She never really said, “Let them eat cake!”, but the real Marie Antoinette wasn’t a Queen beloved by her French subjects. As the Austrian-born wife of Louis XVI, she was famed for her extravagance and insensitivity. When she was beheaded in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the people weren’t sad to see her go. There was not the kind of mourning that followed Princess Diana’s death two centuries later. However, the 1939 M-G-M version of Marie Antoinette’s life turned her into a sympathetic, romantic figure.
Hollywood Queen Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.
The star who portrayed the doomed Queen was Norma Shearer, then the reigning queen of the studio. No wonder, her husband was Irving Thalberg, the young genius who produced the studio’s most important movies. He died suddenly in 1936, right in the middle of the five years of prep work on “Marie Antoinette.” Too much money had already been spent on the project to abandon it, so it went ahead even though it was clearly a ego-epic vehicle for Norma. And what a vehicle, it was! The final budget soared to $2.3 million, a fortune in 1938. And much of that money was spent by Adrian, the costume designer who is undeniably the master of Hollywood glamour.
Adrian spends a forture to bring the rococo court to the screen.
In 1937 Adrian traveled to France and Vienna researching the picture. He soaked up atmosphere and he spent money, $500,000 ($5.8 million today), to recreate the over-the-top, over-designed, overwhelming 18th century rococo world of French royalty . He bought fancy antique silks, gold and silver laces, lavish brocades, feathers and jewels, enough to create the 4,000 costumes required for the epic story. Hollywood is famous for redesigning history, but the costumes and sets for this film are some of the most historically accurate ever created, many based on portraits of the Queen by Madame Vigee-Lebrun, her favorite painter. Adrian produced 50 to 75 sketches a day, not just for the leads but also for the 1,250 extras and even for two French poodles! The research was remarkably meticulous. It is recorded that 1,538 books, 10,615 photographs, paintings and sketches, plus 5,000 pages of unbound manuscripts were used to insure authenticity. In France, factories were found to specially weave fabrics as they had been done centuries before. In Hollywood, scores of seamstresses, beaders and embroiderers worked to bring Adrian’s sketches to life. So detailed were some of his sketches that magnifying glasses were used to insure that the intricate designs were correctly followed.
A royal tragedy, traced in rococo fashions.
The costumes worn by Norma were designed to trace the arc of the Queen’s rise and fall. At the beginning, the costumes are lighthearted and giddily romantic, reflecting the hopes and dreams of a young Austrian princess betrothed to the Dauphin of France. He turns out to be more of a frog than a prince and Marie is forced to make her own way in the treacherous court at Versailles. When she triumphs over her arch enemy, Madame du Barry, her costumes are gloriously showy and confident, an expression of the extravagance that would be the Queen’s downfall. The film’s final costume, historically accurate, is virtually the only simple gown in the entire movie. On her way to the guillotine, Norma wears a rough wool dress and a small white mob cap.
Years later, in 1977, famed “Vogue” editor Diana Vreeland mounted an exhibition of Hollywood costumes at the Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Adrian’s “Marie Antoinette” gowns were the centerpiece. Vreeland gushed that they were “…designed of total wonderment.” How right she was. Marie Antoinette’s wedding gown was made of more than 500 yards of sheer fabric, every inch embellished with hand-embroidered, silver flowers edged in minute seed pearls. The huge skirts were draped over steel hoops that were no longer available, so a factory was commissioned to produce 90 feet for each of 1,000 gowns. Wearing the costumes must have been agony for Norma. A tiny woman, 5’3” tall and weighing in at a slight 110 pounds, her 34 costumes had an aggregate weight of 1,768 pounds. Almost a ton! And that doesn’t count the wigs, towering coiffures of powdered blondness adorned with flowers, feathers, jewels and even birds.
Rococo, captured on film forever.
There is a scene in the film that takes place in a ballroom at Versailles. The set is a giant jewel box, twinkling with candlelight reflected off mirrors and crystal chandeliers. Hundreds of extras in exquisite, highly ornate costumes prance daintily across the marble floor. Norma Shearer as the Queen is the center of attention, a veritable definition of the word “rococo.” She is gowned, adorned and decorated in a confection of lightness and delicate design that is so overdone that it should look tasteless and ridiculous. Instead, it looks breathtaking. Such was the genius of Adrian.