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How Marie Antoinette’s dress propelled slavery, fast fashion and made America a superpower

marie antoinette in the robe de gaulle or

More than 200 years later, the entire world still lives in the aftermath of Marie Antoinette’s most scandalous outfit choice. In 1783, the Queen of France sat for a portrait which would scandalise French society, upend the silk industry and ignite the violent fire of slavery and capitalism by the United States and Britain. At the time, the controversial Marie Antoinette scandalised the French public by appearing in a robe de gaulle, a white dress made of thin layers of cotton/muslin with puff sleeves and a sash belt at the waist, which closely resembled the chemises and shifts that 18th-century women wore as underwear. The painting, essentially the equivalent of the queen’s nudes, had to be replaced immediately but Marie Antoinette, ever the rebel and trendsetter, sparked a powerful sequence of events that affect our world today.

The last queen, the first influencer

To this day, Marie Antoinette is still a fashion icon. It’s to the degree that her name is often shorthand for any remotely 18th century, Rococo or historically French.

Beginning with her arrival to France from Austria, there wasn’t very much love for between the foreign queen from the French court. She held little political influence and instead turned to fashion and the arts to establish herself. Paris was the world’s authority on fashion and Marie Antoinette was adept at recognising the talent and skill in the capital. Soon, whatever Marie Antoinette wore was what the whole (Western) world wanted to wear.

marie antoinette by jean baptiste andre gautier d'agoty 1775
Marie Antoinette by Jean Baptiste
Andre Gautier D’Agoty (1775)

She wasn’t just indispensable to the fashion industry at the time; fashion plates and magazines were published as frequently as every ten days to keep up with the queen’s style—she was the fashion industry.

She was reported to have commissioned over 300 dresses a year and hardly wore anything twice, spending $20 000 a day.

Even though many wanted to dress like her, she was a divisive figure amongst the nobility and French citizens alike. Amongst a long list of ‘transgressions’; she was more Austrian than French, it took her nearly a decade to produce an heir, she rebuked court etiquette, exceeded the crown’s budget, had an affair, committed incest and liked to retreat into Petit Trianon, where she and her friends would cosplay as peasants.

The robe de gaulle would be come to be known as the chemise à la reine (the queen’s undergarments) after the premier of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s portrait. Everything about this painting was a radical statement by Marie Antoinette—she was no longer a reflection of the maximalist French fashion industry (wearing cotton instead of silk was unpatriotic), she appeared pastoral and rustic like a commoner and there were no references to her husband, the king. Naked and alone, Marie Antoinette was just a woman—not a wife, not a mother and, certainly, not a god. Undeifying her own image didn’t stop the dress spreading like wildfire across Europe and intensified the demand for cotton.

mrs francis russell 1787 george romney
Mrs Francis Russell by George Romney (1787) – wearing a chemise a la reine

Cotton is king

Today, we use cotton in almost everything. Beyond our clothing, it’s in our home textiles, medical supplies, toiletries, paper, oil, computer chips and television screens. It’s our most prominent non-food agricultural products and our dependency on cotton today is all thanks to the marriage of influence and innovation.

While the queen and her aristocratic friends created the desire for cotton products in the 18th century, technology made it accessible and violence made it affordable.

georgiana cavendish duchess of devonshire by thomas gainsborough 1785
Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough (1785) – wearing a chemise a la reine gifted
by Marie Antoinette

The cotton gin was invented in the United States, mechanising the cotton production process and allowing for unparalleled levels of productivity. Before, India was the provider of the world’s cotton but as cotton fibres were still being separated from their seeds by hand, the process was slow, labour intensive and unable to keep up with European demand.

Now, not only was America able to match the demand for cotton, but planters also used enslaved labour making cotton incredibly cheap.

Of course, Marie Antoinette’s dress didn’t create the devasting legacy of chattel slavery in the US but it certainly pushed it forward. By 1807, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was over and northern American states began to outlaw slavery following the American Revolution. However, the astronomical profits possible from cotton created further incentive for slavery and America’s enslaved population became as valuable an industry as its banks, railroads and factories combined.

Without being able to enslave new Africans, slavers had to “naturally increase” the enslaved population. From the 1770s until the Civil War, the enslaved population grew from 400 000 to 3.9 million, a yearly increase of 25-30%. It is estimated that enslaved women would give birth 9-10 times in their lifetime all to satisfy the insatiable hunger for productivity and profit.

Brutality is inextricably tied to America’s cotton boom, with a 400% production increase 1801 to 1862. Enslaved people were under constant supervision, and their productivity and value were gauged by their daily outputs. Failing to meet quotas led to torture and realising quotas could also lead to torture as a means of motivation. Even the legacy of this working environment, where employees must always visibly busy and their productivity must be quantifiable, would come to inform capitalism the world over.

The South, which now had the most millionaires per capita , could survive seceding from the North because cotton and enslaved labour made it economically feasible.

James Henry Hammond famously said, “Without firing a gun, without drawing a sword… we could bring the whole world to its feet… What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilised world with her to save the South. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on Earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.”

And even though slavery would end with the Civil War and the cotton industry declined, America was still one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The wealth generated by slavery didn’t disappear either, it was absorbed to create 1% and the mass corporations that still exist today who now have bought the power to manipulate and control the free world.

marie antoinette 2006
Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette (2006)

The legacy of fast fashion

Although we think of fast fashion as a very 21st century issue, the fashion industry in the 18th century wasn’t so different from our own. Even without digital mass media, the dissipation of trends was rapid in the late 1700s. It was even said that if your maid stole your latest fashion plate, by the time you got a new one all the styles would already be outdated.

1780s fashion plate of chemise gown
1780s fashion plate

The guillotine didn’t cause the end of the little white dress or the need for cotton either, in fact it may have made it worse. The dress itself was an appropriation of the aesthetics of the lower and working classes and in distancing themselves from the monarchy and symbols of excess, the new French Republic adopted the chemise à la reine, now the robe en chemise, as a uniform that represented their new neoclassical, egalitarian beliefs.

All over the world, cotton became the textile of choice for everything from dress to home goods and machinery. And that never ended. Cotton opened the gateway to mass production in fashion. As it become cheaper and easier to produce goods, trends came and went with the speed of light. The industry has become a rat race of large corporations trying to be the first to get poor quality clothes into as many hands possible.

By now, we’re inundated with messages about sustainability, ethics and consciousness in fashion, and the first proactive measure is often natural fibres over synthetics. But not all synthetics are bad and not all natural fibres are good.

Cotton is an incredibly thirsty plant, the thirstiest of all agricultural products—the water used for India’s cotton farming in 2013 in one year was enough to provide 850 000 000 Indian citizens with 100 liters of water every day in the same period. The crop uses 2.5% of the world’s arable land but makes up more than 16% of global pesticide use; pesticides which are often poisonous to cotton labourers. Benin, Burkina Faso, China, India, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan combined produce 65% of the world’s cotton and all have had several reports of using forced labour and child labour to farm cotton.

Cultural appropriation and the butterfly effect

There’s still much debate about the origins of the chemise à la reine. A similar dress, known as the robe à la creole, was popular amongst white French settlers in Caribbean colonies—a look they may have appropriated from the free and enslaved Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous women of Haiti and Martinique.

free women of color with their children and servants in a landscap agostino brunias 1796
Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape by Agostino Brunias (1796)

Whether or not this is true, the dress remains an instance of Marie Antoinette getting to adopt the aesthetics of the lower classes while actively contributing to those same people’s oppression and demise. Her rejection of French finery and court etiquette might endear us to her today as an example of a woman attempting to take agency over her life and image, and some view it as an attempt to show the French public a more humble and altruistic side to their monarch.

But no matter her intentions, this rich, white woman and her dress are complicit in the way white supremacy permeates the world and the fashion industry today. Fashion is such a powerful creative outlet for ingenuity, expression and individuality but, just like with the last queen of France, we cannot even begin to imagine how our personal choices can cost so many lives and freedoms.