18th-Century Quest: Shadow of the Guillotine


Color me shocked to discover that Marie-Antoinette, Reine de France, aka Shadow of the Guillotine, had such surprisingly great costumes and hair for 1956. If you know me, you know that I lurves me some Marie-Antoinette, and I’m in the process of trying to watch as many movies about the French queen as I can. It’s particularly interesting to watch the French productions, since obviously she’s their queen, and so she’s a better-understood cultural reference.

Shadow of the Guillotine stars Michèle Morgan as Marie-Antoinette, Richard Todd as Count Axel von Fersen, and Jacques Morel as Louis XVI. And really, anyone else is pretty much background. The movie focuses on Marie-Antoinette’s relationship with Fersen, and although it’s certainly romanticized, in some ways I think they get it pretty right: the two meet, they feel a connection, they hang, everyone gets suspicious, he goes away, things get shitty for Antoinette, he shows back up and tries to help out.

Woven through the Fersen relationship is Antoinette’s story, but the movie is less about her as an individual. I did appreciate seeing a functional, caring relationship with Louis — who, luckily, isn’t portrayed as a drooling nitwit here, just a super bumbling, shy, awkward guy.

I did find myself a bit bored by the last 30 or so minutes, since it’s all the doom and gloom leading up to Antoinette’s execution. I’m very familiar with that part of the story, and it’s less shiny, costume-wise, so it can get old. I will say that Morgan did a great job portraying Antoinette’s emotions on the day of her execution. You really see her digging deep to remain dignified, and it’s very touching.

But, on to the costumes, eh?

Shadow of the Guillotine‘s Costumes

I was really quite pleasantly surprised by just how close to accurate the costumes were, given that this is the 1950s! I was expecting total princess-seam shlock, and while there were certainly some questionable elements, there were other things this movie did better than those coming out today!

I’m mostly going to focus on Antoinette’s costumes, because the movie is 99% her. I will say that her costumes are miiiiiiiles better than any of the other female characters. A good comparison is in the beginning of the movie, as Louis XV’s health is failing, and we see a bit of Mesdames, Louis XVI’s older sisters. Their costumes are a good example of those worn by the non-leads:

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

Nice stripes on the left! Madame on the right’s dress is quite well trimmed. Good panier (side hoop) shapes. Madame in the middle has clearly never worn a long skirt before.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

I’m not sure why the back pleats on their robes a la française are so super-wide, almost robe volante-ish (the precursor to the française).

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

Still love the stripes on Madame-on-the-left, even if the robings (the wide band where the stripes are horizontal) are waaay too wide.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

The purple and black striped dress is great if I ignore the poly-baroque-satin issue and the fact that it’s a ludicrous cut/style for the 1770s.

But now, on to Marie-Antoinette and Fersen. When they first meet, it’s at an opera ball. Antoinette’s dress is a little synthetic-y, but otherwise a nice take on a 1770s anglaise. Fersen is all powder blue with sparkly embroidery. His wig looks possibly powdered in this shot, but don’t believe it — while the style of all the wigs/hair is pretty or quite good, it’s all shiny white.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

I like Antoinette’s peach with green, and the painted (?) bands on the skirt are perfect. I didn’t love her mask, but that’s just an aesthetic opinion, not a historical one.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

I was shocked by how well they did Antoinette’s hair, in particular the back, which everyone fucks up. In the 1770s scenes, she has high hair on top. In back, she has a wide braid looped up, which is spot-on for this era. Side note: the extras in the opera ball scene had excessively shitty costumes that were clearly pulled from stock.

While waiting for the news that Louis XV has died and they’re now king and queen, Louis rocks the blue velvet while Antoinette is in grey and dark red. I assume her dark color scheme is because of the king being ill? It’s not actual mourning wear. I wish I could see the back of the dress, but the silhouette and trim layout are great.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

The red bow is a little Alice in Wonderland…

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

This floral pet-en-l’air was pretty, and I LOVE this lavender and black jacket on Louis!

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

When Fersen comes to court and he and Antoinette meet again, she’s in a powder blue court dress. It could really use another petticoat or three to cover the hoop lines, and the neckline is far too low, but otherwise I quite liked it. The embroidery on her lady-in-waiting’s pink dress isn’t 100% 18th century, but I liked that it reminded me of late 18th c. robe parés!
1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

My favorite dress is this white and pink robe à la polonaise. I was SHOCKED, I tell you, SHOCKED to see how accurate this dress was cut and styled. It’s straight out of a 1770s painting. Okay, so the sleeves could be a little bit longer, but otherwise, hot damn!

The extras in the scene, however…

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

Maybe the extra on the left (big cabbage roses) inspired that Outlander season 2 dress? I think red damask may have back-lacing.

Shadow of the Guillotine (1956)

Fersen’s uniform is spiffy, but far more important is how well they captured the style lines of the robe à la polonaise on Antoinette.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

Donkey FTW!

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

I have to admit, I don’t remember seeing this blue and white riding habit on screen! But it’s so spiffy that it required inclusion.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

When Antoinette says farewell to Fersen, her hair has morphed into a 1780s style long ahead of anyone else. I could quibble, since I think it’s still the 1770s, but because they actually got the back of the hair relatively correct (which hardly anyone does), I’m just going to be thankful!

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

Fersen’s red and blue coat doesn’t seem like a very 18th-century color scheme to me, but it’s pretty!

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

The back of Antoinette’s hair — they actually got the overall shape right! Yes, lady-in-waiting has back lacing – sigh.

This blue robe à l’anglaise is clearly based on the famous Vigée-le Brun portrait. Although the portrait dress is probably a robe à la française, I can deal with the change given the glories of No Back Lacing. The fiber content, however, is questionable.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine
1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

They clearly copied so many elements of this dress! The cutaway bodice, the collar, the striped bow, the poufy bonnet with feathers!

There’s a time jump, then Fersen shows back up as the shit starts to go down and the Revolution looms. When he and Antoinette first meet again, it’s at her hameau (the faux-peasant village that’s near the Petit Trianon, where Antoinette played shepherdess). Antoinette is wearing a pretty damn good chemise à la reine!

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

The one other problem I have with all of the dresses shown so far you can kind of see in the chemise images above, but this shot of a lady-in-waiting below is a better example. While I love that they were wearing big poufy rumps, they extended REALLY far back, more so than I’ve seen for this era.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

Antoinette wears this stripey dress for the famous scene when the Parisian women march on Versailles, and she has to go out on the balcony and face them all. I didn’t love this dress — it’s very limp, and the transition between the stripes on the bodice and the skirt seems overly awkward.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

When the royal family is imprisoned in the Tuileries, Antoinette wears this lovely robe à l’anglaise that I would be totally thrilled with if not for the back lacing.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

And, when the royal family tries to escape (the mythical “flight to Varennes”), she rocks this amazing black and white outfit that would be simply pretty, but with the black and white striped bows? AMAZE-BALLS.

1956 Shadow of the Guillotine 1956 Shadow of the Guillotine

Finally, here’s the famous guillotine outfit with cropped hair, simple cap, and tied loose jacket:

Shadow of the Guillotine (1956)


What’s your favorite Marie-Antoinette movie?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

8 Responses

  1. Andrew

    ” Although the portrait dress is probably a robe à la française”

    Can I ask why you think that? I don’t see a hint of a sack back when I look at the portrait, and from my understanding they were out of style for day wear by that time anyway.

    • Kendra

      It’s that bit of back fullness just behind her elbow that makes me think francaise (which were still worn for formal court wear, and would make sense if MA is responding to accusations of being too informal). I used to think polonaise, but you can’t usually see any back fullness from this angle.

      • Andrew

        Oh, yep, I see it now. That’s def the edge of a pleat. I always thought it was foliage in the background but I’d never zoomed into that area before. I think it might be a française-polonaise hybrid – the way the fabric is highlighted just below the bust, and the way the shadowed part seems to curve out beneath her right arm.

        Have you done much research of when full court dress was worn vs. less formal françaises and robes parée? It seems like such a grey area to me.

  2. Susan Pola

    I’ve got I see it. I’m with you about Marie Antoinette, for me it was the Antonia Fraser book and the Kirsten Dunst movie. I re-watch Mrs Irving Thalberg’s , oops, Norma Shearer’s version and I thought it was a bit too lamé. Although there were a few swoonable dresses.

  3. Christopher Hall

    If she had succeeded in her intended flight to Edgecomb, Maine…. I wonder how her influence would have affected the contents of the L.L. Bean catalogue.

  4. NuitsdeYoung

    I got the DVD of this in Paris in May – I’m not an Antoinette fan by a long shot (I was visiting Paris and Arras for Maxie’s birthday!), but Richard Todd (playing Fersen) he made this was married to a cousin of my grandmother at the time, so it amused me to see him in this role!