Marie-Antoinette’s Hair Extravaganza

On the 16th of October 1793 – only two weeks before her thirty-eighth birthday – Marie Antoinette was beheaded at the Place de la Révolotion in Paris. From a historical perspective, one can refer to her death in a more symbolic context as to a loss of identity that was never entirely her own.  “For Marie-Antoinette, the struggle for agency and personal autonomy – the ability to be herself and act according to her own will and desires – was carried out on the public stage and within a set of dynamic forces, within what we might call history itself. She was constantly being identified, constructed, presented, and represented.” (Dena Goodman, Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen). Even the initial symbolic act of entering France naked, made of her identity, almost immediately, the property of France; it was shaped à la mode française and eventually taken away from her by the French nation.

Portrait of Marie-Antoinette by Joseph Ducreux

The preparations for her French queenship had started long before the wedding with Luis XVI, and as Desmond Hosford noticed, “This was not just a question of social etiquette, but a critical symbolic matter” (Desmond Hosford, The Queen’s Hair: Marie-Antoinette, Politics, and DNA, Eighteen-Century Studies, Vol.38, No. 1, Fall, 2004). After all, Marie-Antoinette’s major service to the French nation was to bear the future king of France. That is why much attention was paid to her gallicisation and that referred also to the way she walked, talked, dressed or styled her hair. Whilst still in Austria, by a request of her mother Maria-Theresa, she had been sent a French hairdresser who “was required to minimize the effect of a Habsburg forehead that was too high for French taste, thus modifying the appearance of Marie-Antoinette’s body so that it would conform to French expectations” (Hosford). The final effect of this stylisation was depicted in a portrait by Joseph Ducreux. 

By adopting this new French look Marie-Antoinette symbolically expressed her submission to France. However, it is also noticed that through her later experimentation with the most adventurous hairstyles, she tried to reinvent her identity and regain her lost autonomy. The stylisations by her personal hairdresser, Léonard Autier, shocked the public opinion and made of her the central fashion icon in France:      

“The dauphine… has a head seventy-two pouces tall from the bottom of her chin to the summit of her coiffure… My happy ideas were realized: the pyramidal coiffure of Marie-Antoinette created a sensation at the Opéra. People crushed each other in the parterre… to see this masterpiece of learned audacity.” (Léonard Autier, Journal intime de Léonard)

 Her pyramidal coiffures became at some point unimaginably extravagant. Dressed differently for various occasions, they served as a medium of expression of Marie-Antoinette’s personality, but also as a stage for displaying her political awareness. “These Hairstyles quickly became politicized in their ornamentation which frequently contained figures, some more subtle than others, referring to current events. Following the death of Louis XV in 1774, one coiffure allégorique carried a miniature cypress tree on one side and a cornucopia on the other representing mourning for Louis XV and hope for the new reign… The remarkable coiffure à la Belle Poule was inspired by the French frigate of that name and featured a complete model of the ship which had won a battle against the English” (Hosford).

That is how Marie-Antoinette – who as a foreigner and a woman was never allowed to take a decisive part in the country’s politics – expressed her engagement in what was happening in France at the time.

With time her hairstyle became less and less extravagant; one of the reasons for it was the growing unpopularity of the royal family. The Queen was thought to have had inspired and led to financial ruin many of her female followers. Also, the materials and artefacts used to decorate her elaborate coiffures became an instant reminder of her foreign origin, as many of them were brought from outside of France. With the changing political climate and the phantom of the Revolution hanging in the air Marie-Antoinette’s hair not only lost from its volume but also showed symptoms of her distress – the Queen’s hair became partially grey. Nevertheless, up to the last moments of her life she would stay in control of what she would wear on her head. On the day of her execution she refused to decorate her hair in a mourning style or wear any attributes referring to the Bourbon dynasty. Desmond Hosford claims that, “This may well have been a conscious final attempt to assert the personal agency that would allow her to reclaim her own body…”.