Friday, January 30, 2009

Rose Bertin, Minister of Fashion

La Galerie des modes: Fashion Plate mentioning Rose Bertin

Rose Bertin's association with Marie Antoinette reached its zenith in the in the mid-1780s. As the leading marchande de modes, Bertin was known for creating fashion trends, from the pouff to the dress a la Suzanne (a dress with a tight-fitting bodice with a fichu worn with a white skirt and apron inspired by Beaumarchais's play The Marriage of Figaro first performed in 1774).

Bertin loved to brag about her latest collaborations with Marie Antoinette and agreed to sell copies of the pieces she made for the Queen of France, although she was not permitted to do so until two weeks after Marie Antoinette wore the original outfit.

News of the latest fashions was disseminated through fashion plates (like the one shown above from Galerie des Modes) and poupee de modes (fashion dolls). The infamous Marie Antoinette doll which was created with the Queen's features was awaited with "breathless anticipation" in cities across Europe. According to an editor of Le Journal des dames, "fashionable ladies throughout Europe welcomed the oversized, overdressed mannequin with practically as much adulation and excitement as if they were meeting the sovereign herself."

Royalty and aristocrats across Europe flocked to Bertin's atelier. Even the Grand Duchess of Russia bought a number of dresses including "one of silk brocaded with velvet flowers with an overskirt of lace interwoven with gold".

Marie Antoinette rarely wore a gown more than once (this was accepted court practice and even the previous Queen of France Maria Leczinska spent vast sums of money on clothes). In 1776, Marie Antoinette spent 272,000 livres, most of which went to Rose Bertin. Of that sum, 100,000 livres was spent on accessories, even though the Queen's total clothing budget was set at 120,000 livres.

Apparently, Bertin refused to provide detailed accounts of what she had sold to the Queen, which meant that the dame d'atours had no way to verify the charges and had to pay the unsupported bills. It is not surprising that Bertin was dubbed the "Minister of Fashion."

To be continued

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rose Bertin and Marie Antoinette

In October 1773, marchande des modes Rose Bertin set up her boutique called "The Grand Mogol" on the fashionable rue Saint-Honore. The large windows were filled with artistic displays of hats, shawls, fans, silk flowers, laces, ribbons and accessories. The luxurious boutique was adorned with gilded moldings, fine oil paintings, and expensive furniture to complement the sumptuous displays of dresses trimmed with all the necessary accessories.

Bertin was known for her creativity and innovation, especially when it came to hats. She often introduced new styles and people were drawn to the shop to see her latest creations.

According to Marie Antoinette's femme de chambre, Madame Campan (who later wrote her memoirs), the fashionable Duchess of Chartes introduced Rose Bertin to the Queen in the spring of 1774. It did not take long for Marie Antoinette to become dependent on Bertin's taste. In fact, Marie Antoinette insisted on allowing Bertin to participate in her morning toilette ritual, which scandalized the court as etiquette had previously allowed only the most senior and favored courtiers to the ceremony. Marie Antoinette conferred with Bertin in a small chamber and then stepped out to greet her ladies in waiting. Nevertheless this change in the strict etiquette of the French court was viewed by courtiers with disdain, since they did not consider Bertin of sufficient rank to have such privileged access to the Queen.

Bertin capitalized on her close association with Marie Antoinette and labeled herself Marchande de Modes de la Reine. Each season, she would dress a poupee de mode (or fashion doll) and send it to Italy, Spain, England, Sweden and Russia. There was one doll that was endowed with the Queen's face, figure and hair and came with a complete wardrobe of formal court dress. Apparently, this doll caused such a frenzy in England that a satirist writing for the London Spectator "complained about women's inability even to concentrate on church sermons, so preoccupied were they with this doll".

To be continued....

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Rise of Marchandes de Modes and Rose Bertin

Paris has been the center of fashion since Louis XIV, the Sun King, recognized the symbolism inherent in his sartorial splendor. At the top of the French social hierarchy, the King's luxurious, elaborate and ostentatious clothing and accessories created the impression of power, grandeur and prosperity.

Members of the court were expected to follow the lavish dress of Louis XIV. It was recognized that proper dress could provide access to the King and a courtier by the name of Nicholas Faret wrote in 1636 that "clothing was one of the most useful expenditures made at court". The importance of dressing fashionably at court fueled the demand for luxury textiles, ribbons, lace, and related accessories.

Louis XIV's finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, designed economic policies that capitalized on this demand. Colbert emphasized the expansion of commerce and the production of textile and fashion-related industries in France. He also regulated the guilds that controlled the manufacture and sale of luxury goods.

Guilds were strictly regulated, with strict rules of conduct and quality control. There were approximately 125 different groups associated with dress (Savary de Bruslon's Dictionnaire Universale de Commerce of 1726). These groups could be categorized into three main groups:
1. manufacturers who provided the raw materials (eg., fabrics and trims)
2. craftsmen and women who produced garments and accessories (eg., corset makers, tailors, glove makers, hat makers, fan makers, jewelers, embroiderers)
3. merchants who sold the goods (mercers, drapers, linen merchants, furriers, hosiers)

Over time, mercers became more and more significant in the luxury goods trade in France. Since they were not allowed to manufacturer goods, only to sell finished products, they developed a range of techniques to make their wares more desirable. Items underwent the process of "enjoliver", prettying up, and shops became gathering places for the fashionable elite.

As fashions changed, with less emphasis on the textile itself and more emphasis given to the trims and accessories, fashion merchants became uniquely positioned to meet the needs of their customers. The marchandes de modes rose to the top of the fashion pyramid.

In 1776, when the guilds were restructured, the importance of the marchandes de modes in the merchant trade was recognized and a new separate guild was incorporated. This was one of the few guilds that allowed women.

The best known marchandes de modes is Rose Bertin (born by the name of Marie-Jeanne Bertin in 1747). Even before she was introduced to Marie Antoinette by the Duchess of Chartes in 1774, Bertin was considered a preeminent fashion merchant, and was known for her creativity, especially when it came to hats.

To be continued ....

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Marie Antoinette's Dress at the ROM

I popped into the Patricia Harris Costume and Textile Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum and was stunned to see that Marie Antoinette's dress is still on display. When the dress was first brought out on exhibit in October, the ROM widely advertised that it would only be out of the vault for two weeks. Given the inherent fragility of this garment, it is surprising that the dress has been on display for over three months!

There is now a video of curator Dr. Alexandra Palmer talking about the dress. She did not add much new information except to say that Versailles had asked to borrow the dress.

I also enjoyed listening to one of the textile conservators talk about her work on the dress. Apparently the skirt is badly stained but it is hard to see evidence of that in the dim light of the display case.

In any case, if you have not yet seen the dress and are interested in fashion, it is worth a trip to the Royal Ontario Museum.

Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen's Park Circle, TorontoLink

Monday, January 26, 2009

Icons of Fashion: Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette
Copyright of Ingrid Mida, Mixed Media, 8x10, 2008

I've noticed that whenever I write about Marie Antoinette, I attract a new audience to my blog. Clearly there are a lot of fans of this fashion icon. Thank you to those of you who have offered your comments and encouragement. Sometimes it can be lonely being an artist and a writer and I love to hear what you have to say!

I'd like to share lovely blog sites that I've discovered. These sites are beautifully composed, with stunning images and solid writing. These sites include:
Enchanted by Josephine by Lucy Bertoldi
The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century by Heather Carroll
Versailles and More by Catherine Delors

As well, some of my postings about Marie Antoinette will be re-posted on a yahoo group site about Marie Antoinette:

Welcome to all my new blogging friends!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Scented Palace, The Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer

Title: A Scented Palace, The Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer
Author: Elisabeth de Feydeau

Translator: Jane Lizop
Publisher: I.B. Tauris, London, New York (2006)
Category: Non-fiction, history, biography
Price: US$22 hardcover (
Number of Pages: 114 before appendices, 140 including appendices

What it is about:
Jean-Louis Fargeon was the perfumer to Marie Antoinette. Born in 1748, seven years before the birth of the future Queen of France, Jean-Louis was the first-born son in a long line of apothecaries and perfumers. This book follows the trajectory of Jean-Louis' life as he masters the skills of a perfumer, develops his business and serves as perfumer to Marie Antoinette. The history of the French revolution is interwoven into the tale.

My favourite passage:
"Finally the perfumer had to reinforce the depth and perfect the harmony of his preparation. Vanilla would lend a warm and delicious touch, soft and velvety, redolent of Marie Antoinette's childhood and her fondness for Viennese pastries, a gourmet hint of sweetness and gentleness. Cedar and sandalwood would add the note of the wooded lanes of the Trianon. Amber and musk would overlay the entire composition with a sensual, animal fervour, and a pinch of benzoin would add warmth and tenacity to the whole." (page 70)

Why I chose this book:
A good friend/blogging fan noticed that I was researching and writing about Marie Antoinette in the fall and gave me this book for my birthday.

Rating: B
While this book was well-written, I found the volume slim with 114 pages. The footnotes are not extensive and the source of material that this biography is based on is not really clear (other than a mention of Fargeon's papers).

The book was amusing but did not really provide much new information about the time period, with the exception of the passages about the toilette preparations of Marie Antoinette. Nevertheless, I think that it is good read for die-hard Marie Antoinette fans. I simply cannot get enough of this fashion icon.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Book Review: Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Title: Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
Author: Caroline Weber
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2007
Category: Non-fiction, history
Price: US $17, Canada $17.75 paperback

What it is about:
In Queen of Fashion, the author examines how the Marie Antoinette's choices of clothing and accessories became instruments of politics and power during the 18th century. In a frock by frock analysis, the author argues that the sartorial choices of the Queen of France played an instrumental part in determining her fate and the sequence of events that led to the revolution.

Favourite Passage:
"Among the nobility and moneyed bourgeoisie, even those women who found such innovations shocking in the King's wife could not resist following her lead. "By one of those contradictions that are more common in France than anywhere else," wrote a contemporary observer, "even as the people were criticizing the Queen for her outfits, they continued frenetically to imitate her. Every woman wanted to have the same deshabille, the same bonnet, that they had seen her wear." Propelled to notoriety by the ingenuity of designers to who the public came to refer as her "ministry of fashion," Marie Antoinette established herself as a force to be reckoned with -- as a queen who commanded as much attention as the most dazzling king or mistress, and whose imposing stature had nothing to do with her maternal prospects." (page 5)

Why I Chose this Book:
In the fall of 2008, the Royal Ontario Museum showcased a gown that may have been worn by Marie Antoinette (see my fashion blog: postings for October 2008 to see photos of the gown). As well, the ROM invited Carolyn Weber to give a talk about this book and in anticipation of that, I read it. And am I ever glad that I did! This book led me into deeper research into Marie Antoinette, 18th century fashion and the history of the French revolution and also inspired my artwork relating to that era.

Even though I previously reviewed this book on my fashion blog, I decided to include it here as well because this brilliant book is a must read for both fashion and history buffs.

Rating: A plus

Carolyn Weber is a skillful writer and weaves a thoughtful and well-researched argument about the interplay of fashion and politics. Even though Ms. Weber is an academic (associate professor of French and Comparative Literature at Barnard College), her prose is elegant, engaging and to the point. I even read the footnotes which contain a wealth of information. This book is an absolute delight to read.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Is it Art?

Fashion Plate #12, mixed media, 12x12 (partial image shown)
copyright Ingrid Mida, 2008

I haven't written much about fashion in a while. Not because I haven't been working, but rather because I've been obsessed by making images like Fashion Plate #12 shown above. I don't even know whether or not this one should be numbered 12 or 20. I had to guess. I have two full walls in my studio of them and more are in progress.

I also don't know whether or not they would be considered fine art. Perhaps they are more of a conceptual art piece, which is defined as art whose purpose is the expression of an idea.

I have juxtaposed the image of the 18th century woman dressed at the height of fashion alongside country folk. The fashionable lady looks down at the country folk and their simple pleasures and yet, who is happier? Who is entrapped in the folly of their desires?

All the research I did into Marie Antoinette combined with the precipitous decline in the economy triggered my insight into the dangers of the desire to live at the height of fashion. That insight led to my Cage of Desire series which in turn led to these works.

In any case, I am enjoying this exploration of beauty, desire and folly. I suppose whether or not it is art is for the viewer to decide.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: Free Food for Millionaires

Title: Free Food for Millionaires
Author: Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, New York (2008)
Category: Fiction

Casey Han, a 22 year-old graduate of Princeton, is the daughter of Korean immigrants. She knows she should chose a respectable career like law but she is torn by her love for fashion and defers her admission to Columbia Law School. She yearns to fit in somewhere but feels disconnected from the traditions of her culture. To pay her bills, she takes a job as a sales assistant on the bond desk at a Wall Street investment bank. The title of the book refers to the free food offered to the staff on the bond desk when they execute a deal.

Casey is scrappy, impulsive, and imperfect. She says things and does things that get her into trouble, big trouble. Casey likes fashion and spends too much money on clothes (something I can totally relate to!). She understands the power of donning a particular piece of clothing and felt that "clothing was magic" and could literally "change a person" (page 39).

Favourite Passage:
"Smart girls who read books weren't supposed to be materialistic...And equally true was that smart girls wanted to be beautiful in the way beautiful girls wanted to be smart." (page 40)

Why I Chose This Book:
The provocative cover photo and the unusual title enticed me to read this book. I was hooked from the first line: "Competence can be a curse."

Rating: A
This is not a chick lit book but neither is it an unreadable literary fiction work lacking a plot. I was drawn into the story and was captivated right to the end. I loved this book, especially as it explored two themes close to my heart: being the daughter of immigrants and being an intellectual who loves fashion.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

French Fashion Plate Series

French Fashion Plate #10
Mixed Media, 12x4
copyright: Ingrid Mida, 2008

I continue to be obsessed with French fashion from the 18th century. This is one of my favourite creations. I'm not sure whether what I am making is considered art because it is too pretty and lacks angst. In any case, I love making them and now have a whole wall of them in my studio.

I have run out of this gorgeous fabric and am on the hunt for more toile de jouy. Nothing seems nearly as pretty and I am getting discouraged. I'll be pounding the pavement again today looking for some more fabric. I might just have to book a trip to Paris to find the perfect toile de jouy!