Models in denim pannier skirts and petit four cake dresses teetered down a mirrored runway in platform thigh-highs: this was Jeremy Scott’s absurd take on 18th century French monarch Marie Antoinette for his Moschino A/W 20 womenswear collection. Toile du jouy and needlepoint were transformed with imagery from Riyoko Ikeda’s 1972 Japanese anime series La Reine de Versailles, and pannier skirts were stretched and cropped into fantastic mini dresses, whilst breeches and knickerbockers were fitted with leather knee pads and paired with ruffled sleeve tailcoats.
Marie Antoinette may seem an inappropriate reference in our current climate of anxiety, which has seen designers moving towards a more conscious approach where less is more. However, while the queen lived cocooned in the extravagant court of Versailles oblivious to her fate at the guillotine, Scott is more than aware of the buttons he's pushing by reiterating the historic queen's association with out-of-touch excess.
From her official image marked out in Elisabeth Vigeé Le Brun's paintings, through to Kylie Jenner’s recent Harper’s Bazaar March 2020 issue cover, via Karl Lagerfeld's tweed playsuits for Chanel Cruise 2012, Marie Antoinette has endured as an emblem of popular culture. In life and death, the circulation of her image by her enemies and admirers has subjected her to fantasy and imagination: she has become an icon beyond her biography.
Although her infamous words ‘Let them eat cake’ (supposedly spoken in response to news that the French peasants had no bread to eat) are no more than empty hearsay, it’s Antoinette’s reputation as Une Autrichienne en Goguette (an Austrian party girl if you will) which has proved to be the most fun for both her admirers and her critics. Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette made her girlish luxe image more accessible than ever, and Instagram’s favourite #Mondaymood is often a shot of actress Kirsten Dunst in costume as the iconic queen, lifting the skirt of her satin pink dress, fag in hand, bouffant ready to topple.
Initially drawing on Antonia Fraser's biography of the doomed queen, Coppola matched largely historical costumes (in delectable candy colours, made by Milena Canonero) to a soundtrack that mashed Adam & the Ants and classic piano symphonies. The contemporary cultural update helped to portray Antoinette more sympathetically than her typical depiction as a silly little rich girl. In Coppola's incarnation, Marie Antoinette became an American adolescent in the lap of debauched luxury, lost in a world where her body was not her own. As Bow Wow Wow’s I Want Candy belted out for Scott’s finale, he too used Antoinette's frivolity for social commentary.
Indeed, the comparisons between the Moschino collection and Coppola's film are plentiful. Dusty pinks, buttercup yellows and mint greens were reminiscent of the Ladurée macarons piled high in Coppola’s take on court life. A bubble-pink robe à la française, almost identical to one of Canonero's, revealed jeans underneath, whilst the white floral print of the party gown worn by Kaia Gerber was reminiscent of a dress Dunst wears in the gardens of the Petit Trianon. Low-rise denim pedal pushers, zip-up hoodies and Moschino chain-metal belts gave an eighties twang to the Rococo stylings, simultaneously staying close to the tropes of Moschino's heyday. Here, it seemed, was a celebration of excess for the sake of excess.
In a season which saw more carbon neutral shows and biodegradable materials incorporated into collections, Scott seemed to undermine other designers doing their bit for sustainability. While everyone else is trying to strip back and pare down, this Moschino collection's love for lavish stood out, and ruffled feathers. The contemporary consensus asks, 'who really needs another bejewelled baguette bag?' Scott says Moschino's customers do, and they absolutely won't feel guilty about it.
Coppola’s film, like Scott's designs, is often criticised as being style over substance. Regarding the film, the American journalist A.O Scott described one of the paradoxes the film explores: that 'the pursuit of sensual delight is trivial compared with other undertakings—just as “the problem of leisure” is surely more of a privilege than a burden—but pleasure is also serious, one of the things that gives life its shape and meaning.' To criticise Coppola's film or this collection for enjoying material pleasures and wallowing in delectable aesthetics is to miss the point somewhat. While at Moschino, Scott found pleasure in excess, he also used excess to do what he does every season: respond to popular culture. ‘A bit of decadence and joy is the best form of rebellion you can have,’ Scott told reporters backstage.
When Louis XVI and Antoinette came to the throne in 1774, Versailles already had a reputation for immoral extravagance. Later caught up in scandals such as the Affair of the Diamond Necklace of 1785, the Austrian-born queen found herself a scapegoat during a period of extreme debt and poverty. Similarly, Scott has often found himself as the target of fashion critics' wrath, leaving half the industry enraged and the other mesmerised as he makes blatant, obvious references to consumer culture on his runway. Having revived the Italian fashion house's buzz factor after its fallow years following founder Franco Moschino's death in 1994, Scott stays true to the brand's tongue-in-cheek DNA, mixing high and low culture to do so. His debut A/W 14 Moschino collection made a comment on fast fashion via a hybrid of McDonalds and quilted skirt suits, of Spongebob Squarepants and evening gowns. Scott undermines the rules of thumb the rest of the industry abides by, and goes his own way, fluidly crossing the boundaries of taste.
Scott reproduces popular imagery at face value (whether cartoon characters, gameshows, or fast food restaurants) and sends it down the runway. He's blasé - it's as if he wants us to think he doesn't care. Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst and co-curator of The Vulgar: Fashion Defined (2016: Barbican Centre), defined vulgarity as 'too popular', likening it being 'too available', 'too cheap'. In this vein, Scott is the very definition of vulgarity. As the exhibition illustrated, we call out vulgarity to justify our own taste. Scott is wrong, and we are right, or so the industry would have it. But calling something vulgar also reveals our own anxieties about taste. The A/W 20 Moschino collection served up reality, although sugar-coated. The mirrored bags models carried down the runway reflected back the industry's own sins: here was the debauched excess it enjoyed unapologetically only a few seasons ago.
As the show closed with a frosted Moschino look, the collection's intentionally subversive nature was laid bare. Whilst Antoinette's image has spiralled outside her reach, Scott took the spirit of 'Let them eat cake' and took ownership of it. To pigeonhole the collection as 'all that’s wrong with fashion' would perhaps be Scott's point. As the guillotine comes for the industry, here was Scott's laughter in the face of danger.