Marie Antoinette’s wedding dress

It didn’t take us long to reach the royal chapel and there was a small awkward pause as my ladies came forward to tweak my full skirts and, clicking their tongues disapprovingly against their teeth, do their best to hide the wide expanse of lacing at my back, which revealed that my beautiful cloth of silver dress, made from measurements sent from Vienna several months earlier, was far too small for me.

‘Good luck,’ Madame de Mailly whispered when the ladies in waiting finally melted back again, their wide silk and brocade skirts rustling against the marble floor. ‘You look beautiful. Look straight ahead and ignore all the staring.’ She gave my hand a quick surreptitious squeeze. ‘You’ll be fine.’

I turned and smiled reassuringly at the Dauphin, who was standing mutely beside me, his pale eyes wide with terror while a pulse beat time in the vein at his temple. Now that I had overcome my own fears, I wished that there was some way that I could bring the colour back into his cheeks and stop him trembling. ‘It will be over soon,’ was the best that I could manage as he hesitantly took my hand and we stepped forward into the luminous white and gold light of the chapel.

Ever since I was a little girl I have dreamed of the perfect wedding, complete with a gorgeous dress, handsome prince and all of my family smiling fondly as they watched me sail gracefully up the long aisle towards the altar. Mama would proudly wipe tears of joy from her eyes and my brother Joseph, tall and handsome in blue watered silk would be waiting to give me away to my new husband, who’d watch me lovingly as I made my way up the aisle. Even though I knew that it was all impossible, that such a wedding could never happen, I’d still clung to that dream no matter what and in the end, the reality wasn’t all that bad in comparison.

True, my beautiful dress didn’t fit properly, my prince wasn’t exactly handsome and my family were all thousands of miles away but nothing could have prepared me for the breathtaking spectacle of the columned gilt and white marble chapel at Versailles in all its wedding day splendour. The bright spring sunlight shone through the tall windows, sending bright shards of coloured light floating over the assembled congregation while overhead there soared a beautiful painted ceiling which depicted scantily clad angels cavorting against a pure azure blue sky.’ — Secret Diary II, Melanie Clegg.

It’s weird to be back in the world of Marie Antoinette again. It’s also very strange to see just how much my writing has changed and improved in the last three years. On the other hand it’s nice to read back something that I wrote so long ago and actually find myself laughing out loud at some of the dialogue – not because it’s awful but because it is genuinely quite funny. I keep being told that writing in the first person is horrible for readers but I really do enjoy myself when I do it. Perhaps I should do it more often.

I’m writing about Marie Antoinette’s wedding again, which is a lot of fun. I especially like the fact that her immensely expensive cloth of silver and diamond spangled dress wouldn’t do up properly, which must have annoyed everyone no end although she herself was probably fairly sanguine about it as at the time she was a bit of a scruff and not quite the fashionista of popular imagining.

It’s a shame that Marie Antoinette’s wedding dress (along with pretty much all those clothes we hear so much about), an iconic piece of fashion history if ever there was one, no longer exists or at least not in its original form or in a public collection. I can only imagine the thrill of being able to see it in person. I remember writing about it in my undergraduate dissertation – about the fact that so little exists of that fabulous wardrobe that once took up so much space in the attics of Versailles and could be visited like works of art and yet it has still reached almost mythical status in our minds. Or something like that.

We are fortunate though in that some examples of eighteenth century royal wedding dresses do still survive to give an idea of how Marie Antoinette’s dress would probably have looked. Remember that it was Versailles that created the rules about court dress and behaviour so where they led, everyone else scrambled to follow.

Probably the most gorgeously romantic example is this lavish wedding gown worn by Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte Holstein-Gottorp when she married her cousin, the future King Charles XIII of Sweden on the 7th of July 1774, just over four years after Marie Antoinette’s wedding day at Versailles. Hedwig’s exquisite gown of silver tissue and lace, which accentuated her dainty 19″ waist, was made for her in Paris and so was guaranteed to be the height of fashion although the formal outfits worn at court had rules and etiquette that were quite removed from whatever was the mode at the time.

Another fine example is the dress worn by Sophia Magdalena of Denmark when she married the future King Gustav III of Sweden on the 4th of November 1766. The dress isn’t quite so ethereal and fairy princess like as that worn by her sister-in-law Hedwig but then she married in November so an altogether more sturdy and less diaphanous dress was probably determined upon. This dress was also made in Paris.

There’s also Sophia Magdalena’s coronation dress, which she wore on the 29th of May 1772 and was a heavy and gorgeous cloth of gold affair – when you get up close you realise that the dress fabric is patterned with gold crowns, which is rather fabulous.The fabric is so rich in fact that the gown itself is relatively simple in form and requires absolutely no embroidery or fuss other than the beautiful layered lace sleeves and tasselled fob at the hip. Well, I SAY ‘hip’ but…

We can only daydream now about how these wonderful dresses would have looked in the midst of marble and gilt chapels and glowing sumptuously in the soft light cast by thousands of candles. The actual act of wearing such a dress, however, is rather less dreamy, I’m sure as they are exceptionally weighty not to mention bulky. Still, one must suffer to be beautiful…

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7 thoughts on “Marie Antoinette’s wedding dress

  • Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

    That waistlines scares me. Seriously, I can’t imagine how anyone could eat and still have that tiny a waist, even being laced in as tightly as possible. However, the dress is absolutely stunning to look, although I imagine it must be incredibly heavy to wear.

  • Kathy

    Many years ago I read an article in a magazine… don’t recall which one, about a Film Production that decided to recreate the women’s dresses “exactly”, including having the actresses dress in the fantastic corsets they wore. But after trying to shoot a few scenes they changed their minds, as the actresses were…. fainting. And complaining a LOT. The dresses weighed 20lbs, or more, and the corsets restricted the actresses’ breathing ability. I expect the shoes were pretty uncomfortable too, since they didn’t use left & right sizing.

    Women in Olden Times were NOT wimps.

  • nokomarie

    What it must’ve been like. My wedding dress was heavy podesua (I married in April) and had a chapel-length train, which is some four feet from the waist. We pinned the train up for the reception but the weight simply killed after a few hours. I cannot imagine the weight of some of these gowns but maybe wearing them often made it easier.

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