Marie Antoinette’s Dress at the Royal Ontario Museum

(Originally blogged October 26, 2008)

Last week I made sure I made my way to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to view a dress with disputable but convincing evidence of having once belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette of France. This is a rare opportunity to view the dress as it is rarely ever shown. According to the ROM the last time this dress had been displayed was 35 years ago but I had heard the dress had not actually been on public exhibition since 1927.

Podcast from the Royal Ontario Museum about Marie Antoinette’s dress

The Marie Antoinette Dress - possibly the most complete garment from her wardrobe extant

Before I write any more about the dress, I have to vent about the Royal Ontario Museum’s architectural carbuncle – the Michael Chin-Lee crystal, designed by the self-important architect Daniel Libeskind. This is not like the pyramid at the Louvre, or the redesign of New York’s Lollipop building – we aren’t splitting hairs over the value of the building as art – Libeskind’s building cost a third of a billion dollars (that they are admitting to) and the building doesn’t work! The entire structure was created without consulting the curatorial staff of the museum. The textile gallery was designed to be a glass house so that the weave of cloth and the seams of frocks could be studied through direct sunlight — Incroyable!

The addition does not relate to the original structure in any way. Fire escape-like stairwells attach the addition to the old building because none of the floors match up; the ground level floors of the new section are sloped – funneling visitors out the exit through the gift shop. The angled architecture will cost the museum endless thousands in the future for upkeep which so far they don’t seem to be bothering with (judging by the dust and fingerprint build-up). Purposefully designed crevices or mini-ditches in the floor are catchalls for gum wrappers, plastic proof-of-entrance-fee-purchase tags, and dirt.

To blame for the building are Daniel Libeskind, the architect, who was let loose like a baby with a gun, and the director of the ROM, William Thorsell, who put the bullets in the barrel. To make matters worse, half the museum remains closed for retrofitting even though the entrance fee is a hefty $20.00 per adult. I spent $19.00 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last summer for an entire day’s visit and I left at closing not having seen everything — at the ROM I was done with every exhibit within three hours of arriving.

The location on Bloor street, where this crystalloid now towers over the sidewalk, was once the home to century trees where squirrels and birds lived and played, and a wrought iron trimmed brick wall that added to the ivory tower elan of the old brick facade. The costume and textile gallery on the top floor of this new space has been altered with shutters and drapes to keep all sunlight out so visitors can spelunk about for bits and bobs of fashion history inside the black cavernous gallery. Although far from perfect, this gallery exists only because of the generosity of Patricia Harris, the daughter in law of the important Canadian painter Lawren Harris. The Harris gallery features highlights from the textile and costume collection ranging from a 2,000 year old Paracas culture shawl to examples of European couture, including items such as Marie Antoinette’s dress.

Ah yes, the Marie Antoinette dress – I bet you thought I forgot about that… The dress, although altered, is a phenomenal example of rococo bordering on the classical. Dating from the late 1770s or early 1780s, this dress is tiny in stature but grand in presence; even with the alterations it still held onto all its glamour and elegance of a time and place long vanished. It was almost poetic that a dress of such great cost, exquisite beauty and worn by a woman out of touch with her people should be housed in a building of such great cost, despicable ugliness and alienating and cold to its visitors — plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…

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