Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber

Release Date: September 19, 20006
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co. 
Pages: 412 (really, 292)
Received: Library
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf

This is EXACTLY what I'm looking for

This is the kind of non-fiction book I can get behind! A narrative style that follows events consecutively and clearly unfurls the story just like a novel. Delving into Marie Antoinette's thoughts and feelings made her come alive as much as any fictional character and made me emotionally invested in her triumphs and plights.

And, yes, I did rage at all the raging parts (her shameful defrockings at her Austrian hand-off and coucher, the horrible aunts, the scurrilous printings, the revolutionary indignities and the sheer hypocrisy of it all) and I did cry at all the crying parts (MA's heartache during her barren years, her multiple mourning periods when she lost her loved ones, her briefly mentioned but still impassioned speech at her trial, and, of course, The End).

There was a ton of historical detail packed in this, relatively, short book (it's 412 pages, but really it's only 292 pages long. All the rest of those pages are filled with references, bibliographies, and the index). Caroline Weber did her research, and boy does it show!

But it doesn't show in a showy way where you're bombarded with disjointed facts in a way that gives the impression the author is just trying to show off all their knowledge. Not at all. Caroline Weber's approach is so easy and pleasurable to read. I cannot stress enough how this is a perfect book is for the fiction-inclined. 

A non-fiction counterpart to one of my fictional favorites

As I was reading, I began to highly suspect Juliet Grey pulled much inspiration and information from Caroline Weber's book. Sure enough, a glance at Juliet Grey's bibliography shows this is the case. There are many parallels between the two, but this is a very good thing and only furthers my appreciation for Juliet Grey's work (she does a fabulous job incorporating fashion into her narrative).

Because of Juliet Grey's already exhaustive look, Queen of Fashion did not add a ton to what I already knew. But, it did add some new bits of information and did a great job fleshing out some of the politics surrounding the time (particularly during her time as dauphine). Caroline Weber's voice is stellar, too, so I do not at all feel like I wasted my time in reading her book.

Much like MA's fashion, this book's strength is its weakness

By exploring and centering her focus on fashion, Caroline Weber necessarily glosses over and even outright omits several important historical events. This was frustrating, because she does such a good job at crafting a non-fiction account of this time, but also mostly excusable given the parameters of her approach. However, I think this is also the book's greatest weakness.

I do think the first part of the book is stronger than the latter part. Caroline Weber delved deeper into the politics and "whys" behind Marie Antoinette's choices and experiences during this part. She also attributed a great political acumen to Marie Antoinette during her dauphine years, which is in stark contrast to the woman she painted during her queenly reign as a spendthrift run amok and largely unaware of the political impact her clothing and lifestyle choices had at the time.

I had a harder time reconciling these interpretations as it just doesn't make sense to me how she would have had so much political awareness and then so little (and then so much again, at the end). I think this impression is less a conflict in Caroline Weber's assertions as it is an unfortunate side effect of her focus on fashion.

In the dauphine years, Marie Antoinette's fashion was much more strictly controlled by court protocol and while she certainly rebelled, these rebellions were within a necessarily political context and so Caroline Weber necessarily discussed this political context. 

However, in her queen years, the fashion frenzy took center stage and the ever shifting styles provided Caroline Weber with much to write about. Political motivations and effects, while discussed, took a backseat to describing the fashions themselves, and I think the narrative suffered as a result.

There was significantly less focus on Marie Antoinette's personal motivations and feelings during this section, and I think, especially in contrast to how much focus was put on this in the earlier parts of the narrative, helped give the impression of a queen with little in her head except pretty clothes.

This doesn't quite ring right and undermines Caroline Weber's earlier (and later) evidence of a woman who was extremely conscious of her stylistic choices and their political effects. If she was so sartorially savvy, then why this huge period of missteps? It doesn't add up, but I don't think this is a weakness in Carline Weber's ultimate argument, but rather a fumbling of her presentation. She just isn't consistent in carrying her argument through this time period, and I think that is partially the fault of her focus.

The fashion focus does also at times feel forced, even though the evidence is clearly there to draw such conclusions. Again, I think this is less a fault on Caroline Weber and her excellent research, than a result again of her focus on fashion to the exclusion of other important political events at the time.

This exclusion made the fashion highlights seem tenuous at times, when in reality they are not at all. Had Caroline Weber included the other political factors and events, they would have served to bolster her arguments of just how powerful fashion and symbolism was to the revolution. It would have provided even more context to her arguments and therefore support (as it had in the dauphine sections), but I get the impression they were nixed from inclusion because they were not directly related to fashion. A shame.

I know this seems like a lot of criticism, but really I don't mean it to be. It is really because Caroline Weber does such a fantastic job overall, that her one weakness here stands out so much. I know she has the knowledge and the authorial chops to shore this up. 

Bottom line

Queen of Fashion is an impeccably researched powerhouse of a book that I will be making a fixture in my personal library.

Highly recommended to those interested in Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. For those who did not appreciate Juliet Grey's flowery writing style but did like her detailed history, Queen of Fashion would be a perfect alternative. This is also an excellent place to start for those who love historical fiction but are nervous about dipping their toes into non-fiction.


Looking for another book like this? You might like:

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  1. Ooh, yes I've been meaning to get into narrative non-fiction! It just seems so much more readable and interesting rather than textbookish. And I bet I have a TON of stuff to learn about MA that I haven't heard yet. I would probably also prefer a bit more of a focus on politics rather than fashion, but overall it's exciting how much you loved this one! I'll have to add it to my tbr.

    1. Totally! There's so much more to her and this time period than makes its way into the surface narrative (which is part of the reason I love reading about her so much!) I really do think this would be a great place to start if you're interested in her. Even though the focus is on fashion, I think you'd still learn a ton about the politics of the time.

  2. I don't know much about the real MA besides what I've seen in the Sophia Coppola's boring movie and the depictions of a spoiled, clueless queen from the pov of the Revolutionaries. I'll have to add this one to my tbr and consider picking it up for my nonfiction challenge.

    1. Yeah, the movie really does gloss over so much (though I think it has a lot of merit when you already know about her and can fill it the blanks and use it as a visual). I hope you enjoy this one if you pick it up!

  3. I don't read much nonfiction, Small, but I like that this one seems geared to those who prefer fiction. It would have been nice if this one included more politics, but you've already rated this one a five stars so I don't think it affected your enjoyment much ;)

    1. haha yeah, she did such an awesome job in so many areas and since her focus was fashion it's not a big criticism.

  4. I really enjoyed this book and your review! It's been a while since I read it, but plan to read it again in the near future. I also have the Julie Grey books, but have yet to read them. I bought all of these books after Antonia Fraiser's novel was turned into the Sophia Coppola film. Thanks for the great review!

    1. Oh nice! I have the Antonia Fraser book, but I haven't read it yet. I can't recommend the Juliet Grey books highly enough! I think if you read and enjoyed Queen of Fashion then you'll like the Grey books as well.


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