Bastille Chic

Off with Her Head (of Marketing)!

While the monarchy is often perceived as outdated in France, it continues to inspire a certain fascination in the United States. There are now countless brands and consumer products that reference Versailles, Louis XIV, and Marie-Antoinette, all of which have become often-kitsch symbols of French luxury.
Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette (2006). © Cordon Press

“Give your home the royal treatment with our antique collections and regal bed, bath & table linens. Inspired by the world’s finest bedrooms.” This is how a New York boutique presents some of its Versailles-inspired products, including a “Château Blanc” tablecloth, a “Richelieu” duvet cover, and “Antoinette” bed linens.

Symbols of French royalty put to the pyre during the revolution have been repurposed by the advertising world. Louis XV now helps to sell stylish furniture, while Versailles lends its name to “uber-sophisticated” jewelry by American brand Brighton and to the ballroom of a Ramada hotel in New Jersey. And then there is the chicken coop inspired by the Petit Trianon, sold for 100,000 dollars at Nieman Marcus.

Marie-Antoinette, Supermarket Icon

In this marketing frenzy, Marie-Antoinette reigns supreme. The unpopular queen, who was criticized for her extravagant spending and beheaded in 1793, has now become a fashion idol. Karl Lagerfeld used her as a muse for a 1988 collection, and Madonna paid tribute to her in 1990 in an outrageous performance combining sack-back gowns and house music for her song “Vogue.” But Marie-Antoinette is also a supermarket icon. Her face is plastered across plates, umbrellas, greetings cards, hairbrushes, and soap dishes. As for her famous yet apocryphal quip, “Let them eat cake,” it has gone on to inspire a “decadent” perfume and a moisturizing hand cream.

“It is ironic, but this phenomenon has historical roots,” says Antoine de Baecque, professor of the history of cinema at the École Nationale Supérieure, and curator of the exhibition Marie Antoinette: Metamorphosis of an Image, which took place at the Conciergerie in Paris last winter. “Marie-Antoinette was a woman who excelled at communication. She cared about her reputation and surrounded herself with artists who polished her image and showcased her as an independent figure. Painter Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, dressmaker Rose Bertin, and hairdresser Léonard were just a few.”

This romanticized depiction of Marie-Antoinette was first popularized by the 1970s Japanese manga The Rose of Versailles. A far cry from the publicly detested character, the queen is portrayed as a modern, emancipated young woman fighting against adversity. A sort of powdered wig-wearing Carrie Bradshaw who, much like the lead in Sex and the City, lives her life the way she wants. “This is the image that made its way into pop culture, and which we can now see in Sofia Coppola’s movie, in fashion, and in advertising.”

Versailles, Victim of its Old-Fashioned Image

Associated with refinement, luxury, and elegance, the French monarchy has been a longstanding ally of the American ad industry. Today, however, it has fallen behind the times. “The Versailles brand has been used so much that it has lost its meaning and value,” says Julien Delatte, founder of the brand consultancy company One Thing at a Time and former director of strategy at the McCann advertising agency in New York.

Not all brands that claim courtly heritage are peddling tired clichés. Cire Trudon, descended from the Royal Wax Manufacturer, has produced candles since 1643 and elegantly plays on its historical past with names such as “Marquise,” “Trianon,” and “Mademoiselle de La Vallière.” Meanwhile, Ladurée owes some of its success to pop culture. While the now-renowned pastry company never served Marie-Antoinette, their macarons made a highly publicized appearance in Sofia Coppola’s movie Marie-Antoinette. Viewers will see Kirsten Dunst in the starring role wearing an haute couture dress and Converse sneakers as she indulges in the brand’s multi-colored macarons. Even Parfums de Marly, named in reference to Louis XV but founded in 2009, has made a name for itself with noble, original fragrances.

However, references to the monarchy fall flat when they are used to artificially nudge a company upmarket. “Stamping your brand with a France or Versailles label to make it seem luxurious is not as effective as it was thirty years ago,” says Julien Delatte. “Brands that overemphasize their ties to France are often already old-fashioned.”

Article published in the July 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.