I usually do not use photos from the 1938 Marie Antoinette film; the costumes were glitzy and the wigs, too platinum. However, Norma Shearer's portrayal of Marie-Antoinette was soulfully authentic; the photo above captures the zest of the young Dauphine taking Paris by storm at Carnival. As a young girl, Marie-Antoinette embraced the festivities of Carnival with alacrity, especially the masked balls. Since members of the royal family were constantly surrounded by semi-liturgical ceremonies, at the masked ball the princes and princesses could engage in something vaguely resembling normal human interaction. The wearing of a mask, although it did not always endow total anonymity, lightened the tight protocol so that royals could mingle and converse with others in society.
In February of 1773, Marie-Antoinette wrote to her mother Empress Maria Theresa, relating how she went with her husband the Dauphin Louis to the Opera ball in Paris:
We went- M. le Dauphin, the comte, and comtesse de Provence and I- last Thursday to the Opera Ball in Paris; we kept the utmost secret. We were all masked; still, we were recognized after half an hour. The duc de Chartres and the duc de Bourbon, who were dancing at the Palais Royal right next door came to meet us and asked us pressingly to go and dance at Madame de Chartres's; but I excused myself from it as I had the King's permission for the Opera only. We returned here at seven and heard Mass before going to bed. Everybody is delighted with M. le Dauphin's willingness to have this outing since he was believed to be averse to it. (Secrets of Marie Antoinette: A Collection of Letters, edited by Olivier Bernier. New York: Fromm International, 1986, p. 102)In January of 1774, Louis and Antoinette once again ventured incognito into Paris to the Opera ball, accompanied by Louis' two brothers and their wives. Here is Comte Mercy's description of the event in a letter to Empress Maria Theresa:
The three Princes and Princesses came on the 30th of January to the masked ball at the Opera; measures had been so well taken that they remained a long while without being recognized by anyone. M. le Dauphin [Louis] behaved splendidly; he went about the ball talking indiscriminately to all those he met on his path, in a very gay and decorous manner introducing the kind of jests suited to the occasion. The public was enchanted with this conduct on the part of M. le Dauphin, it made a great sensation in Paris and they did not fail, as always happens in these cases, to attribute to Madame la Dauphine the improvement they noticed in her consort's way of showing himself....It was at the Opera ball on January 30 that Marie-Antoinette chatted with Count Fersen behind her mask, in the presence of her husband and in-laws, but no eyebrows were raised by this playful incident. The Empress Maria Theresa was more concerned with her daughter getting sick from exhaustion than with anything else, and at the end of the 1773 Carnival wrote: "Thank God it is all over...." (Secrets of Marie Antoinette, p. 104) Later, she expressed reservations about the young Queen's taste in fashion. On March 5, 1775, after Louis XVI had ascended the throne of France, the Empress penned:
The Princes and Princesses came back a second time to the Opera ball on Sunday, the 6th of this month [February]; but this time their presence was less well concealed and consequently there was a greater influx of people to the theater. However, nothing improper or embarrassing resulted, and Madame la Dauphine, who did not unmask, drew on herself all the applause and admiration with which all the public always hastens to do homage to her, both owing to the people to whom she spoke and the things she said to them. (Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before the Revolution by Nesta Webster, p. 21)
Thank God the endless Carnival is over! That exclamation will make me look very old, but I must admit that all those late evenings were too tiring; I feared for the Court's health and for the order of it's usual habits, which is an essential point....In the same way I can't prevent myself raising a point which many gazettes repeat all too often; it is the coiffure you use; they say that from the forehead it is thirty-six inches high, and with so many feathers and ribbons to adorn it! (Ibid.,p.159)Marie-Antoinette responded by saying:
Although Carnival did amuse me a great deal, I agree that it was time it was ended. We are now back to our usual routine....It is true that I take some care of the way I dress; and, as for feathers, everyone wears them, and it would be extraordinary not to wear them. Their height has been much curtailed since the end of the balls....(Ibid., 160)After Marie-Antoinette became a mother in December of 1778, her participation in Carnival was greatly mitigated, since she preferred not be too far away from her babies at night. It is sad that the enjoyment of the masquerade balls during her teenage years would later lead to many false rumors about her lifestyle.