As I gaze at pictures of smart Duchess Kate, Prince William, and their adorable royal offspring while waiting in line to pay for marked-down groceries, I can't help wondering what it would be like to live like royalty, even for just one day.
But let's be real: The lives of today's royals are far too down-to-earth to aspire to. I mean, as long as we're dreaming, why not imagine what it would cost to live like the most famously extravagant monarch of European history — Marie Antoinette?
The Austrian bride of King Louis XVI likely never suggested that citizens without bread eat cake instead, but her lifestyle was indeed so lavish that she was personally blamed for the national financial hardships that led to the French Revolution.
A typical day in her life went like so: Her majesty rose at 9-ish, took breakfast in bed, then chose her day's outfits from a massive catalogue. On some days she had a bath, and then she was dressed and primped. Throughout the day, she would hold court, attend mass, take a music lesson, take in entertainment such as plays or operas or playing cards, or of course, visit her hamlet to play farm girl, accompanied by ladies in waiting. Punctuating these activities were formal meals, with spectators, and wardrobe changes.
What would it all cost, in today's dollars?
Marie Antoinette's morning meal seems modest: coffee or hot chocolate and perhaps a pastry. But both beverages were wildly expensive in 18th century France. So let's compare it to today's most expensive coffee, the kind eaten by a civet and passed through its GI tract. You can get three ounces of it shipped next-day on Amazon for $100.
The main meal of the day would be a lavish affair attended by many, and might feature pate, seafood, duck, rabbit stew — or likely, all of the above, plus lots of chocolates for the queen. Although it probably can't compete in lavishness, Manhattan's Morningside Castle does have one advantage of Versailles: modern plumbing. You can host 100 people there for a banquet for $30,000.
Marie-Antoinette's evening meal was a simple affair of soup, a milk-soaked biscuit, and other hospital food. But because she still had to feed her ladies in waiting, let's put the cost at $200.
Marie Antoinette's clothing allowance is known: about $3.6 million. But she went over budget, often by 100%. That works out to about $20,000 per day for clothes.
That may seem like a lot, but keep in mind that each day she donned at least three outfits: a velvet or silk morning gown, a breezy day dress for visiting her hamlet and whatnot, and then a formal gown for evening. She rarely repeated outfits, instead giving them away to ladies in waiting or leaving them on display to the public in her three wardrobe rooms at Versailles. Today's prices would probably be similar: $10,000 for an elaborate designer ball gown, and $5,000 apiece for the other two dresses.
For nighttime, Marie-Antoinette would be slipped into a fine lingerie nightdress — you can get a LaPerla version today for $300.
Like nearly every minute of her life, getting her hair styled in the morning was a public event. Her paintings are evidence of her lavish hairdos. Sometimes she wore wigs, other times her natural hair was piled high and adorned with everything from feathers to jewels to figurines. It's not unheard of for upscale brides to pay $600 for wedding day updos, so let's peg that as the price for Marie-A's everyday do.
Like other aristocrats of her time, Marie-Antoinette wore a thick coat of pale white lead-based "paint" on her face (which not only made her look stylish but hid any scars from childhood smallpox), streaks of rouge, black beauty patches, and other cosmetics. Makeup this elaborate won't be found nowadays outside a film set, so let's assume Marie-Antoinette employed her time's equivalent of a full-time movie studio makeup artist, who would earn $88,000 a year. That's $240 a day. Throw in $60 a day for the makeup itself.
Entertainments would vary, but consider that nowadays you can easily spend $400 on a ticket to the opera or a Broadway show. Then assume you're paying for 100 of your best buddies to see it with you. Boom.
Little Farm: $200
Marie-Antoinette liked to leave Versailles proper to visit her little hamlet and working farm, where pigs, cows, and rabbits were raised, and vegetables grown. Operating a small farm costs about $200 a day today.
It costs France about $54 million a year to maintain and operate Versailles today, which works out to be $150,000 per day. True, the palace is used very differently now than it was in Marie-Antoinette's days, but let's call the many differences a wash.
While this is of course an educated guess, by looking at Marie-Antoinette's meals, clothing, toilette, entertainment, and overhead costs, it seems reasonable that you could live like her for a day for a few hundred grand. Just remember that it's important to specify which day you want to emulate: Certainly not Sept. 21, 1792, the day Marie-Antoinette's body was separated from her once-finely-coiffed head.
If Marie-Antoinette is not your choice, which Queen (or King) would you choose to live like for a day?
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