To Mary Theresa of Austria

 

Beautiful without extravagances

 

Royal and Imperial Majesty!

 

                 I only know you by books. Typical sovereign of "the lights century", you also were somewhat paternalistic in your government. You were called "mother" of all your lands; but, apparently, what really worried you was that your people were obedient citizens of the Empress.

It is not necessary to be surprised; not even a queen can be asked to be prophetically ahead of her time. Anyway, in the lot of sovereigns of the time, you play the best part : Director of the National Orchestra, without the pretension of playing all the instruments!

 

Much better you coped as wife and mother. A husband, loved in life and sincerely mourned after his death (even knowing he had betrayed you with other favourites). "Crystal house" in which the citizens could watch the impeccable customs of their sovereign. Sixteen children, between them the famous Joseph II called, by your neighbour King of Prusia, "King-Sexton", and the unfortunate Marie Antoniette, first Princess, later Queen of France.

 

It is to this last one to whom, with mother and woman sensitivity, you wrote letters, that are still today kept, regarding the way of dressing.

 

In Paris, there are whisperings that the Princess does not take care of her elegance. You hear that in Vienna and immediately you take the pen, admonishing her: "I was said that you dress badly and that your ladies do not dare to tell you that".

 

Already Queen, Marie Antoniette exceeds in the opposite sense, and she sends you a portrait of her in which she wears a monumental cataphalque made of fruits, flowers, feathers and a good ten meters of cloth on her head. And you, writing her again: "I don' t think the sovereign of a great nation must dress like that. It is necessary to follow the fashion, but without exaggerating. A graceful queen doesn' t need all these extravagances on the head!"

 

Here it is a wise maxim: woman' s beauty juts out without needing so many extravagances.

 

***

 

Majesty, could you believe it? There is a colleague of mine, a Bishop, who still seems more understanding than you. Saint Francis of Sales is really full of smiling indulgence for the small insurmountable human weaknesses, that impel specially women to look for and change decorations, hairdos and dresses; he shows as tolerant, particularly, with the graceful elegance of the young women. "These ones - he writes - feel like something innate the need to please others". And he continues: "It is allowed for them to please many, as long as they do it with the only purpose of winning over one through marriage".

 

As a Bishop, he was called to moderate the zeal of the Baroness of Chantal, who set a too much austere surveillance around her daughters' dress, and he writes her: "What do you want? It is necessary the girls can also be a little pretty". But when he takes part he knows how to repress with sweetness the small (then they were small) audacities of the young women of his family: one day, when Frances of Rabutin appeared a little bit too much low-necked before him, he, smiling, offered her: safety pins!

 

The same moderation regarding men' s and ladies' fashion. Mrs. Charmoisy has a young son who feels badly because all his friends "sont beaucoup mieux que lui", that is to say, they dress better that him. This is not good, the Saint writes, because, "when one lives in the world, it is necessary to follow world laws in all that it is not a sin". Mrs. Le Blanc de Mions has, on the contrary, a scruple: will she be able, being so devotee, to powder her hair according to the fashion?" For goodness sake, Francis answers, she powders herself hardiment (audaciously) her head: also the pheasants clean their feathers!".

 

Francis of Sales wanted, when writing like that, to give sensible Christian advices, leaving to the devotee life all its roses without removing any thorn. But he was taken badly, Majesty. The great Bossuet wrote about him that in that way he did not do more than "to place cushions under the sinners' elbows". A monk even preached from the pulpit against The Introduction to the devotee life, book in which the Saint had developed the concepts we have already mentioned before; at the end of the sermon, he was made him bring a lighted candle with great solemnity, he took the book out of the sleeve and set it fire, spreading the ashes everywhere.

 

***

 

Majesty, it is necessary to make clear that I do not share that monk' s opinion. I am with you and Francis of Sales in the moderate and right position of whom understands and encourages all that is healthily beautiful, even in fashion.

 

But I am also with you when condemning eccentricities. And, well, if there are eccentricities nowadays! In dressing and regarding that: expenses, behaviour, amusements. And I am not only speaking about the beach and about the way in which some people use to visit it.

 

Your Marie Antoniette wore ten meters of cloth on her head, while other meters of it were distributed between the dress and the tail. Now it happens all the contrary: there are women who are hardly covered and they are walking like that everywhere, trying to enter the churches in that way.

 

In your Court, Peter Metastasio, who moved in Gentlemen circles with wig and powdered ladies, composed some melodramas. In one of them, he wrote:

 

 

It is the lovers'  faith

like the phoenix bird:

that it exists, it is said by all,

where is it? Nobody knows.

 

 

It is the highest he has dared to say, sentimentally speaking. Now they dare to everything; in dressing, singing, writing, in photography, in the way to behave.

 

In your times, Margaret of the Campiello of Goldoni said: "Mia mare la ne menava a l’opera, se no, a la comedia, e la comprava la so bona chiave de palco, e la spendeva i so boni bezzetti. La procurava de andar dove la saveva che se fava de le comedie bone, da poderghe menar de le fie, e la vegniva con nu, e se divertivimo. Andévimo qualche volta al Ridotto: un pochetin sul Liston, un pochetin in Piazzetta da le stroleghe, dai buratini, e un par de volte ai casoti. Co stévimo po in casa, ghe avévimo sempre la nostra conversazion. Vegniva i parenti, vegniva i amizi, anca qualche zóvene: ma non ghe giera pericolo". (My mother used to take me to the opera or to the comedy, and she booked a cover theater box, and she spent a lot of money on it. She tried to go where she knew that good comedies were played, which she could trust on, and she came with us, and we had fun. Sometimes, we went for a walk: a little to the Liston, a little to the astrologers' square, to the puppets', and a couple of times to the market stalls. When we stayed at home, we always had our social gathering there. Relatives, friends and some other young man came: but there was no danger there").

 

And now? It so happened that good family daughters are absent for whole days. Where are they going to? With "their" boyfriend, alone in the car, alone in the hotel with him, on the ways of the world.

 

Sometimes it happens an invitation is received for a dance and it is written on the card the abbreviation WBE (without bothered escorts, that is to say, without the parents).

 

Also sometimes, we can read in the newspapers that the employees of certain companies reduce remarkably the rate and quality of the production because they devote themselves to long "meditations" on the Lilliputian size of the skirts or underclothes of their fellow women. Or we also read that a certain government, to avoid the increase of traffic accidents, warns the drivers with advertisements so that they can' t let them distract by girls in miniskirt they see through the rear view mirror or through the window.

 

Majesty, you have written the right word: woman doesn' t need much to please others. It is to know what kind of people they want to please to and with which purpose. To please all? It is not anything bad; what is bad can be wanting to please in a certain way. I think, however, that a woman must try to please, first of all, her parents, brothers, sisters and, mainly, her husband, the man who will choose her as his wife and he will be the father of her children.

 

However, all these ones wish that woman can be elegant and beautiful, but in a setting of modesty that makes her be still more beautiful and morally attractive.

 

* * *

 

Majesty, forgive me if I have been sincere and have opened my heart to you, as you approve these ideas. It is not, certainly, that there is a lack of women today who can appreciate them. But there are some of them who consider them as old fashioned and obsolete. You know, on the contrary, that they cannot be waived and are always fresh, because they reflect the thought of God, that made St. Paul write: "Women, dress with honour, decorated with modesty and shame".

 

 

July 1971

 

 

 

* MARY THERESA OF HAPSBURG , (1717-1780), Empress of Austria from 1740. Illustrated " sovereign " governed in a paternalistic way. She was mother and exemplary wife. She wrote to her daughter, Marie Antoniette, Queen of France, with woman and mother sensitivity, some letters that still today we keep on the way of dressing. 

 

GCM 2002