"Coco Chanel du Rococo" - Marie Antoinette and her Couturière Rose Bertin

"The Modiste" (detail) by Francois Boucher (flickr, picture by Cea.)
"The Modiste" (detail) by Francois Boucher (flickr, picture by Cea.)

Marie Antoinette, the famous and ill-fated last Queen of France, was born Nov 2, 1755 in Vienna/Austria into the Hapsburg family as Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, Archduchess of Austria.

In 1770, aged 15, she was married to the French Dauphin, later King Louis XVI. Being deprived of all friends and family, Maria Antonia (now Marie Antoinette) was thrown into this strange and golden palace Versailles. Here, the young, naive and good-natured Marie soon was used by intriguing persons for their schemes. It was only when she had settled in a bit and formend her own circle of friends that she dissolved from her former influentors and she became more self-confident. Perhaps as a consequence to the cruel parting with her family when barely more than a child and facing this new, extravagant world without real guidence, Marie Antoinette started to indulge in every pleasure of being rich and noble. She flew from balls to opera performances and exceedingly liked gambling evenings (she used to lose huge sums). A great passion of her in her early years was: Fashion!


In 1774, her husband and Marie Antoinette were crowned King and Queen after the death of Louis XV. As Queen of France, she did not only have the possibility but also (to some degree) the duty to flatter everybody by her luxurious looks. Always wearing the best of the best, the latest, the most fashionable, she was the trend-setter, the fashion icon.


This was possible by the help of her inventive hair-stylist Léonard Autié who created for and with her eccentric coiffures like "à la Belle Poule", a high hairdo including the model of the warship "La Belle Poule" ("the beautiful hen" - yes, indeed) in full sails. Of course she stunned everyone.
Very early, Marie-Jeanne "Rose" Bertin (born July 2, 1747 into a rather poor family) had shown a great talent for millinery, sewing, crafts and fashion design. Aged 16, she moved to Paris to learn in a millinery atelier. Her talents enabled her to open up a shop herself - "Le Grand Mogol" - ("the great mogul"), in 1770. There, she sold everything to make or trim dresses and hats, gloves, accessories and much more. Very popular were her dolls, dressed in the latest fashion which were sent all over Europe to keep other courts in touch with the new French style. Her avid clients included the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Chartres.


Some day, she had met Marie Antoinette herself who made her her personal stylist. What a rise for Marie-Jeanne. Purveyor to the court and the Queen's personal stylist! The name Rose Bertin was THE name in fashion all over Europe, she stood for taste and extravagance and significantly helped to make France the centre of fashion. The creative and tasteful "Mademoiselle" or "Minister of fashion" was the inventor of almost every new gown, hat or hairstyle of the queen. Twice a week, Marie Antoinette and Mademoiselle Bertin met in closed sessions (even without her ladies-in-waiting!) to discuss new creations for hours. Laces, ribbons, feathers, braids, jewels, false flowers, tassels - nothing was too exquisite, nothing too extravagant. The long private meetings and the friendly terms between the queen and her stylist provoked much jealousy and envy. This taste for lavish attire soon earned Marie Antoinette the name "Madame Déficit". 

When her 'excessive' years were over and she started to withdraw from court to her own palace Petit Trianon, where she and her friends imitated country life, Marie Antoinette had the wish for simpler clothes, more comfortable and lighter. This was the birth of the Chemise à la Reine, naturally a creation of Mlle Bertin. The Chemise à la Reine was a simple white gown, made of several layers of musselin with a colourful sash around the waist. It was combined with a simple curly hairstyle and a large straw hat. The new colour palette was full of pale pastells. Before, Marie Antoinette's rich dresses evoked outcries, now it was their simplicity - she was accused of wearing her negligée and of being the cause if the workers of the silk production should starve.


Rose Bertin even supplied the Queen with clothes when the royal family was already imprisoned, following the break-out of the French Revolution. She made Marie Antoinette's mourning outfit after Louis XVI's execution. In 1793 she went into exile. After her return to France, she was not able to gain foothold as the new style, the simple à la gréce-fashion (even without corsets!) was nothing to her extravagant taste of the Ancien Régime.



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