Designer to the Stars

What’s one of the main reasons I’m obsessed with Dancing With the Stars (go, Apolo!)? The clothes, of course! So sparkly and fringe-y and fun. I’ve always loved playing dress-up, and subscribe to way more fashion magazines than is probably healthy. The truth is, I can never actually afford Prada or Marni, and I would never try to squeeze myself into those Edyta-style get-ups from DWTS. But I can always dream! And buy spiffy dance shoes.
One of the earliest of the high-fashion, brand-name modistes was Rose Bertin, favorite designer to Marie Antoinette. Born in Abbeville in 1747, Rose Bertin set up shop as a marchande de modes (female fashion merchant) in 1773, in a luxurious boutique on the rue Saint-Honore. In 1774, she expanded her offerings to include what came to be known as the ‘pouf,’ wild headresses to go with the enormous dresses. These were made in conjunction with Marie Antoinette’s equally snooty and extravagent hairdresser, Leonard, and were built on a scaffolding of wire, cloth, gauze, horsehair, fake hair, and the woman’s own hair, teased up off the forehead. After being doused with powder, the coiffure could become the canvas for all sorts of still-lifes and props (ships, windmills, babies, you name it).
Through her rich clients the duchesse de Chartres and the princesse de Lamballe, Bertin came to the notice of Marie Antoinette, who had just become queen and was feeling her fashion wings (or wild oats). A style was born. One of their earliest collaborations was a pouf titled ‘coiffure a l’Iphigenie’ (to pay tribute to Gluck’s opera), quickly followed by the ‘pouf a l’inoculation,’ to celebrate her husband’s successeful smallpox innoculation. Bertin also designed the queen’s coronation gown, an elaborate affair heavily embroidered with gold thread and sapphires, which almost had to make the trip to Rheims on a special stretcher (until the lady-in-waiting balked at carrying it).
Bertin’s creations (which cost roughly twenty times what a skilled artisan would earn in a year) helped establish France as the center of the fashion industry, which has persisted to this day. But Bertin, reportedly an abrasive woman, was deeply resented, both by the aristocracy (who felt the queen treated her, a mere tradeswoman, with too much favor and distinction), and by the middle and lower classes. She was snooty to would-be customers (for example, refusing to outfit the ‘wife of a mere prosecutor from Bordeaux!’), and the wild extravagence of her creations was derided in the midst of depressions and famines. As a woman, Bertin inspired particular resentment for taking precedence over her male colleagues, and was sneeringly called Marie Antoinette’s ‘Minister of Fashion’ and ‘Minister of Trinkets.’
During the Revolution, Bertin eventually moved her business to London, returning to Paris in 1795, where Josephine was one of her main customers. But fashions had changed, and she soon retired to her house in the town of Epinay sur Seine, where she died in 1813.
A great source for info on this period is Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.
What are some of your favorite fashion eras or designers? Anyone watching Dancing With the Stars???

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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