How the hell does a historical costume-focused blog review the film Marie Antoinette (1938)? Adrian designed between 2,500-4,000 costumes for 150 cast members and about 1,250 extras; lead actress Norma Shearer alone had 34 gowns and 18 wigs. I’ve had this film on my to-do list for months now, and I keep putting it off because it’s So Huge. I rewatched the film last night, and decided to settle on the historical influences in Adrian’s over the top, classic Hollywood glamour-infused designs. Because they’re there! Hidden amongst layers of floof and millions of sequins.
First, we’ve touched on aspects of this film multiple times, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. I stand by my overall summary of the film, and add that the chivalric romance with Count Fersen is probably very overdone. I’m also not going to get into the hair, which I’ve analyzed for its fabulosity and its historical accuracy. Nor am I going to get into the men’s costumes (designed by Gile Steele), although you can see some of the best on the foppy and evil Duc d’Orléans; or hunt down more in-color images of the costumes on display or when they were reworn in DuBarry Was a Lady since we’ve already touched on both.
Instead, I’m going to give you a little background on Adrian’s design and making process, and then talk about the historical references in Norma Shearer as lead character Marie Antoinette’s gowns!
Designing Marie Antoinette‘s Costumes
The women’s costumes were designed by Adrian, and most of the information available is about his work. He really did design ALL of the women’s clothes, and I mean all. According to the book Hollywood Costume Design,
“Even on mammoth productions like Marie Antoinette (1938)… he designed everything, including the extras’ clothes, throwing out sketches every two to three minutes.”
I found the most information in a master’s thesis about Adrian’s work. According to author Rebecca Lorberfeld,
“Adrian spent several weeks in Europe, making stops in England, France, Italy and Austria. He visited libraries and museums to research the life, dress and court customs of eighteenth century France, examining books, artifacts and portraits. In Paris and Lyons he purchased lavishly woven silk textiles of velvet and brocade, and metallic tissues of gold and silver. In Austria and Italy he found special trims of gold and silver lace, antique gilt braid, buttons and buckles. He purchased truckloads of feathers, antique embroideries, fans and furs. The materials were all shipped out to California, and Adrian spent the next seven months on the project, designing the wardrobe and overseeing its execution. Once again, MGM brought in a small army of workers to help with the construction of the elaborate garments. ‘Fifty women were brought to Los Angeles from Guadalajara, Mexico to sew on thousands of sequins and do the elaborate embroidery,’ and ‘eight embroiderers were brought from Hungary to decorate the costumes with exquisite handwork, and a former milliner of the Imperial Russian Opera costume department, disocvered in Paris, agreed to oversee the making of hundreds of hats and headdresses for the film” (“Adrian: The Art & Craft of Motion Picture Costume Design, 1925-1941″).
A more poetic rendition can be found in a contemporary issue of Photoplay magazine:
“Adrian, M-G-M’s famous dress stylist, hiked off to Vienna to ferret out every known Hapsburg portrait of Marie Antoinette’s generation — for she was a Hapsburg before she went to France to be Louis’ bride. The search yielded only one tiny authentic miniature of the youthful archduchess, but a mountain of manuscripts, prints, sketches and yellowed records of a ghostly glory. In Paris, Adrian spent months roaming the crooked streets of Revolutionary Paris searching for anything from which to reconstruct the Bourbon dandies and their fashions, fancies, and foibles. He visited hairdressers whose ancestors had trimmed the wigs and curled the coiffures of the dainty courtiers of the period. He traced down families of Swiss wig-makers — for five thousand headpieces would have to be made, each in the correct style of six different periods of French court fads. He combed the knitting mills of France for weavers whose grandfathers had told them hazy tales of the rich splendor of court costumes. He found long forgotten samples of gold cloth and brocades that had graced many a French dandy’s prancing figure at the minuet. He dug up Antoinette’s very jewels and the jewels of her friends. He packed chests full of samples, styles, delicate originals and reproductions and sent them off to Hollywood.”
The same piece also mentions that Shearer “stood for three months, long hours every day, fitting and refitting the forty or so gowns Adrian had designed for the picture… A special white make-up which would give her the delicate alabaster beauty of the French aristocrats meant long hours with Jack Dawn and the testing camera…”
Historical References in Marie Antoinette‘s Costumes
When the film was released in 1938, a lot of the press emphasized the historical accuracy of the costumes. Of course, if you know 18th-century fashion, you immediately know that’s not true. So, let’s take a look at several of Adrian’s costumes for Shearer/Marie Antoinette, and give them the old historical accuracy analysis.
First, before we can really get into things, we need to go over the two main styles of dress that are referenced in the film: French court gowns. The real Marie Antoinette was among the first to adopt more casual, informal dress styles as she developed her own ideas of self, but the film by and large doesn’t include these (with two exceptions, which I’ll get into).
I laid out the basics of female French court styles in my research post about Maria Theresia (2017-19). To recap:
The dresses were made of three main elements:
A cone-shaped bodice that was boned and made with stiffened materials (so it was both a fashion garment and a corset in one), with a just-off-the-shoulder neckline, front point, back closure, and lace sleeves:
The front comes to a V; there are tab around the waistline hidden by the skirt; the silhouette in front is straight up and down and then curving away from there; the neckline is broad and forces the shoulders back.
It does indeed lace closed in back, but the lacing holes are hidden UNDER the fashion fabric. Here, the dress is laced loosely (due to its fragility) so you can see the hidden lacing strips. Note also the tab visible at the back right hem.
They also had a petticoat (the dress skirt that showed), and the “train” or long, trained overskirt.
Marie Antoinette’s Arrival Gown
Marie Antoinette arrives at Versailles in this gown:
I’d like to thank the Tea at Trianon blog for connecting the trim layout to this original painting of the queen:
Here’s an example of that very-pulled-back overskirt/train, which you often see on court dresses. It was probably more practical than trying to keep the train carefully laid over the hoop.
It looks like the movie costume omits this layer? Although I do remember a train in the scene…
Marie Antoinette’s Wedding Gown
According to uncited information at InvitingHistory.com,
“The wedding gown was made with more than 500 yards of satin; thousands of seed pearls were hand sewn into the dress, along with hand-embroidered flowers, ribbons and other designs. The dress’s long train was also hand-embroidered. Marie Antoinette wears a tiara with dripping pearls, a necklace with alternating pearls and diamond and pearl earrings with the costume. The exact color of the dress is technically unknown, however it was made with white satin and silver thread for some of the embroidery, so the dress is likely white with silver (and other colors) used for the various embellishments.”
The general silhouette and trimmings of this gown is great, and looks very much like those of the period:
Marie Antoinette’s Chemise à la Reine
Weirdly placed, timeline-wise, two years after her marriage the queen is left out of everything and hanging out in her chemise gown:
The main issues with the gown are, as Sarah pointed out, that its worn over a pannier (hoop) and the neckline is too low. The chemise à la reine (or robe en chemise) was a style that came into fashion in the early 1780s. It was based on the light, gathered, white cotton dresses worn in the French Caribbean colonies. It was a SUPER pared-down, peasant-look style:
Marie Antoinette’s Let’s Party Ball Gown
Led into society by the evil, conniving Duc d’Orléans (at least according to this version of the story), the queen sparkles at a ball in froofy white trimmed with feathers:
Did the queen really go in for big, froofy, and white? She definitely did:
Marie Antoinette’s Pastoral Dress
For flirting with the duc d’Orléans, the queen wears a gown covered in flower and tulle swagged garlands.
This kind of garlanded trim was very popular in the era, with swags of flowers, lace, and sheer fabrics on gowns, including at court:
But what it REALLY reminds me of are pastoral stage costumes, where actresses/dancers playing shepherdesses and peasants wore flower-bedecked dresses over wide panniers, which were de rigeur on stage no matter the role until the 1780s when things started to change.
And I think the (clunky, Sleeping Beauty-esque) criss-cross lacing on the bodice front is a nod to the kind of lacing seen on “shepherdess” dresses in pastoral paintings of the period:
Marie Antoinette’s Masquerade Dress
The queen lives it up (and gets up to no good!) at a Paris masquerade ball in this number:
It’s really removed from anything period, beyond the silhouette; what it reminds me of most are stage costumes from the period, which is actually quite perfect given that masquerade costumes were similar. In particular, the faux-armor-y bodice front and the extra swags of skirts:
Marie Antoinette’s Rocket Dress
Marie Antoinette meets Count Fersen while living it up at a gambling house (scandal) in the film’s pièce de resistance, so I can’t help but include it even though there’s really nothing much period beyond the silhouette and swagged trims.
Instead of giving you any historical references, which I can’t, I’ll talk about that gorgeous-but-not-18th-century low neckline that Shearer often sports throughout the film. In an essay entitled “Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford: Rivals at the Glamour Factory,” author David M. Lugowski argues that Adrian worked with Shearer to design costumes for her that would cast her “into rich pools of light and shadow suited not only to the sophisticated connotations of art deco, but also to each one’s [referring also to Joan Crawford] physiognomies and temperaments.” Apparently Shearer was petite and had “rather short legs,” which was something for which Adrian would compensate, using “costuming, high heels, and clever camera angles” to fake “an imposing physical presence.” In roles like Marie Antoinette, he designed costumes to convey “her persona’s regal aspects, allow her long neck, shoulders, and cleavage to suggest the rest of her bodyline” (in Glamour in a Golden Age: Movie Stars of The 1930s).
Marie Antoinette’s Riding Habit
This is one of the other non-Official Court Gown styles that Shearer wears in the film, and I LOVE IT (especially the hat):
I’m not sure if the filmmakers were trying to reference a riding habit, which would be more military-esque and worn without panniers:
Or a redingote, which was a menswear-styled gown that better suits the era of the hat, but would never have been worn with panniers:
They did have fur-trimmed winter wear, including for court; it’s likely that it’s a mashup of all three of these.
Marie Antoinette’s Velvet Court Dress
I’m including this one, just because SO many characters wear this style, with heavy embroidery on velvet:
These gowns evoke the heavier metal embroideries popular in the early and mid-18th century:
Marie Antoinette’s Imprisonment Dress
There’s no way I can include all 24ish gowns that Shearer wears in the film, but I did want to include a quick shot of this sober black gown and wide fichu she wears while imprisoned during the Revolution:
As it’s clearly a nod to the sober styles worn by the queen in this era:
I’ll keel over if I try to do anymore, but please let us know in the comments if there are specific costumes (worn by Shearer or any of the other actors) you’d like us to try to cover in another post! It could happen!
I can never open these posts for a day or though, though I do pay a monthly fee…not sure why…every link I click tells me to sign up…
Hmm, is it a verification issue with Patreon? We have that as well sometimes — their system sends an email that we have to click before we can login to Patreon. Might check your spam folder for it. Also, here’s their help docs, maybe something in there? https://support.patreon.com/hc/en-us
Still can’t get in yet am logged in…will try logging out and in…
No…still asking me to join…though I am billed monthly…hmmmm will try tomorrow
Do contact Patreon’s customer service if you can’t see posts when they’re published. I checked & the posts are set to “all patrons” & there shouldn’t be any delay. Sorry this is happening!
Meant to say a “day or two”…