Let Them Make Mistakes

An ill-fitting wedding gown, deadly celebratory fireworks and the marriage that brought down the French monarchy
Kirsten Dunst Marie Antoinette
Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette and Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI in Sophia Coppola's 2006 movie "Marie Antoinette"

 

Given the title of our blog and the accompanying logo that includes us dressed in 18th century attire, it should come as no surprise that we are Francophiles. Because we didn’t live during the time of the French Revolution (or did we … ), it’s easy to romanticize the era, especially that of the scandalously famous Marie Antoinette.

For the sake of time, we’re going to assume that all our readers are aware of Marie Antoinette, the former Queen of France and wife of King Louis XVI and their ties to New Orleans. (Hint: there was a time when the city — along with the rest of Louisiana — was under their rule.) You should all equally, if we’ve done our job correctly, realize that our blog title is that of a “infamous” quote which it is believed Marie Antoinette delivered during a time of great turmoil — and a crisis centering on the price of bread — in France. The quote is arguably one of the more well-known things about her (to our despair).

Yes, this is a wedding blog and we’re going to get to that, but we can’t talk about our patroness without shining light on the elephant in the room. (We’ve mentioned it in the past, but haven’t explored it in detail.)

Marie Antoinette never actually said, “Let Them Eat Cake,” or loosely “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” the words that would make her the scapegoat and face of an opulent monarchy that didn’t care about the people of France. This loathsome reputation would help fuel the revolution that would eventually lead to some courtiers, the king, and the queen losing their heads.

(Kelly here: We’re talking history and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share one of my best-loved Marie Antoinette tidbits. One of my favorite podcasts to listen to is “Noble Blood.” Host Dana Schwartz, who I believe is in New Orleans right now (Oct. 14, 2021), once recounted at the end of an episode about the queen that she was connected to a famous “madame.” Most are aware of the touristy Madame Tussaud’s museums around the world that don wax figures of famous individuals throughout history. The real Madame Tussaud, also named Marie, was hired to create the death masks of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI after their beheadings in 1793. Tussaud went on a 20-year tour with her death masks, the former king and queen’s included, and this eventually turned into the famous Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum we know and (not really) love today. How crazy, right?!)

The first rumored occurrence of the phrase “Let Them Eat Cake” occurred in the 1600s. According to history.com, “the ‘Let them eat cake’ story had been floating around for years before 1789. It was first told in a slightly different form about Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish princess who married King Louis XIV in 1660. She allegedly suggested that the French people eat “la croûte de pâté” (or the crust of the pâté).” The most popular written citation of this iteration of the phrase was in philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s book “Confessions,” written around 1767. Marie Antoinette, born in 1755, would have been alive at the time but was only a 12-year-old Austrian princess, still known as Marie Antonia, and not yet of any note as she had two older sisters and was not yet betrothed to the king of France. Thus, making the credit to the queen implausible.

Marie Antoinette was known for her lavish lifestyle and extravagant spending, but she was a much more interesting individual. She and her husband gave liberally to charity, she founded a home for unwed mothers, made frequent trips to poor families making sure they had food and money. She also funded the Maison Philanthropique, which was a society for the aged, widowed, and blind – according to biography.com.

But, as we mentioned before, we are a wedding blog. And, as you could probably imagine, Marie Antoinette’s marriage to the dauphin of France, like all royal unions at the time, was an important political alliance. The wedding of the dauphin Louis and Habsburg princess Maria Antonia was originally done by proxy in Vienna on April 19, 1770. (Kelly here: this was a common practice at the time between the nobility of Europe. They would have a wedding done with one half of the couple and another member of their royal family standing in as proxy before the actual wedding, and usually before the couple met in person.) The symbolic, in-person wedding took place on May 16 with much ritual and pageantry. Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles at 10 a.m. and by 1 p.m. she was off to be married and become the future queen of France. The wedding took place in the Royal Chapel, conducted by the Archbishop of Reims, and surrounded by King Louis XV and the royal family. As one does, the new dauphine received a carved cabinet containing a multitude of jewelry and other expensive gifts. Following the ceremony and gift-giving, the couple attended an ambassador’s reception and then moved to the Hall of Mirrors for the king’s games. The night ended with a lavish feast served in the Royal Opera House, and the (weird to us, but common at the time) bedding ceremony that we’re just going to gloss over and suggest you do your own research. The celebrations continued for days ending May 30 with a fireworks display that ended up taking the lives of 132 people. Not exactly the start to a marriage we all hope for and quite an ominous omen in hindsight.

Though it is said that over 5,000 people were invited to this opulent royal wedding, one of our favorite parts, not surprisingly, was Marie Antoinette’s dress. The dress no longer exists, to our horrid dismay, but it is said to have been silver (with some suggesting lilac included) and covered in jewels and diamonds gifted by her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. When she walked down the Hall of Mirrors that afternoon, it is said her entire dress sparkled, lighting up the room. From what we can gather, the dress worn by Kirsten Dunst in the 2006 Sophia Coppola film “Marie Antoinette” is a close visual representation to the actual dress, which includes a noticeable addition different than most wedding gowns. The young dauphine’s dress included large panniers, or hip pads. These panniers were all the rage in the 1700s, giving women of the era a wide-hipped look with basket-like hoop devices made from a variety of items from whalebone to wood and would sometimes span 10 feet wide all in total. We’ve seen some big wedding dresses, but we wonder how one even begins to operate such a garment. (Melanie here: As a member of the marching krewe the Merry Antoinettes, I can say with absolute certainty that even 5-to-6-inch panniers are challenging to navigate.)
Additionally, like many things in Marie Antoinette’s life, it is rumored that her dress came with a little scandal. Created before her arrival in France, the dress was made to estimated measurements of the future queen. Upon trying the dress on for the first time, it is said that the fit was too small, and the young princess attended her wedding in a gown that was not completely zipped. (“Project Runway’s” Tim Gunn said it best, sometimes you just have to “make it work.”)

From her extravagant lifestyle to her blockbuster demise, this grand and misunderstood royal will always fascinate us. Her life story was quite literally what movies are made of. Was she the perfect person? Not exactly. But will she always be a fashion icon and historical powerhouse? Most definitely. And to those who disagree, we say, “let them eat cake.”

 

 

(Melanie here: For anyone interested in learning more about the doomed queen, I recommend the book “Marie Antoinette: The Journey” by Antonia Fraser. It’s the tome Sofia Coppola used for the basis of her “Marie Antoinette” film. Also consider, “Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen Of France” by Evelyne Lever. Once you finish the books, hop over to the New Orleans Museum of Art to pay a visit to the stunning portrait of the queen by her friend Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, played by Rose Byrne in Coppola’s movie. It is part the museum’s permanent collection and is displayed near one of Louis, as well as a few additional historically significant works.)

 

 

 

Categories: Let Them Eat Cake