Few names in history are quite as evocative as Marie Antoinette. Frequently imagined strutting through the palace of Versailles, a galleon perched atop chandelier-skimming hair and with panniers so wide she filled a doorway, she has become one of the most recognisable figures in the history of France. She’s also one of the most divisive, a woman who still retains the power to evoke either dreamy sighs or tooth gnashing, thanks to her love of largesse, fashion and the high life.
Yet long before she was queen of France, Marie Antoinette was the considerably less well-groomed Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria. A teen bride, her wedding preparations were enough to make even the most ardent revolutionary’s eyes water.
An ambitious mother
Forget dashing princes, swooning princesses and happily ever afters, royal marriage in the 18th Century was a serious diplomatic business. With the right match, empires could rise and fall, wars could be ended and the course of history might change forever.
Maria Antonia’s shrewd and politically ambitious mother, Maria Theresa, had set her heart on an alliance between the Holy Roman Empire and the French Bourbon dynasty, and what better way than marriage? The obvious candidate among her daughters was young Maria Antonia, and once she had Louis, the dauphin of France, in her sights, nothing was going to stand in her way. With negotiations led by the French court’s appointed representative, the Duc de Choiseul, there would be plenty of compromise and piles of cash needed to iron out the various points of contract, but for the young archduchess, the pains were more physical than political. Bringing with her an enormous dowry of 200,000 crowns, the bride-to-be made a tempting financial and dynastic prospect. Considerably less tempting were her looks, manners and wardrobe, and when the family of the groom turned a critical eye on the teenager, they were far from impressed.
Despite her talent for music, Maria Antonia had received only a very limited education. With her unruly hair, girlish manner and rumpled clothes, she didn’t look the part of a dauphine at all. Carefree and with no idea of manners and court etiquette, there seemed to be a lot of work to do. No longer would the 13-year-old be free to roam outdoors with her friends – the time had come for Archduchess Maria Antonia to grow up. Her transformation was entrusted to the Duchesse de Gramont, Choiseul’s sister. When it came to French style, she knew exactly what Maria Antonia needed.
First on the agenda was clothes. It was a reasonably gentle start to the transformation and soon the carefree girl was learning to negotiate the world in the highly structured and elaborate gowns that were the height of French fashion. Dazzled by patterns, swatches, haberdashers and the finest dressmakers Paris had to offer, Maria Antonia’s Austrian home became an outpost of the French dressmaking world. Chief among the challenges faced by the couturiers was convincing the young girl to be laced into whalebone stays. Stiff and restrictive, these uncomfortable undies were central to the foundation garments of her new look. She resisted, but eventually had no choice but to give in and, at the cost of comfort, achieved that perfect dauphine posture.
At this early stage in what would be a long and painful journey from playful girl to poised bride, the excitement and apprehension must have been overwhelming. However, even whalebone stays paled in comparison to the trial that awaited. After all, she could always look forward to escaping the stays at the end of a long day and drawing in a much-needed breath. When it came to more invasive procedures though, things could get a little more permanent, not to mention painful.
The dentist and the bandeau
If changing Maria Antonia’s wardrobe had been an inconvenience, then changing her looks would be nothing short of agonising. When the archduchess smiled, the representatives of the Bourbon court gave a collective intake of horrified breath at the sight of her crooked, far-from-perfect teeth. Still, the families were not about to let such a trifling matter stand in the way of the marriage. In 1768, society dentist Pierre Laveran was summoned to Vienna. He was saddled with the unenviable task of giving the archduchess a mouth fit for a French queen, and he knew just what was required: a few months in the grip of Fauchard’s Bandeau.
Taking its name from its inventor – Pierre Fauchard, a pioneer in dental treatment – Fauchard’s Bandeau was a very early form of brace made of precious metal. Shaped like a shallow horseshoe, it fit into the mouth of the unfortunate patient and was intended to reshape the dental arch. Along the device were perforations through which gold strands were threaded, and would be tied tightly onto the teeth to secure its position of. So tightly fastened to the teeth was the device that, over time, the dental arch would be forced to reshape itself to fit the horseshoe shape of the metal frame. The result was straight teeth and the perfect royal smile.
Months of agonising procedures followed as the dental brace went about its work. Just as she had surrendered to the whalebone stays, the young archduchess had no choice but to endure the pain of this unflattering, invasive dental device with fortitude. Finally and much to the bride’s relief, the French court declared themselves satisfied and the agonising bandeau was removed.
Now the bride certainly had a smile fit for Versailles, not to mention rooms stuffed with gowns, hats, shoes and jewels more suited for a poised dauphine than a teenage girl. Under the hawkish eye of the Duchesse de Gramont the physical transformation of Maria Antonia into Marie Antoinette was almost complete. All that remained were a few finishing touches here and there to tame her hair and perfect her make up, but there was a rather bigger obstacle on the horizon.
Minding her manners
Far from the poised, dignified queen of her portraits, Maria Antonia cared little for the strict and arcane rules of etiquette that were so vital to a successful life in the Bourbon palaces. It wasn’t a question of choice though; if she wanted to survive, she had to learn, and fast. In a court where etiquette and intrigue were the most valuable currency in a woman’s arsenal, some serious and urgent improvement was required.
Before she became a candidate for the hand of the dauphin, Maria Antonia loved to spend her free time with friends or playing instruments. She had little concern for court politics and the kind of rivalries that raged at Versailles, but her idyllic childhood was over and the time had come to learn etiquette. It must have seemed to Maria Antonia as though she would never be quite right for her new husband and the laborious and demanding process of becoming a Bourbon surely took its toll as the months went on.
Even the tiniest part of life in Paris was dictated by etiquette and the smallest mistake could result in immense social embarrassment. Eager to please the court, her husband-to-be and her fearsome mother, Maria Antonia did all she could to learn the intricate and confusing rules. It proved a long and difficult process, and even when she was dauphine, she continued to make mistakes. Once installed as queen, Marie Antoinette began to fight back against the politics and rules she hated but for now, that day was a long way off.
Etiquette was one element of her new life that the outgoing young lady would always struggle with. Even after her wedding, she was subjected to intense schooling under the watchful eye of Anne d’Arpajon, Comtesse de Noailles. The hugely experienced Anne had previously served queen Marie Leszczynska and was considered an expert without rival in courtly behaviour, so she was the perfect lady-in-waiting for the new bride. Marie Antoinette would come to despise her and even nicknamed her Madame Etiquette, seeing her as a figurehead for the unyielding propriety she abhorred.
A new coiffure
So, with teeth and clothes just so and manners a work in progress, it was time to put the finishing touches into place. Sieur Larsenneur, the celebrated hairdresser who had created Madame de Pompadour’s famous look, was summoned by to tame and tease Maria Antonia’s unruly strawberry blonde curls. He was determined to disguise her unfashionable high forehead while drawing attention to her slender neck, which was considered one of her finest features. When Larsenneur finally put down his comb and unveiled the archduchess, she was the very height of Parisian fashion. Now she looked the part, walked the part and even smiled the part: the wedding of the century could proceed.
On 19 April 1770, Maria Antonia and her brother, Ferdinand, arrived at the Augustinian Church in Vienna. Here she was married to Louis by proxy and the girl who entered the church as Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria left as Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France. Just two days after the wedding, Marie Antoinette and an enormous procession of coaches left Austria to meet the French royal family; she would never see her homeland again. Aged 14, she was off to a new life, one where childhood pursuits would be forgotten and she would become, for better or worse, an icon of royal opulence.
The journey was arduous and long but, on 14 May, the young newlyweds finally laid eyes on one another for the first time. In a forest clearing near Compiegne, Marie Antoinette threw herself at the feet of her new husband and his grandfather, King Louis XV, declaring her devotion to them. The young dauphin gently raised his wife to stand and escorted her to his carriage, in which she made the remainder of the journey to Versailles.
The religious ceremony on 16 May was a dazzling affair. It was held in the glittering splendour of the royal chapel of Versailles and Marie Antoinette’s dress must have been magnificent. No expense was spared – it was made of cloth of silver and decorated with pearls and precious stones, dazzling beneath the palace chandeliers.
Although no pictures or fragments exist for us to marvel at today, society wedding gowns from the time give just a hint of how fabulous a creation it would have been. Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette had been measured for the gown months earlier and when it came to lace her into it, no amount of corsetry or willpower could make up for the fact that the ill-fitting dress just wouldn’t fasten. Even with the laces at their tightest, the gown gaped open at the back and exposed the dauphine’s shift to the illustrious crowd who had gathered to watch.
Though some of the wedding guests laughed behind their hands at the unthinkable sartorial blunder, the wedding was a roaring success. A crowd of 5,000 crammed into grandstands in the Hall of Mirrors and the cream of European society watched the procession pass by, witnessing the dawn of one of the most famous and iconic marriages in royal history.
For all its pomp and splendour, the day was plagued with events that were seen as ill omens, the first of which was the ill-fitting gown. Even worse, when Marie Antoinette sat down to sign the marriage register, a blot of ink dripped onto the page and obscured part of her name. Throughout the wedding day a storm raged that was fierce enough to cancel planned public celebrations, battering the palace walls and windows. When a fete was eventually held weeks later, strong winds and fireworks resulted in an inferno that claimed many lives – one more terrible omen for the royal marriage.
Still, the day itself was hailed as a great occasion, and after a day of feasting and parties, the newlyweds were escorted in time-honoured tradition to the marital bed. Here they fell into an exhausted slumber, with the business of producing an heir left for another time, far in the future.
For more on style and scandal in Europe’s royal courts, pick up the new issue of History of Royals or subscribe and save 40% on the cover price. Catherine Curzon is the author of Life in the George Court, which is out now, and Kings of Georgian Britain, which is available for pre-order.
- H Delalex and C Pégard, A Day with Marie Antoinette, Flammarion 2015
- W Bashor, Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution, Lyons Press 2013
- C Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, Picador 2007