Technicolor Fashion: Marie Antoinette

Once a month, we’ll be taking a look at fashion in film–characters, colors and costume design. Working together to create a believable persona, in the movies, the clothes often quite literally make the man. Or, in the case of today’s character, they make the 18th-century queen-to-be.

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Director Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette is loosely based on the real life of its title character, the Archduchess of Austria who married Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin of France, in 1770 at the age of 14. In history and in the film, the marriage isn’t consummated–a sticking point in the story. Instead, Marie (portrayed by Kirsten Dunst), who has little political sway and finds herself frustrated with life at court, throws herself into more frivolous pleasures–clothing, gambling and makeup. When the king of France passes in 1774, the Dauphin (portrayed by Jason Schwartzman) becomes king–making Marie Antoinette the new queen.

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Marie’s extravagant lifestyle and her husband’s investment in foreign wars are cause for unpopularity in debt-ridden France. Marie’s brother, the Holy Roman Emporer Joseph II, comes to visit, counseling Marie to scale back her ways and giving the king advice on bedroom matters. Seven years after it happened, the marriage is finally consummated; Marie gives birth to her first child, a girl, in 1778.

In the film, Marie begins an affair with Swedish Count Axel von Fersen and begins to spend much of her time at a small chateau on the grounds of Versailles. She has a son, the new Dauphin of France, and begins to spend more time focusing on her family–and less on gambling and purchases, particularly in light of France’s fiscal problems, which cite regular riots. At the end of the film, the the royal family leaves Versailles for Paris as the French Revolution grips the country.

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While Marie Antoinette‘s modern flairs–highly stylized characters, a mostly contemporary soundtrack–draw criticism, the title character’s lavishness is beautifully captured. The film is something to look at, and that’s in large part thanks to Italian costume designer Milena Canonero, who won an Academy Award for her work on Marie Antoinette.

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According to an article in The London Times, “At the start of pre-production, Coppola handed Canonero a box of pastel-coloured macaroons from the Ladurée pastry house. ‘She told me, ‘These are the colors I love’,’ recalls Canonero. ‘I used them as a palette. Sofia was clear about the coloration, but left the rest to me. We squeezed the essence of the period, without reproducing it. Even if you think you know a lot about it,’ she argues, ‘you always have to look for a new angle. I simplified the very heavy look of the 18th century. I wanted it to be believable, but more stylized.’

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Canonero said she’d start each of Dunst’s frothy, frilly, candy-colored pieces by throwing material over the actress to see which colors best suited her. Wigs were rarely used for Dunst, Canonero said, because they weren’t right for her. The majority of the clothes were made in ateliers in Rome’s Cinecitta studios, considered the hub of Italian cinema.

It’s not surprising that Canonero’s biggest challenge was the volume of costumes, especially those required for the film’s three opera scenes (Marie Antoinette was a performer),  the wedding, the Dauphin’s coronation, and the gambling and party scenes. In a string of the latter, dresses, baubles, accessories, shoes (by designer Manolo Blahnik), and sweets (by Ladurée) are piled, frame by frame, and set to a remix of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy”:

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“Sofia’s portrait of Marie Antoinette in the film is accurate, but human,” Canonero told the Times. “To me, Marie Antoinette was very unlucky. She lacked the right upbringing for such a role. She was the sweet playful girl of the family. Sofia has grasped the lightness and superficiality of the young Marie Antoinette, but also the dignity of the woman. She has done it by using light brush strokes and not too much dialogue.”

Coppola said herself the point of the film, rather than historical accuracy or even a much-detailed story, was to focus on Marie Antoinette’s “personal story”: “Louis wouldn’t sleep with her, so she wanted to go out and party–like someone in a bad marriage going shopping. It just seemed like the same old story,” she told the New York Times.

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In relation to Coppola’s two previous films–The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Lost in Translation (2003)–she said she saw Marie Antoinette as the last in a triology. “It’s a continuation of the other two films–sort of about a lonely girl in a big hotel or palace or whatever, kind of wandering around, trying to grow up,” she said. “But in the other ones, you know, they’re always sort of on the verge. This is a story about a girl becoming a woman. And in this, I feel like she does.”

And perhaps, considering in real life, Marie went on to have four children to whom she was greatly dedicated, as well as an increased amount of political influence, that’s not entirely inaccurate.

Screencaps courtesy Screenmusings.org.

Lindsey Baker is a style columnist based in Omaha, Neb. Check out her personal style blog, only style remains the same, at http://onlystyleremainsthesame.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/shoptalkomaha.