Creative Process Journal: The Nature of Obsession

Marie Antoinette Obsession (Digital Collage by Ingrid Mida 2011)

Obsession is defined in the Webster's dictionary as "the domination of one's thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image or desire." Under that definition, it is clear that I am obsessed -  with the dress that is believed to have been worn by Marie Antoinette and that is now part of the Royal Ontario Museum's collection. What it is about that particular dress that haunts me I cannot articulate clearly... It might be because that dress was the reason I discovered that the world of fashion had a scholarship beyond what I knew from fashion magazines. But it is clear that I am not alone in my obsession with this dress or Marie Antoinette.

It was not long after the doomed Queen of France lost her head that others became obsessed with her. In the middle of the 19th century, Empress Eugenie became obsessed with Marie Antoinette. In an article called The Empress's New Clothes, Fashion and Politics in Second Empire France, the author, Therese Dolan,  writes Eugenie "wished to connect her personal image with what she perceived to be the political astuteness and personal courage of the beheaded queen." Eugenie's imitation of Marie Antoinette influenced the revival of 18th century styled fashions including the exaggerated silhouette of enormous skirts and other accessories like the fichu and mantillas. (Dolan: 26-27)

In an article called Marie Antoinette Obsession published in the University of California Press by Terry Castle (Volume No. 39, Spring 1992, p 1-38), he refers to several case histories of women becoming obsessed with Marie Antoinette:

In the case of "Helene Smith", she claimed in a state of hypnotic trance to have had three previous lives, one of which included Marie Antoinette. At such times, she would "pantomime with a handkerchief or an imaginary fan, pretend to take snuff, mimic the action of throwing back a train, and address those present as though speaking to members of a court." (Castle: 2) Observers of her trance-like behaviours as Marie Antoinette believed that Smith's "embodiment as queen was often convincing, if not moving." (Castle: 2)

Castle also refers to an article from 1907,  in the British Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, in which an anonymous author described having seeing an apparition that she believed "to be the ghost of the French Queen" which had appeared to her repeatedly since childhood.  The writer of this article called "Dream Romances" admitted that she could not think of any "plausible explanations" for her visions. (Castle: 2-4)

In 1911, a book called "An Adventure" was published by Macmillan in which the authors "Miss Morison" and "Miss Lamont" described seeing an apparition of the queen and several members of her court in the gardens of Versailles near the Petit Trianon. It was later revealed that the authors of this book were in fact two academics, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, the principal and vice-principal of a college in Oxford. These two respectable women faced a great deal of ridicule after their identities were revealed and yet even in the "face of exquisite public ridicule" they maintained their beliefs and spent many years trying to validate their claims. (Castle 5-6)

The point of Castle's article is not to point out the oddity of this obsession but instead to ask the question "What was it about Marie Antoinette - and Marie Antoinette alone - that she should become so extraordinarily present, more than one hundred years after her death, to four presumably intelligent, well-educated and otherwise conventional women?" (Castle: 8)

And while I disagree with the balance of Castle's argument (which delves into Freudian analysis and homoerotic attachment), I think he poses an interesting question. Why have so many succumbed to an obsession with Marie Antoinette?

Works Cited:
Marie Antoinette Obsession
Author: Terry Castle
Source: Representations, No. 38 (Spring 1992) pg. 1-38
Published by: University of California Press

The Empress's New Clothes: Fashion and Politics in Second Empire France
Author: Therese Dolan
Source: Woman's Art Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring - Summer, 1994) pp. 22-28
Published by: Woman's Art, Inc.

Project Clock: + 4 hours (research, article analysis, digital collage and blog write-up)
Total to date: 10 hours
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