Sunday, February 22, 2009

Revisiting Marie Antoinette's Corset Rebellion

French iron corset, 1580-1600, collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute

When Marie Antoinette first arrived in the court of France, she was expected to wear the tightly laced grand corps. Not only was this corset very stiff and uncomfortable, it often "severely restricted its wearer's movements, especially around the arms" according to the Marquise de La Tour du Pin. Others reported side effects like "heart palpitations, asthma, vapors, and stinking breath".

With the oppressive heat of her first summer in France, Marie Antoinette abandoned her corset and went without. She was thin enough to do so but it caused outrage amongst the courtiers. This juicy gossip of MA's corset rebellion quickly circulated through the courts of Europe. It was said that: "Marie Antoinette's waist was growing misshapen, and her right shoulder out of kilter" (Comtesse de Noailles) and "one of the future queen's shoulder blades was more protruding than the other" (quote not attributed). (Source: "Queen of Fashion" by Caroline Weber, page 69).

I couldn't help but wonder whether Marie Antoinette may have had scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. With this condition, it is common for one shoulder to protrude or sit higher than the other. (I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 13 and it was my uneven shoulders that was the first hint of a problem. I had to wear a steel corset not nearly as beautiful as the iron one shown above. I'm pretty sure that is why I have an obsession with corsets in my artwork and writing).

I suppose there will never be a definitive answer to this question since so few MA garments survived the scourge of the French revolution. But there was an apple-green bodice belonging to Marie Antoinette that still exists somewhere.

"An English lord touring Marie Antoinette's apartments after she and her family had been sent to jail asked to examine a bodice of hers that revolutionary loots had left lying on the floor. He explained to his puzzled French companions that he had long ago heard tales of the young woman's misshapen right shoulder--attributable to her avoidance of the grand corps--and was curious to see whether her bodice was padded to disguise the deficiency". (Source: Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber, page 69). Weber does not reveal whether or not her apple green bodice was padded or not.

I'll have to do more research to find out. If anyone knows where this bodice is, please let me know. The credit that accompanies the photo of this apple green bodice in Weber's book reports the photo is from the NY Public Library but obviously they don't own the garment itself.