters the importance of costume design.


The key fact that the story happens in the 18th century marks a certain basis for design. If you look through her many dresses you'll notice that all of them, are based on 18th century original gowns that were modified with two basic goals: supporting the narrative and creating a specific look for the whole of the movie.

As seen here, the look chosen is a very stylized one, where color takes the center stage, taking a very modern flair. And why not? this is, after all, the story of a woman who society (the court) tried to define accordingly through their canons (dress and customs) and who in spite, tried to redefine herself (again, through dress). This is something, deep down, still relevant to our society. And to accentuate, that idea, the designer chose to create a seemingly odd mixture of rococo fashion with pop aesthetics.

This tone of pink would never hace been used in the
18th century, but it fits with the pop aesthetic of the movie

I'm usually very much against "modernization" of historical costume, but not here. This change is not trying to pander to the modern taste, it's an aesthetic choice done with narrative purposes, and its actually a very clever choice. The Versailles court and it's fashion had much more in common with today's pop culture that we realize: the deification of "beauty" only for its sake (which tends to translate into an adoration of kitsch) and the culture of "just having fun" is only some of the habits it shares. The costume design in the movie highlights those similarities beautifully.


Before moving on, it's essential to establish that in relation to the narrative, the movie divides Marie Antoinette's life in four parts: her early years at court, the partying years, motherhood, and mourning. These four parts are clearly established visually.

Each facet of her life is comparable to a specific season: the movie begins with the light, springlike pastels of youth, it moves on to summer colors (intense and bright), it changes to angelic whites and creams as she becomes a mother (late summer), and ends with winter-like colors, much darker and grimmer as the revolution gathers strength.

As such, the costumes themselves become symbols of a life-stage and a specific state of mind.


Cake and pastries are elements that are very much present in the movie; both in dialogue and in image. Shots of macaroons, pastries and other sweets are edited constantly into the movie. And the character itself is described by others as a "piece of cake" more than once. It was only logic that it was worked into the costumes as well.

This idea is woven deep into the designs for her early years and party years. Portraying the character as a "sweet little cake".

The first thing that we see once Marie Antoinette arrives in France is how she's violently undressed by French courtiers and re-dressed with french clothes by those same courtiers. The symbolic meaning is clear: she's forced to take a new identity. And that identity is forced to her through dress.

Austrian look. Marie Antoinette as a child
French look. Marie Antoinette forced into womanhood

Her attempt to embrace that forced identity is what will throw her spiraling out of control during her party years. 

For this new self, the design uses bright, light palette of pastels that range from very pale (at the beginning of the movie) to more bright and intense as the movie goes further into her partying years. In her early years, the color palette stays pretty much on light pastel colors, it isn't until she starts going wild, that the bright yellows, pinks and blue appear, allowing the designs to become bolder, wilder.

Why this specific chromatic choice? The identity that is forced upon her is one that bases itself on artificiality, of constantly living for the court, and under their keen eye; on being a PRETTY THING. She's forced into the position of eye candy. And so, the bright pastel colors and the soft shapes are only logical.

The three of them look like living macaroons

Color isn't the only evolving element. So is the shape. As she spirals out of control, the décolletage lowers, showing more skin, the wigs go up and the skirts go wider.

Look at how this skirt is shaped: she literally looks like a muffin.

The wigs are higher as the movie moves forward, becoming more artificial and unstable; just as Marie Antoinette's life does.

But color and shape aren't the only elements at play: the use of patterns should not be overlooked. In the movie, the sporadic use of matching patterns between clothes and room walls is used to create an identification between this identity and Versailles itself.

Her dress and the wall fabric are so similar that she literally fades into it, creating the feeling that she's loosing herself into that wall; into Versailles. She's losing her identity in the opulence of Versailles.

This identification is not only created with the place. Here, the patterns on her dress fade with the patterns of the rest of the court ladies Giving the same sense of losing oneself in the mist of the court.

And so, the entrapment of Versailles is visualized by bright colors, big, artificial shapes and matching patterns.


Finally having the expected child functions as a release for the character. A release from having to try too hard to fit in as a way to compensate for her failure as a reproductive machine. This release pushes the character in a different direction. She no longer needs to accommodate to Versailles' standards: she gets a free pass to be whomever she wants to be because she has full filled her true function as Queen.

This marks a turning point in the narrative. And this change is visualized, among other things, through a change in costume.

Flowing lines and light fabrics take the center stage in the costume design during her retreat  at Le Petite Trianon. With that release comes an attempt to try and find a new identity build by herself and for herself, avoiding external inputs.

She finds that new identity by escaping to a sort of "fantasy" that she lives out at the Trianon. A fantasy of "normality". Of a regular life as a country girl. Enjoying nature and the simplicity of that life.

And so, the designs turn away from bright silks and expensive gowns and favor fine, simple cottons. This change is even worked into the dialogue of the movie; "I want something simple, natural, to wear in the garden".

What these designs stand for is a less forced lifestyle. A literal release from social expectations. This is shown also through color. The bright pastels are swapped by white and cream shades.

The designs used the real historical change in fashion through the late 1770's and early 1780's to mark a change in the character.

Historically speaking, one of the changes brought about by the spreading ideas of the enlightenment (between 1775 and the 1780's) was a change in fashion: woman's dresses became less elaborate, simpler, more natural.

Most of the designs follow that trend; consisting of simple, sheer muslin dresses, giving a more natural feel to the story. Nature (gardens and the outdoors) takes a more central stage in the life of the character, going hand in hand with the designs.

This is a very clever way of creating a contrast without going historically inaccurate.

Another relevant change is found in hair. The hairstyles go back down, becoming more natural, carefree.

This change serves as a visual means to show her new found easiness. She's comfortable, truly comfortable, for the first time. She doesn't need to hide behind huge wigs. She's finally at peace with herself.

The two adjectives that best describe this look is airiness and lightness. There's a carefree spirit and a true sense of enjoyment in every single one of these designs.

Yes, the pink hair is actually historically accurate

All these choices are directed to visualize the sense of relief felt by the character: a sense of finally being able to move freely and being able to breathe. Even if this relief is only meant to be temporary. As she's forced to abandon the Trianon and rejoin the court at Versailles,  the pastel colors reappear as do the more constricting dresses.

But these are less bright and less extravagant and constricting than before. Some of the freshness of her retreat is still there, both in the hair and the costume. She's a changed woman.


The death of her mother starts a new period for her. A period of pain and grief as France spirals out of control and she keeps loosing the people she cares about.

As political instability starts to catch up with Versailles and Marie Antoinette has to stand the death of her mother and her son, the colors grow darker, more faded and the character adopts a stricter look.

As she starts to feel the consequences of her lifestyle, everything around her grows more somber, and she starts dressing in a semi-permanent state of mourning. The color palette is reduced to dark purples, blacks, dark blues and muted shades of mauve and blue.

Photo by badmomgoodmom (here, in her Flickr
gallery you can see many of the other pics)

This dress is worn by Marie Antoinette and the difference from her previous dresses is easy to spot. The pink has lost its brilliance and is much more somber. The shapes are simpler and more austere.

The fabric also changes: now the designs use heavier materials, casting aside the free-spirited feel of her retreat. The final days of her life are spent in anguish. An anguish that's reflected on her own costumes.

And there lies the brilliancy of these designs. Every element in the costumes is played to depict visually the character's inner feelings and struggles throughout the movie.

Clothes are a key feature in the construction of a character's identity and a very powerful tool for the filmmaker to tell a story. The costumes are made to support the narrative; every costume, every accessory, every hairstyle is a deliberate choice (or should be) made by the designer to visualize the character's story.

And that is something that the designs for Marie Antoinette do brilliantly. That's why this movie is not a regular "costume drama" and it does not suffer from all its negative connotations.

If you want to browse through Marie Antoinette's full wardrobe, 
check out this spectacular gallery by The Costumer's Guide:


  1. Great article and wonderful work on detailing the facts of the dresses and their corellation to the passing of time in the movie.

    Greetings, Yolanthe

    1. Thanks!! Thanks again!! Having restarted the blog recently it's feedback like this that makes me thing it was the right thing to do it :)

  2. Such an enjoyable read thank you for taking the time to write this. I loved the movie and its interesting to analyze it though costume.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it! It was a very fun to write piece actually


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