By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated September 20, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Television cameras had not been invented when 14-year-old Archduchess Marie Antoinette left her native Vienna in 1770 to marry 15-year-old Dauphin Louis Auguste, heir to the Bourbon throne. But that didn’t stop 18th-century pretenders to the throne of Joan and Melissa Rivers from making their own rulings in a language those modern media princesses might envy. Indeed, as Caroline Weber reports in Queen of Fashion, from the moment the adolescent queen-to-be was stripped naked of all foreign threads before nosy onlookers from the house of Hapsburg and reoutfitted at the border of her new homeland, few teenage girls in history have been scrutinized with more documentation, still available to amaze contemporary gawkers.

And fewer still would have dared to attempt the stylistic breaks with which the controversial, fashion-forward trendsetter marked her short, turbulent reign. Whether by refusing to bind her young figure in prisonlike corsets, popularizing her signature wedding-cake-high pouf hairdos, experimenting with menswear, or indulging in fancier costume-ball disguises than even Project Runway‘s Kayne Gillaspie could whip up, Marie Antoinette made headlines with every outfit she wore. Sometimes her audience loved and slavishly copied her; other times they loudly disapproved. (Beheading by guillotine counts as a definitive auf Wiedersehen.) But always, they devoured the sight of her — as if they owned her. The Olsen twins and the late Princess Diana would understand.

Even at its red-carpet, who-are-you-wearing? giddiest, fashion is never trivial. Far from it: In every pleat and wardrobe malfunction, cultural as well as sexual definitions constantly stretch and change. But Weber goes further. In her thrilling frock-by-frock account, which coincides with Sofia Coppola’s biopic confection starring Kirsten Dunst, she concludes that ”Marie Antoinette helped invent fashion as a high-stakes political game — one that she played in dead earnest, and with deadly results.” And while the book is rigorously researched, Weber’s narrative style is energetic and alive with her own feminine pleasure at a beautiful dress or an outrageous pouf (which at one point, she assesses with dry wit, ”appeared to be eroding the moral fabric of the kingdom”).

The queen’s own mother, critically assessing one of her daughter’s portraits, once sniffed that her getup ”surely depicted an actress and not a sovereign.” Today, actresses, sovereigns, and the rest of us pay good money trying to make the kind of fashion statements Marie Antoinette innately understood — while keeping our heads.