I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world,‚ Marie Antoinette wrote in 1770. Appearance and beauty were all about status for the French queen, even before she was crowned, and the painting of her face and ritual of her toilette were both deeply symbolic and a complex political performance.
Such is her cultural status now as a fashion and beauty icon as demonstrated by Sofia Coppola’s lavish 2006 film that it seems surprising that Marie Antoinette was not actually considered to be an exceptional beauty. Of the defects‚ her mother found in her daughter’s appearance, the worst were apparently her uneven hairline, aquiline nose, and projecting lower lip called the Hapsburg lip.24 Marie Antoinette was aware of her perceived deficiencies, asking her first lady-in-waiting Madame Campan to give me notice when flowers shall cease to become me‚ at the age of just twenty-five.25 Her most beautiful feature, according to many of her contemporaries (and highlighted glowingly in the many portraits of her), was her brilliant, white complexion, not only of her face but also her neck, shoulders, and hands.26
Her famous toilette ritual was described by Madame Campan as a masterpiece of etiquette.‚27 The first private‚ toilette included the washing of face and body, the application of whitening face paint or powder, and the fixing and powdering of hair. The public‚ toilette began at noon, and was all about makeup and final touches with the application of rouge being the most popular to attend. In her biography of Marie Antoinette, Antonia Fraser notes that at this point, the process became very complicated, as anyone (anyone with the Rights of Entry,‚ that is) could appear at any time, and had to be greeted appropriately, delaying the whole process. To further slow things down, the queen could not reach for anything, and had to wait until she was handed the next styling item
When the rouge was applied, in huge precise circles of a color not far from scarlet,‚28 it was far from natural-looking, in keeping with the upper-class fashion (red, as well as rouge, was an important symbol to aristocratic men and women, as it quickly set them apart from the masses and indicated their high status).29 After her makeup was finished, the men in the audience left, and Marie Antoinette could (finally) be dressed.30
It may seem completely old-fashioned now, but the court was dependent on outward symbols of status, and Marie Antoinette’s mother pushed her to take on these symbols before she became dauphine and later the queen. And it worked: Her strict toilette regime created styles that infiltrated the toilettes of women around Europe and helped secure her precarious position in the French court.31 By the 1780s, though, Marie Antoinette was using her powder sparingly and her rouge had all but disappeared.32 Although she was merely following the emerging trend toward naturalism in Europe, she was inadvertently shedding all the outward symbols that signaled her status and disrupted the system of Versailles. The toilette ritual changed with each new prison during her incarceration: Before her execution, all that was left of the vast and complex toilette, according to Fraser, was a box of powder, a ‹“big fine sponge’ and a little box of pomade.‚33