Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution

Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution

by Will Bashor

ISBN: 9780762791538

Publisher Lyons Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Specific Groups, Biographies & Memoirs/People, A-Z, Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs, Biographies & Memoirs/Leaders & Notable People, History/Europe, Biographies & Memoirs, History

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Book Description

Marie Antoinette has remained atop the popular cultural landscape for centuries for the daring in style and fashion that she brought to 18th century France. For the better part of the queen’s reign, one man was entrusted with the sole responsibility of ensuring that her coiffure was at its most ostentatious best. Who was this minister of fashion who wielded such tremendous influence over the queen’s affairs?

Sample Chapter


“To tell the truth, I think your head-dress is too fragile to bear a crown.”

—Emperor Joseph to his sister Marie Antoinette

Versailles, 1777

Paris, France

October 1793

Captain de Busne, Marie Antoinette’s last bodyguard, took her back to the cell where she awaited the hour of her execution. He had just accompanied her to the revolutionary tribunal where she was tried and convicted, but on this occasion, Captain de Busne was also guilty of unpardonable crimes. He had held his hat in his hand while escorting the fallen queen, he had taken the trouble of fetching a glass of water for her, and finally, he had offered his arm to help her down the dark staircase leading to her fetid prison cell. Later that day, Captain de Busne was denounced by the tribunal and arrested for his criminal behavior.

Even the dark, dungeon-like Conciergerie prison was thought too good for Marie Antoinette. After hearing the revolutionary court pronounce the sentence of death a few minutes past four o’clock in the morning, the widowed queen, now a haggard old woman at thirty-eight, was escorted back to her cell. It was a small, narrow cell with no chimney, where the guards burned juniper to cover up the smell of the primitive sanitation—a far cry from her extravagant chambers at the court of Versailles just four chaotic years earlier.

How things had changed! When the young princess first arrived at the magnificent palace in 1770 to wed the future King Louis XVI, she was led to a bedchamber that would have been the envy of all of Europe. The ceiling had been freshly gilded and adorned with cherubs and doves. Behind a majestic banister, a brocade canopy was spangled with gold, screening the princess’s lavishly decorated bed. Every detail in her private life, the choice of her marvelous clothes, even the style of the ribbon for her hair, was determined by the château’s unbending traditions of decorum, dating back to the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who not only constructed the enchanting palace of Versailles and its gardens, but also imposed rigid rules of etiquette. These rules prescribed the behavior of the courtiers and the king himself; even his grandsons, Louis XV and Louis XVI, who preferred family to court life, could not escape the strict codes of comportment, manners and dress at Versailles.

When the prison maid, Rosalie, arrived at eight o’clock in the morning, only two candles were burning in her dark quarters. Marie Antoinette sighed and put on a white morning gown, draping a muslin handkerchief around her neck. Long forgotten were the magnificent gowns and accessories of her designer Madame Bertin at Versailles, where the queen’s toilette took place every morning in the presence of the court nobles. The ritual was a masterpiece of etiquette; the ladies-in-waiting had prescribed duties for dressing Marie Antoinette, while the maids of honor followed strict procedures for bathing. The honor of presenting her dress was granted to the noble lady present with the highest rank. Afterward, the princess would retire to her sumptuous private apartments. On each side of the bed were two doors, which gave access to a royal suite of private rooms including her library, her bathroom, and a salon where she enjoyed reading her novels.

Now sitting on her prison cell bed, a rotting straw-filled mattress covered with a tattered woolen blanket, Marie Antoinette turned to Rosalie, who had promised to fulfill her last requests, and asked for paper and a pen to write a letter to her sister-in-law Madame Elizabeth, which was never to be delivered:

It is to you, my sister, that I write for the last time. I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death, for such is only for criminals, but to go and rejoin your brother . . .

Marie signed and handed Rosalie the letter, which was covered with the fallen queen’s tears. Suddenly, the cell door opened with a deafening clank. Marie Antoinette almost fainted at the sight of the red-hooded executioner. She recoiled with horror when he asked her to turn around so he could cut her hair, necessary to ensure that the guillotine’s blade would work properly.

Her hair. It would be the last thing to go. Marie Antoinette’s hair, the talk of all Europe when she held her elaborate court at Versailles, had always been the sole responsibility of the eccentric Léonard Autié, the hairdresser with the “magical comb.” Léonard, often taken for nobility, would enter the queen’s private salon soon after her entourage of ladies-in-waiting dressed her. It was he who fashioned the ever-fantastic edifices of hair, sometimes adding feathers and accessories to create elegant hairstyles up to four feet high. But it could also be said that Léonard was indirectly responsible for the very first attacks upon the queen, found in inflammatory pamphlets circulating as early as 1775. The attacks were prompted by Léonard’s incredibly fanatical hairstyles, concoctions that reached such a height that it was necessary for ladies to kneel on the carriage floor—or hold the towering hairpieces outside the coach windows en route to balls and the opera.

Noble ladies of the court of Versailles felt obliged to imitate the queen’s new and daring hairstyles, despite the danger of becoming burning infernos when they brushed against the candles of the palace chandeliers. The young ladies of Paris were also enthralled with the newfangled trends, drastically increasing their coiffure expenses and incurring large debts. Mothers and husbands grumbled, family fights ensued, and many relationships were irreparably damaged. In all, the general consensus of the French people was well publicized—the queen was bankrupting all the women of France, financially and morally.

The queens of France were always of foreign birth for political reasons, but Marie Antoinette was a princess from Austria, France’s longtime enemy. Although it was vital for her to appear as French as possible, her fashions and hairstyles increasingly alienated her subjects. Attacks on the queen’s hair were soon followed by damaging accusations ranging from sexual promiscuity to high treason. When incest was added to the list, the revolutionary court was able to finally make its case to condemn the queen to death.

Léonard Autié, her celebrated and loyal hairdresser, was in exile in Germany when the executioner arrived at Marie Antoinette’s prison cell, scissors in hand, on that chilly October morning in 1793. He tied her hands behind her back and, roughly grasping her hair, cut off the iconic locks that Léonard had made so legendary.

At eleven o’clock Marie Antoinette left the Conciergerie—where she had been confined for more than two months—and mounted the cart which was to carry her to the guillotine, passing along the streets of Paris and amidst lines of soldiers. According to witnesses, her face was pale and her eyes were bloodshot. She was nearly unrecognizable. Her once beautiful and envied coif, whitened by fear and grief, had been cut short around her cap.

Minutes later, the executioner would exhibit the severed queen’s head to the crazed crowds at the foot of the scaffold. Nothing but the continuous roar of “Vive la nation!” could be heard as he held it up, victoriously, by her hair.


Excerpted from "Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution" by Will Bashor. Copyright © 2013 by Will Bashor. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Will Bashor

Will Bashor

Will Bashor has a doctorate in International Relations from the American Graduate School in Paris, and he teaches at Franklin University, Columbus, Ohio. His interests have ranged over many fields, among them the study of international law and business, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and European history.

View full Profile of Will Bashor

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