Marie Antoinette Stylist Rose Bertin
Marie Antoinette Stylist Rose Bertin

Ask a Fashion Historian: How Did Styling Become a Thing?

Words by Lisa Santandrea | 7.14.18
Who really invented the little black dress? Why do men have fewer fashion options than women? Who was the most important fashion influencer in history? In this series, our resident fashion historian answers thought-provoking questions about fashion’s past and explores how they affect the present. Lisa Santandrea has a Master’s degree in Costume Studies from NYU and teaches courses in fashion history at Parsons School of Design.
Here’s a hint to anyone curious about fashion firsts … always begin in Paris. That’s where 16-year-old Rose Bertin began in 1763, a working-class girl from the outskirts looking for a future in the capital of fashion. Years earlier, a fortune teller had predicted that Rose would “rise to great fortune, and one day wear a court dress.” Ultimately, she was to do much more than wear court dresses; she would design them, create and manage trends and take responsibility for some of the most extravagant styles of her day. Like today’s uber-stylists such as Kate Young, Bertin was well-known and often discussed by the fashion cognoscenti (and everyone was a fashion cognoscente in the court of Versailles!).  At the height of her influence, she was known widely as “the Minister of Style,” due to her close collaboration with her most important client, Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. But that would take a little time, even for someone as smart, charming and ambitious as Rose.

Balenciaga Spring 2006 | Marie AntoinetteLeft: Balenciaga Spring 2006 Right: Portrait of Marie Antoinette

Bertin’s legend begins with a blunder. Soon after arriving in Paris, she found a job with a millinery shop called Trait Gallante. Late one night, she was sent to make a delivery at the home of Princess Conti. It was cold and, as she awaited the princess, she warmed herself by a fire and chatted with a friendly chambermaid. Or so she thought. Turns out the chambermaid was not household help but the princess herself, dressed down for the evening. The Princess was charmed. Soon, Bertin had a commission to design the wedding trousseau of the richest heiress in France and was nurturing relationships with and the wardrobes of many women in the nobility. In 1770, she opened her own shop, Le Grande Mogul.
Today milliners are hat makers, but that was not so in Rose’s time, when the clothing professions were strictly defined by gender-based guilds. Male mercers sold luxury goods including made-to-measure gowns, while female milliners carried the decorative ribbons, bows and passementerie that adorned them. Bertin, of course, broke the rules of millinery by taking on a wider scope of responsibilities (her royal connections shielded her from prosecution). In 1776 she helped to launch a new guild for women, the marchande de modes, which like the mercers, could provide the entire scope of the female luxury experience.

Dior Fall 2000 | Marie Antoinette Ship PoufLeft: Christian Dior Fall 200 Right: Marie Antoinette in full pouf

Indeed, Bertin defined luxury and extravagance during the second half of the 18th century. She was the mastermind behind the iconic “pouf,” an updo so high women couldn’t ride in a coach without holding their heads outside the window. (Achieving the pouf was no small accomplishment, as it was “built on scaffolding from wire, cloth, gauze, horsehair, fake hair, and the wearer’s own tresses,” notes Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution author Caroline Weber.) And it wasn’t enough that they were tall; poufs needed to tell a story. Perhaps one could be decorated with a tranquil garden scene including miniature flowerbeds and rabbits and chickens? Another, a celebration of a naval victory represented by a frigate named “Belle Poule.” And then there was “inoculation,” a celebration of the smallpox vaccine and one of Marie Antoinette’s biggest hits. It was not an age for quiet nuance. The gown Bertin designed for Marie Antoinette to wear for the coronation of her husband, Louis XVI, was so heavily encrusted with gold and sapphires it was said she couldn’t hold herself up without a standing aide built especially for the occasion.

Chanel Resort 2013 | Marie Antoinette GlobeLeft: Chanel Resort 2013 Right: Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, by Jean-Baptiste-André Gautier-Dagoty, 1775

Rose’s enduring legacy is a result of her close collaborative relationship with Marie Antoinette. Nobody had equal access to the queen — or to her enormous clothing budget. Twice a week, they met privately in the royal quarters at Versailles, where commoner and queen would concoct the next style, plan its details and debut. Like Kanye West in new Yeezys, when Marie introduced a new style, everyone wanted in …. and who better to go to than the queen’s favorite stylist? But once these replicas were frolicking around Versailles, Marie Antoinette was ready to move on.

Brooch, Off-White Skirt | Gucci SandalsElizabeth Locke 18K & Pearl Brooch | Off-White Denim Skirt | Gucci Owen Embellished Sandals

This was an excellent business model for Bertin, who became quite a snob about her clientele. But it wasn’t so great for the queen, who earned the nickname, “Madame Deficit,” and stoked the fury that would soon fuel the Revolution. By 1785, as a mother of three, Marie Antoinette’s style was becoming less extravagant. Following the queen’s lead, “women of thirty are now obliged to renounce plumes, flowers and pink,” wrote Mademoiselle Oberkirch in 1786 (somewhat resentfully, it seems). But it was too late to reform her reputation in the eyes of the Third Estate.
The relationship between stylist and queen went full circle. Bertin created the ensemble Marie Antoinette wore upon entering France for the first time, on the way to meet her husband. Over two decades later, the stylist’s final design for her longtime patroness was delivered after the beheading of this husband, Louis XVI — it was the mourning dress Marie Antoinette wore until her own turn with the guillotine in 1793.
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