Lessons in Saccharine Style from Marie Antoinette

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© Marie Antoinette (film still)
Marie Antoinette, 2006 (film still)

The S/S17 collections prove that our love affair with sugar-coated style, like that of Sofia Coppola’s delectable teen queen, has never been so strong

To watch Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette is not to embark upon a classic period drama, but rather to enjoy a highly stylised fantasy world representing the essence of the young Dauphine’s life. As Kirsten Dunst, who played the eponymous character, summarised, the film is “kind of like a history of feelings, rather than a history of facts”. In the absence of any fathomable relationship with her husband, the future Louis XVI – who prefers playing with keys and locks to consummating their marriage – the young Marie begins to relish the hedonistic luxury that 18th century Versailles has to offer, before its eventual downfall. The combination of Milena Canonero’s exquisite Academy Award-winning costumes and Coppola’s vision and cinematography present this sugary sweet escapism through rose-tinted glasses – and they are an utter pleasure to wear.

Observing the S/S17 collections is something like placing these glasses back on, as designers took it in turns to nod to the film’s delicious interpretation of the 18th-century queen’s courtly style. Everybody seems to have stolen a swatch from Canonero’s palette; pink was the colour du jour, rich florals and lace, frothy ruffle detailing and sensual organza were omnipresent, and exaggerated silhouettes took cues from her regal gowns. Rather than focusing on the historical ins and outs of her demise, Coppola chose to venerate Marie Antoinette’s style, and the season's collections prove that our sweet tooth for her candied aesthetic is here to stay. Here, we unpick the teen queen’s key sartorial codes.

1. Look good enough to eat
When Coppola first approached Canonero she is said to have handed her a box of pastel-coloured Ladurée macarons, stating “these are the colours I love”. They subsequently became the palette for the film; Versailles’ pastel and gold rococo interiors offset the young Dauphine and her courtiers, decked in sugary satins in the foreground, always with an abundance of pink.

Likewise, Gucci’s colour scheme embraced the rosiest of shades this S/S17, manifesting in pastel pink cropped kick flares, deeper pink blouses with matching turbans, pale pink ribbons and ruffles embellishing lapels and collars, and an apricot silk georgette floor-length gown – one which could have come straight from the film’s costume wardrobe, if it weren’t for the matching PVC elbow-length gloves. 

Early on in the film, the young Marie Antoinette is described as “looking like a little piece of cake” by gossipers at a court dinner – an appropriate simile, too, for Molly Goddard’s frou frou frocks, which were suitably saccharine for S/S17 in a variety of frothy bright pinks and off-whites. At Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli collaborated with Zandra Rhodes for his debut, resulting in girlish dresses in both strawberry and bubblegum pink. Meanwhile, Marc Jacobs’ girls were decked out in every pastel shade of satin and lace you can imagine, with candy-coloured dreadlocks to match – reminiscent of Marie’s various shades of powdered hair throughout the film – while at Marques’Almeida, model Cat Wilson opened the show with her rose pink hair.

2. Flourish at every opportunity
Coppola’s production was granted unprecedented access to Versailles’ entire palace and grounds and with numerous wide-angle pans, certainly makes the most of André Le Nôtre’s renowned landscaping and impeccably finished grounds, which came to represent the jardin à la française. Marie is shown to adore her surroundings, indulging in countless leisurely strolls, and this love of the outdoors infiltrates her costumes, forming richly embroidered floral brocades. It’s also difficult to ignore the flowers and birds that the Dauphine pins into her ever-expanding hair, sometimes resembling a garden in itself.

In addition to their pastel palette, blossoming patterns were ubiquitous at the S/S17 shows. Karl Lagerfeld translated French garden florals into rococo patterns in a sorbet palette at Fendi, which, as their show notes describe, “glisten across metallic fil coupé, cloque jacquards and sheer organdy prints.” Likewise at Gucci, Alessandro Michele’s gilded floral embroidery, rose-strewn brocades and oriental prints transformed resulting pieces with fantastical opulence by virtue of their flourishing detail. At Burberry, a rich forest green and gold satin floral brocade was crafted into a dress with large bell sleeves, sartorially embracing the herbaceous season just like the young queen.

3. Command a powerful silhouette
As Marie Antoinette’s time at Versailles progresses, so does the configuration of her dresses. Her 18th-century corsetry and hooped skirts become more extreme with every scene, reflecting her spiraling profligacy as well as the expanding fashions of the epoch. At Simone Rocha, silhouettes mimicked this style, with gathered puffed-up skirts and huge balloon sleeves that billowed from the shoulders, in contrast to accentuated waists. Demna Gvasalia used couture techniques to carve an extreme silhouette at Balenciaga, with large padded shoulders and billowing bell sleeves juxtaposed with tight waists and narrow pointed boots. Likewise at the Loewe and Maison Margiela shows, ruched shoulders and puffy oversized sleeves played on magnified shapes.

Marc Jacobs' looks this seasons were also incredibly statuesque, sky-high platforms and dreadlocked hair piled high dictating that the models occupy twice the amount of space they usually would. In the film, the young queen’s increasingly amplified silhouette has connotations of power, as the wearer commands more space than their natural stature. Perhaps the exaggerated silhouettes in the S/S17 collections present a new take on power dressing – one which looks to the 18th century theory for inspiration. Now, as then, a larger silhouette = larger power.

4. Lingerie should be too beautiful to hide
As Marie Antoinette’s time at Versailles unfolds she becomes bolder and more daring, both in her lifestyle and her sartorial decisions; her décolletage, for example, becomes increasingly exposed, and mischievous details such as corsetry lacing begin to feature on the exterior of her dresses. The S/S17 collections relished the appeal of lingerie detailing, and it certainly wasn’t considered something to cover up. At Fendi, undergarments were made visible, with pastel silk underpants exposed at the back beneath ribbon-tie aprons and skirts. Marc Jacobs also styled underwear as outerwear, and models walked down the catwalk in satin knicker shorts, paired with structured satin brocade jackets.

Dilara Findikoglu’s collection was empoweringly salacious, embracing the female silhouette. Skirts were slashed to reveal stockings and garters, while extreme corsets accentuated models’ curves, and lace-up detailing, ribbons and straps emphasised the erotic side of traditional undergarments. Similarly, Fenty x Puma’s S/S17 collection celebrated traditional lingerie, with lace-up corsetry details forming a motif across almost every look. Why keep such intricate work hidden?

5. Shoes are your crowning glory
Footwear is by no means overlooked in the film, despite the young queen’s floor length dresses. The shoes were designed and created by Manolo Blahnik who took an academic approach to the project, studying 18th-century footwear in Paris and at London’s V&A Museum. In countless extravagant shopping scenes, the young queen and her courtiers pluck their favourites from never-ending rows of satin square-toed shoes in every shade possible.

Likewise, colourful footwear enjoyed a renaissance this season, and attracted the eye’s attention at Fendi, where models walked in calf-length heeled booties with ribbon ties, in pastel and white stripes. Mulberry boasted an array of square-toed mules with high fronts, varying between striped leather and ruffled white. Possibly the most memorable detail at Marques’Almeida was in the pointed-toe shoes with oversized folded leather fan detailing, crafted in an array of colours from supple sage green and pastel pink to attention-grabbing patent metallics. The highest degree of opulence, from head to toe.