Rose Bertin, the first fashion designer who really knew how to network

One of the biggest majors at my art school is fashion and the kids studying it intimidate the hell out of me. In fact, when I first found out that my first two roommates were fashion majors, I was terrified and upset that my opportunity to finally be allowed to dress like a complete slob in college was going to be ruined. But both of them ended up being the most completely lovely people in the world and it actually came in handy that they were both fashion majors. After my favorite top got a hole in because it was a five dollar pajama shirt that I was using repeatedly as a blouse, they were more than willing to help and got it all stitched up after I picked out which six shades of pink thread best matched the fabric.

After living with them, I came to realize how intense the fashion world is nowadays. However, it wasn’t always like that until a talented lady named Rose Bertin stepped into the scene in eighteenth-century France and worked her way up from nearly nothing to Marie Antoinette’s favorite milliner, or dressmaker.

Image Credit: AG Nauta Couture

Rose was born in the small textile town of Abbeville, north of Paris, on July 2, 1747. Her family was not wealthy at all and because her father’s income did not fully support Rose and her brother’s education, the family’s main priority, her mother worked as a sick nurse. When Rose was seven, her father died, leaving the family to survive on solely her mother’s income. Rose would help her mother whenever she could and developed a strong work ethic.

This and her charming personality won her an apprentice position at a millinery shop run by Mademoiselle Pagelle when Rose moved to Paris after she turned sixteen. She worked to craft the majority of accessories that were sent to the courts of France and Spain. Soon, she earned enough trust to take an order to the Princesse de Conti late one evening.

When she arrived, she was greeted by the Princesse, however, since she was dressed down for the night, Rose mistook her for the chambermaid. Rose was extremely embarrassed and apologized again and again. Taking no offense, the Princesse found this quite endearing and began a long friendship between the two.

In fact, the Princesse encouraged her to fight for the chance to make the bride’s trousseau for an upcoming royal marriage. Not only did this provide Rose with more than enough financial support, she also began to gain popularity in the royal circle which helped elevate her to partner at Mademoiselle Pagelle’s millinery shop.

Through less embarrassing circumstances, Rose began to grow a network of royals and aristocrat clients, of which one of the most supportive was the Duchesse de Chartres who was impressed by Rose’s talent and worked to ensure Rose’s business pursuits were successful.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Her husband, the Duke, was less impressed with her talents and more with her in general. He began to aggressively pursue her in the hopes of a romantic relationship. It was not uncommon at the time for a milliner to not only offer dressmaking services but perhaps…other services. In fact, around the time Rose was getting her start at Mademoiselle Pagelle’s, another young woman, Jeanne Bécu, was apprenticing at another millinery shop. Before long, Jeanne became Comtesse du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV.

Rose wanted none of that and repeatedly rejected the Duke’s advances. She began to hear rumors that the Duke was planning to kidnap her and take her away to a house in the country to force her to become his mistress. This, understandably, made her a little skittish. That didn’t stop her from declining to rise from her chair one day when the Duke came calling on her at the home of the Comtesse de Somme. Since he did not honor her repeated objections, she would not honor his status. After calling her a “little serpent,” the Duke gave up and left her alone.

Pretty soon, Rose had outgrown her partnership at the millinery shop and established her own shop, “Le Grand Mogul” on the renowned Rue de Saint-Honoré. The Duchesse de Chartres continued to help Rose in her entrepreneurial pursuits and used her status to convince the two young women chosen to be the ladies in waiting to Marie Antoinette that Rose should be the person to design the new dauphine’s clothes to change into for her French emergence at the border. So, when Marie Antoinette shed her clothes and the remains of her Austrian identity at the France-Austrian border, it was Rose’s clothes she stepped into to make her first French appearance and assume her new French identity.

This was just the first of a whole slew of dresses Rose would make for Marie Antoinette, who became quite infamous for her lavish and extensive love of clothes, something that did not help calm down the simmering Revolution. She would buy nearly 300 dresses a year, none of which she wore twice. In fact, once she became queen, Marie exceeded her clothing allowance of 200,000 livres by 300,000 livres. Though Rose was not her only designer, a vast majority of that money, upwards of millions of dollars from today’s standpoint, was ending up in the pocket of Rose.

Many sources argue that Rose, quickly becoming the queen’s favorite milliner despite her humble beginnings and unmarried stature, exerted more of an influence over the country that the king’s council. To demonstrate the trust she had in Rose with such influence, Marie Antoinette selected her to style a life-sized mannequin that would tour trading centers in Europe and abroad to advertise French fashions. In this sense, the unofficially dubbed “Minister of Fashion” became a representative of French culture internationally.

Rose also worked with Marie Antoinette’s personal coiffeur, Léonard Autié, to create a new and revolutionary hairstyle: a pouf that could be accessorized and style to resemble objects and represent current events or political opinion. It was used one way to honor the American Revolutionary War and in another to persuade the king to be vaccinated against smallpox. Imagine being told what to do by your spouse’s hair.

Rose was allowed to be especially inventive for Marie Antoinette’s coronation gown, as any tradition for a woman at such a ceremony was largely lost in the nearly 200 years of bachelor kings at the time of the coronation. She encrusted the gown in sapphires and heavy gold embroidery. It was just the latest of the queen’s styles the rest of the royal circle wanted to get their hands.

Image Credit: AG Nauta Couture

Noticing the power she held, Rose employed some clever business moves to elevate herself even more. She would sell royals styles modeled after the queen’s own clothes until the queen couldn’t bear another person dressed like her. Then Rose would update the queen’s style again, devising new designs during their meetings twice a week, and begin the cycle over, ensuring continuous orders. At the time, it was nearly social suicide to be out of style so it was either buy from Rose or face public shame.

Admittedly, this power and acclaim did go a bit to the traditionally sweet and humble Rose, who began to be known for her enlarged ego and even larger price increases. She was known to respond to criticism by saying, “Well, it’s good enough for the Queen,” and she also turned down several clients because she perceived they were not of a high enough class for her to work for. To defend her somewhat, some modern sources say she may have had upwards of 1,500 clients in addition to the Queen, including the queens of Spain, Sweden and Portugal and the Russian Grand-Duchess Maria-Fëdorovna.

A long time benefit of her demands for higher costs is the first elevation of fashion from a trade to an art, sparking the advent of haute couture and its place front and center in popular culture.

Image Credit: Château de Versailles

A short-term consequence of this was the fact that French royals and aristocrats did not need another association with expensive and luxurious products at the time of the guillotine’s heyday. In fact, both Royalists and Republicans singled out Rose Bertin as the “corrupt and corrupting maker of luxury goods” who was perpetuating the excessive fashion tastes of the Queen.

That did nothing to shatter the loyalty Rose had to Marie Antoinette. She continued to deliver garments and accessories to her even after she was held in custody by the National Assembly and had no ability to pay. She even made the mourning outfit the Queen wore after her husband was executed and it’s believed that the very last clothes she wore were from Rose’s boutique.

After Marie Antoinette’s execution, Rose worried her close association with the royal family would mean she would be next to meet the same gruesome end so she fled to London and set up a store there. Nothing actually changed that much as several of her old clients had fled to London too. I’m sure that must have been an odd reunion.

Once the coast seemed clear a couple years later in 1795, Rose returned to Paris. Sadly, her popularity and reputable fashions were now out of style, still associated with the monarchal ideals of the past. On top of this, she found that many of her old clients that still owed her bills were now dead.

Image Credit: AG Nauta Couture

She continued to make and send fashion dolls, figures made of wax over porcelain or wood armatures that served as the time’s equivalent to fashion catalogs, but she received little financial compensation. On September 22, 1813, she died and passed into obscurity.

One of the craziest bits of irony of this whole thing is that one of my fashion roommate’s favorite fashion figures was Marie Antoinette. It’s entirely likely that, had it not been for Rose Bertin, fashion would not hold the cultural and artistic pull it has today. So really, it’s thanks to Rose that I met her and we became good friends, which means without Rose, I’d probably still have a fist-sized hole in my shirt.

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