Marie Antoinette Wife of Louis XVI

March 13, 2005

APPEARANCES

Let Them Wear Perfume

By MARY TANNEN

Marie Let-Them-Eat-Cake Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, has always had a bad rap as the queen whose spending sprees fueled the rage that fired the French Revolution. But every age has its villains and heroes, and to our luxury-loving, budget-deficient society, the pretty little reine is looking less like a spoiled doll and more like a style-setting celebrity. She has attracted the attention of Sofia Coppola, who is making a movie based on her life. And she was the subject of much discussion at a recent party at Versailles, where about 80 invitees gathered to celebrate the publication of the biography of her perfumer, Jean-Louis Fargeon, one in a series of books about tradesmen who supplied the court.

For the occasion, Francis Kurkdjian — who as perfumer for the fragrance house Quest International has created scents for the designer Jean Paul Gaultier, among others — invented a scent for the queen herself, consulting contemporary accounts of her taste as well as old formulas and using only ingredients from that time. Everyone received a small bottle of his Sillage de la Reine, which translates as ”in the queen’s wake.”

The author of the Fargeon biography, Elisabeth de Feydeau, a tall, slender blonde in a smart black leather jacket and a short skirt, led us through a door in the reception hall and up the narrow servants’ stairway directly to the lavatory and dressing room of Marie Antoinette, opened just for the occasion. As we filed through, it was evident that many of the invitees had already dipped into their bottles, as the bouquet of iris, jasmine, rose and tuberose filled the passageway.

Feydeau showed us the room where the queen took her frequent baths, a custom that horrified the court, as others bathed on a semi-annual schedule, even though the queen modestly accomplished this task in a head-to-toe white flannel gown.

She was a trendsetter in other ways, too, preferring lighter, more natural makeup to the impasto of white lead then au courant. She was also a big user of perfume — scented leather gloves, potpourris, sachets for the bath and incense to drive out bad odors (of which there were many). When she felt faint, there were preparations called vinaigrettes to be wafted under her nose. She acquired a taste for concentrated perfumes — blossoms steeped in alcohol and fortified with musk, amber or opopanax, an acrid resin found in the Middle East. In the new Romantic tradition, both M.A. and her perfumer believed that scent should be ”the emanation of the soul.”

On a shelf in the lavatory was a traveling case, with its many bottles for fragrance, thought to belong to the queen. There would probably have been one just like it when the carriage of the disguised and fleeing royal family was stopped at Varennes. ”Perhaps the smell tipped them off,” Feydeau conjectured, noting that the odors emanating from the queen’s perfume-mobile would have made a stunning impression on the unwashed rabble. ”She was the first fashion victim in history.”

But M.A. was good for the economy, as ladies of the court regularly ordered new toilettes to keep up with her innovations. At one point, she dressed herself and her entire retinue in white linen gowns with colored ribbon sashes. She used the Petit Trianon as a refuge from the strict rules of the court, forsaking elaborate hairdos and letting her tresses hang loose, like a young girl’s. She started a mania for flowers — ladies’ gowns, hats and chambers suddenly dripped with garlands of artificial blossoms. Extravagant? Certainly. But the queen gave an enormous boost to the fashion and fragrance industries, which the French profit from to this day. At least that is what we reasoned as we tripped back downstairs to toast her with Champagne. And then we ate cake.

Rehabilitating the reputation of past villainesses and naming fragrances after them may be a new trend. Catherine de’ Medici, queen mother of Renaissance France, also has a fragrance. Called Caterina de’ Medici by i Profumi di Firenze, it claims to be a replica of the one she actually used and, unlike Sillage de la Reine, can be found at Barneys. It is a lush bouquet of Damascus rose, lily of the valley and the purple iris of Florence. The makers credit Catherine with bringing the art of perfumery to France. No mention is made of her Machiavellian schemes that precipitated the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre or of her knowledge of poisons. But she did throw sumptuous banquets and commission the palace of the Tuileries. Not only that: when at 14 she went off to marry the French duke who would become Henry II, she needed to appear taller, so she spearheaded the invention of high heels. Later, as regent, she banned thick waists from her court, starting a trend for corsets that would endure into the 20th century. Makers of shoes and undergarments owe her a tremendous debt. Surely she is as fitting a heroine as Marie Antoinette for our golden age of consumerism.

Naming perfumes after historical — as opposed to living — celebrities has several advantages. Their scandals are so distantly past that they serve more to titillate than offend. The deceased can’t embarrass with fresh indiscretions. Nor can they demand a cut of the profits. If this trend continues, we should expect to see a fragrance named in honor of Lucrezia Borgia. While it may or may not be true that she had incestuous relationships with her father and her brother, she did have an incredible eye for art. I see her immortalized with wild pomegranate blossom, purple violet and just a hint of blood.

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