Birgitt Borkopp-Restle spoke at the Françoise and Georges Selz Lectures on 18th- and 19th-Century French Decorative Arts and Culture on Tuesday, February 25, 2014. Her talk is entitled “How To Do Things with Textiles: Marie Antoinette at the Courts of Vienna and Versailles.”

The French queen Marie Antoinette is often associated with extravagant fashions and the lavishing of huge sums of money on elaborate dresses and exquisitely furnished interiors—so much so that she is sometimes viewed as a “Pandora” who almost single-handedly brought on the French Revolution. Textiles—woven silks, tapestries, furnishing fabrics and embroideries—indeed had a prominent part in the images she presented to the world. A closer look at these objects reveals, however, that her choices were motivated less by extravagance, personal taste, or a desire for self-expression than by dynastic traditions and established political strategies and conventions. Textiles were of paramount importance at early modern European courts: tapestries with their narrative sequences of images, embroideries encompassing a wide variety of materials and forms, and woven silks with elaborate patterns all contributed to the splendid and highly charged interiors in which court festivals and ceremonies were held. Rulers themselves had to appear in robes of state and embody magnificence as their cardinal virtue. Marie Antoinette was no exception to this rule, strategically employing textile objects as significant elements of a language that was read and understood within the aristocratic society of her time.

Birgitt Borkopp-Restle holds the Werner and Margaret Abegg Chair as Professor of the History of Textile Arts at the Institute of Art History, University of Bern, Switzerland. After graduating with a PhD in Art History from the University of Bonn, she began her museum career as an exhibition secretary at the Schnütgen Museum, Cologne, and as a curatorial assistant at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. In 1993, she was appointed Curator of the Department of Textiles and Costume at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, where she curated exhibitions based on the museum’s collection while publishing and teaching courses on the history of textile arts at the Universities of Augsburg and Bamberg. From 2005 to 2008, she was Director of the Museum of Applied Arts in Cologne. Parallel to her research projects in textile history, she continued to teach at the Universities of Bonn, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, and Basel. Since 2009, she has established MA and PhD programs for the History of Textile Arts in Bern. Her research focuses on medieval and early modern textiles, their role in court ceremony and representation, and the exchange between the Orient and the West from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.