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Marie Antoinette: Working with an historical basis

A couple of months ago, I talked extensively about the narrative aspect of the designs for 2006's Marie Antoinette (see here). But that's only one half of the story. This movie is, after all, a period piece, so let's have a look at how they translated that period into the costumes.


Period accurate pieces are actually the hardest to get by; that is because clothing in past centuries was way more complex and expensive than our 21st century standards. Because of this, most costume designers end up being constricted by their allotted budgets and have to make compromises with accuracy. This was not the case with this movie.

Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette had a rather large budget, which allowed renowned designer Milena Canonero the freedom to create period-accurate pieces (the inaccuracies were only added for narrative purposes, not budget constrictions). Because of this, Canonero decided to work off actual historical dresses and then alter and adjust them according to the narrative guidelines she had.

The obvious starting point, in this case, it's the actual contemporary portraits of the Marie Antoinette herself.

Portrait of a young Marie Antoinette

This portrait is one of the most famous portraits depicting the young bride, dated around the 1770s. This was must have been used, more than certainly, as inspiration for the blue dress with pink bows she wears very early on in the movie.

The neckline is practically identical, as is the color combination of blue and pink and the little choker. But it also takes inspiration from the Versailles' fashion of the time and changes the placement of the bows from the sleeves and choker (as it's in the portrait) to the stomacher, as seen in the portrait below.

Portrait de Madame Lalive de Jully,
dated around 1764

Another portrait that had to be an inspiration to the designer was this simple portrait of a very young Marie Antoinette (dated from before she married).

This peach-colored gown shows up in an almost identical form in the movie itself. It's this kind of commitment to period that makes the designs for this movie so great.

Let's look now at the wedding and coronation gowns, which I barely talked about in the previous article.

Wedding design
Coronation design

In both designs, she's wearing wide panniers under the skirt, creating this elongated shape that is so very associated with the 18th century. A lot of people have wrongfully complained to me that only these two dresses use them. Because of this, allow me to recap with a short history of the panniers: Panniers or side hoops were women's undergarments worn by women in the 17th and 18th centuries to create a skirt shape that was wide at the side while leaving the front and back relatively flat. This style originated in Spanish court fashion around the mid-17th century and was made familiar through the portraits of the Spanish Royal Family by Velázquez. Around 1718-19, this fashion trend started to spread through France and later to the rest of Europe. By the mid-18th century, panniers were the high fashion at Versailles, and at the most extreme, panniers got to extend the skirt several feet on each side.

But, by the 1780s, wide panniers were relegated to high-court etiquette and would have only been worn in very strict occasions, such as a wedding or a coronation, being called "court dress". And so, the fact the costume designer chose to only use panniers for these specific designs, shows how much attention to detail was put into the designs.

For proof of this, look at the portrait below. Any portrait that you find of Marie Antoinette wearing wide panniers will be specifically marked as Marie Antoinette in court dress.

Marie Antoinette in a court dress
by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778).

Leaving historical considerations aside, I really think this costume was the main inspiration for both dresses; especially when looking at the bodice and sleeves of the wedding dress and comparing it to the portrait above.

The day to day fashion during most of her reign (for noblewomen, of course) is very well captured by another of Vigée Le Brun's iconic portraits of the Queen.

This style of gown, widely known as Robe a l'Anglaise was widespread in Europe as common use dress for women and would have been what Marie Antoinette wore on a day-to-day basis. Because of this, many of the movie's gowns are influenced by said style.

This was a very popular style throughout most of her reign, and it's easy to find many portraits of the time showing similar gowns.

Another portrait that seems to be an influence on the costumes is this other painting by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, dated around 1783.

This depiction of the queen was, at the time, really controversial, for it showed the Queen in a very unofficial and unorthodox way. She's wearing a chemise, a new style of softer, lighter dresses popularized by Marie Antoinette in the 1780s and that would come to be known as Robe a la Reine.

The distinctive elements of this style are the white muslin fabric, the wide frills at the neckline, the large sleeves gathered at the shoulder and cuff and the colorful sash. This was the epitome of comfort back at the day, for it was worn without any kind of hoop or pannier (this was what made it so controversial in the first place).

This is, clearly the main influence behind her designs for the Trianon retire phase.

All of these are clearly referencing that painting; from the sheer material to the back-bows and the texture of the dress itself. This was, actually a pretty wide-spread fashion around the early 1780s, a fashion that favored a certain return to basics and comfort after the extravaganza of the late 17th century and most of the 18th century.

Portrait of Marie-Joséphine de Savoie,
Comtesse de Provence
by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun
around the 1780s.

Another iconic portrait by Vigée Le Brun that I'm sure was used for inspiration was this one below; dated around 1785, the portrait depicts the Queen with two of her children wearing a highly decorated Robe a la Turque:

The Robe a la Turque came into fashion in the 1780s after a resurgence of interest in the Turkish world and was very fashionable during the whole 1780's decade and well into the 1790s.

In the movie, as she stands posing for a painting with her children, she is shown wearing a very similar Robe a la Turque that the one in her real portrait.

But that's not the only time she appears wearing one.

These other designs are more loosely fitted and more informal, much more influenced by this next portrait than by the one of the Queen.

Adelaide Bourbon, Duchess d'Orleans

The designer also used included other common types of gowns, such as the redingote; a woman's wear that was inspired by men's jackets and their riding coats.

This particular design is incredibly reminiscent of this silk redingote which is also dated around the 1790s:

Another type of historical dress used by Canonero is the Robe a l'Anglaise Retroussée. This style is identical to a Robe a l'Anglaise but worn with the skirts gathered up, and usually gets mixed up with the Robe a la Polonaise (to read about the difference between these two, check out this wonderful article here).

Dated between 1780 and 1785

This style is worn at several points in the movie.

This last design, the white silk gown that she wears when the Emperor of Austria (her brother) comes to visit, is very reminiscent of this painting by Louis-Roland Trinquesse dated 1774.

The music party

And then, there are the oddities. For a long time, I thought that this particular black and white fur coat she wears at one point in the movie was an eccentricity of the designer and a blatant historical inaccuracy.

But years later I found this fashion plate, dating around the late 1770s, of a practically identical coat, and for once, I was very glad to be wrong (about inaccuracies, of course).

Another oddity that had me scratching my head for a while was the pink hair Marie Antoinette sports at one of her parties.

Again, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that some women actually used pink powder for their wigs during the late 18th century.

Portrait of a Young Lady, 1790

This is what any designer in a period piece should do: take from the period (both the most recognizable and the more obscure trends) and create their own thing while still being respectful to the historical heritage.

As I started off saying, I know a lot of times is a lack of budget that makes this impossible, but the most common obstacle is the misconceptions and bigotry of certain producers and/or directors, who think that accurate wardrobe will drive away and alienate audiences.

Because it actively goes against such misconceptions, Marie Antoinette is a rare movie that deserves all the praise it can get and needs to serve as a standard for commitment to historical representation.
It also should serve as proof that you can be historically accurate and still show an artistic and thematic intention in the designs.


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