Marie Antoinette is the focus of a new exhibition in Paris, one that celebrates the notorious queen of excess as a 21st-century pop culture icon.

A scene from the 2006 film Marie Antoinette
Production design on the 2006 film Marie Antoinette. Elements from the film will be explored in the exhibition Marie Antoinette: Metamorphoses at the Conciergerie ©Columbia Pictures courtesy of Conciergerie

In 1793, just two weeks before her 38th birthday, Marie Antoinette was publicly beheaded by revolutionaries at the Place de la Révolution in Paris. At the time of her death, the foreign-born queen from the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty was one of the most hated figures in France. Her lavishness, as well as her ignorance to the suffering going on outside the walls of Versailles, had turned the French public against her. Myths spread like wildfire. The phrase "let them eat cake," though it seems she never actually said it, is nevertheless tied up in her legacy.

More than two centuries later, we're still fascinated by her. The last queen of France has been reinterpreted and reinvented more times than a Kardashian, in cinema, books, video games, manga art and fashion. In Sofia Coppola's 2006 film Marie Antoinette, she was reimagined as a modern-day princess; a rock rebel contained in pastel puff skirts, rouge cheeks and sugar-spun hairdos, rallying against the patriarchal society's doll-like ideal of womanhood.

An 18th-century portrait of Marie-Antoinett
An 18th-century portrait of Marie-Antoinette © RMN-GP (Château de Versailles) © Gérard Blot.jpg

These many representations of Marie Antoinette will be critically examined in a new exhibition at the Conciergerie, the palace-turned-prison-turned-exhibition hall, where the young queen was interned before the French Revolution. Through some 250 works, personal effects, costumes and fashion accessories, the exhibition - titled Marie Antoinette: Metamorphoses of an Image - will attempt to understand how the once hated queen became "a key emblem in popular culture."

Costumes include the Oscar-winning gowns created for Kirsten Dunst (who played the queen in Coppola’s film), as well as a Christian Dior dressed inspired by the queen's love of excess and a cotton shirtdress she is believed to have worn. The queen's official portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun will show a stripped-back queen without her adornments, while an image of a body holding her severed head, by the photographer Erwin Olaf, is one of the many contemporary works that depict the morbid fascination we still hold for her decapitated image.

Royal Blood_Marie-Antoinette, † 1793_2000.jpeg
“Marie Antoinette + 1793” (2000); by Erwin Olaf, part of his “Royal Blood” series ©Erwin Olaf via Conciergie

"Marie-Antoinette touches a powerful emotional nerve," said exhibition curators. "This has given the queen a double identity: she is not only the 'poor little rich girl' who highlights the sentimentality of today, but also a persona exemplifying the construction of that ambivalent value in the public arena, the 'celebrity'."

Marie Antoinette: Metamorphoses of an Image opened last Wednesday, 226 years to the day of her execution, and will run until 26 January, 2020 at the Conciergerie. Full admission rate is €9 but entry is free for those under 18.

Explore related stories

Woman taking a selfie while sitting on a bridge over the river Seine with the Eiffel tower in the background.


10 fascinating facts to mark Eiffel Tower Day

Mar 30, 2022 • 4 min read