The high-fashion world of the late designer Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) rarely makes its appearance on this blog. But I recently braved the record-breaking crowds forAlexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, the exhibition/tribute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, and I was struck by how history so obviously inspired and influenced this unique designer. Fellow nerdy-history fanatics can be found everywhere, even on a London runway.
The show arranged examples of McQueen's garments (like the ones shown here) in roughly chronological order, including pieces that McQueen made for design school assignments. These were inspired by Jack the Ripper and 19th c. London, and already displayed his respect for historical dress and people who wore it. His work wasn't about sticking lace and a bow on the skirt and calling it Victorian. Instead he was fascinated by the structure of clothing of the past, how it shaped the body to conform to various ideals. He appreciated how the older clothes were constructed, a crucial step before he could take them apart, deconstruct them, and recreate them in another, more modern guise.
Boned bodices, Scottish tartans, frock coats, corsets, Napoleonic uniforms, bustles, padded hips, wire crinolines, leg-of-mutton sleeves, courtesan platforms, Regency white, and medieval armor: all appear in his collections as quotations from the past, translated by his imagination into something new and fresh and uniquely his own. He could back up his imagination, too. Throughout his career, McQueen also demonstrated masterful tailoring, and an attention for the smallest details of beading, embroidery, and applique that would have earned him the approval of the finest 18th c. tailor or mantua-maker. He was a story-teller who used clothing to tell his stories, with each of his collections reflecting characters that were often based in historical fact. Other designers might be inspired by Hollywood jet-setters; only McQueen could create a collection inspired by the widows left by the 1746 Battle of Culloden – clothes so viscerally beautiful and moving that my eyes filled with tears as I stood in the gallery.
"I believe in history," McQueen told British Vogue in 2002. How tragic that Alexander McQueen is now part of the history he loved so well, but how fortunate that we have his clothes as a lasting legacy of his imagination.
Here's a video tour of the exhibition, produced by the Met, but without the three-hour wait in line. The catalogue to the exhibition is a gorgeous hardcover book filled with color photographs and thoughtful essays. If you love breathtaking clothes of any era, don't think twice: you'll want this book.
After my blog about the allegedly Perfectly Safe Vehicle, I thought readers might like to see a phaeton in action. The one Willoughby drives in this clip from Sense and Sensibility is an earlier version, called a High Perch Phaeton, and it's the type of vehicle the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) drove in his salad days.
The British Galleries of the magnificent V&A were on Loretta's schedule during her recent whirlwind tour of London. She knows my weakness for 18th c. shoes, and e-mailed this photo, above, to me as soon as she returned home – and now I'm sharing it with you.
This pair was likely made in England around 1735. The shoes have leather soles and carved wooden heels, while the upper is brocaded Spitalfields silk, woven in London. The high, curving heels were also covered with the silk, and contrasting silk binding is used for edging. The lappets - those two little tongues across the front - would have been fastened through a pair of fancy buckets, most likely sparkling with paste brilliants (see this pair with buckles in place from the collection of Colonial Williamsburg.) See here for more about 18th c. shoe making.
For most of the 18th c., ladies' shoes were usually made with fabric uppers, not leather. Patterned silk shoes like these were particularly fashionable, whether in silk to match a specific gown, or in a contrasting design to make a bolder "statement." Scraps from a new gown could be taken from the mantua-maker to the shoemaker, or pieces cut and recycled from a worn or outdated garment. The costly silk meant such shoes were confined to indoor wear; no elegant lady would dare venture into the mud and questionable filth of an 18th c. street in such a shoe. Most likely they were reserved for the dance floor, where the swirling skirts of a country dance would display them to best advantage.
What is the carefully matched design woven into the upper? Loretta thinks it's a pineapple, while my vote is for a pomegranate. Both fruits were popular, exotic motifs in Georgian design. The V&A doesn't offer their opinion on their website. What's yours?
Update: Here's the link to the V&A's listing of these shoes, with more photos.
Above: Pair of Lady's Shoes, Spitalfields, c. 1735, Victoria & Albert Museum. Photograph copyright Loretta Chase.
Those of us who need to transport our aristocratic characters hither and yon are always excited to find detailed illustrations of fashionable vehicles. A phaeton was analogous to a Ferrari—but not nearly as safe. Whether this later version is as safe as claimed is anybody's guess. You can read a fascinating testimonial here.
~~~ Plate 3.—A LIGHT PHAETON WITH PATENT MOVEABLE AXLES. The plate which accompanies the present article, represents one of the most elegant, and, at the same time, one of the safest vehicles of the kind ever constructed. The accidents so frequently occurring to phaetons upon the old construction, were so frequent, and generally so inevitable, as to have led to their almost total disuse; but the important improvement in them by the application of Mr. Ackermann's Patent Moveable Axles, is likely to bring them again into fashion with gentlemen who are fond of the exercise of driving their own horses with perfect security.
Independent of the other beauties of the vehicle represented, its peculiar shortness and compactness are particularly striking: in a phaeton upon any other plan, this would undoubtedly be a disadvantage in all respects but appearance; for the inevitable consequence would be, that in turning and what is called locking, the carriage must be overturned. The following letter from the builder of this phaeton, to Mr. Ackermann, the proprietor of the Patent Moveable Axles applied to it, will sufficiently explain this singular advantage.
We've explored the trials and expense of servants, as well as advice for a mistress determined to keep her servants in line. Fans of the series Downton Abbey will also have their notion of what happened in the servants' hall. But none of those view the master-servant relationship with quite the caustic wit of essayist, novelist, poet, and cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). His satiric "handbook" Directions to Servants, published in 1731, was one of his last completed pieces, and reflects what must have been a life-long trial with servants. Below is an excerpt:
"The general place of rendezvous for all servants, both in winter and summer, is the kitchen; there the grand affairs of the family ought to be consulted, whether they concern the stable, the dairy, the pantry, the laundry, the cellar, the nursery, the dining room or my lady's chamber; there, as in your own proper element, you can laugh and squall and romp in full security. "When any servant comes home drunk, and cannot appear, you must all join in telling your master that he is gone to bed very sick, upon which your lady will be so good-natured as to order some comfortable thing of the poor man or maid. "When your master and lady go abroad together to dinner, or on a visit for the evening, you need leave only one servant in the house, unless you have a blackguard boy to answer at the door and attend the children, if there be any. Who is to stay at home is to be determined by short and long cuts, and the stayer at home may be comforted by a visit from a sweetheart, without danger of being caught together. These opportunities must never be missed, because they come but sometimes, and all is safe enough while there is a servant int he house. "When your master or lady comes home, and wants a servant who happens to be abroad, your answer must be that he is but just that minute stepped out, being sent for by a cousin who is dying. "If your master calls you by name, and you happen to answer at the fourth call, you need not hurry yourself; and if you be chided for staying, you may lawfully say you came no sooner, because you did not know what you were called for. "When you are chided for a fault, as you go out of the room and downstairs, mutter loud enough to be plainly heard; this will make him believe you are innocent...."
The nightmarish print, above, is by Thomas Rowlandson (c. 1807) and illustrates another passage from the Directions, offering this choice advice for footmen: "If you are bringing up a Joint of Meat in a dish, and it falls out of your hand, before you get into the Dining Room, with the meat on the ground, and the sauce spilled, take up the meat gently, wipe it with the lap of your coat, then put it again into the dish, and serve it up; and when your Lady misses the sauce, tell her, it is to be sent up in a plate by itself. When you carry up a dish of meat, dip your fingers in the sauce, or lick it with your tongue, to try whether it be good, and fit for your Master's Table."
Warm weather style for the fashionable lady—though it may not strike today's viewer as particularly cool-looking, muslin notwithstanding.
FASHIONS FOR JULY, 1818.
EXPLANATION OF THE PRINTS OF FASHION.
No. I.—Walking Dress.
High round dress of fine jacconot muslin, with three flounces of muslin in full quills; each flounce headed by embroidered Brunswick stars of grass-green, and each flounce edged with the same colour. Sautoir scarf, of Chinese silk, with a rich border of various colours. Transparent bonnet, of white net and lilac satin, crowned with a bouquet of French double poppies, and yellow everlastings. Lilac parasol, kid slippers of the same colour, and straw-coloured kid gloves.
ON FASHION AND DRESS.
. . . The warm weather which we have of late experienced, has rendered muslin spensers peculiarly general; one of which kind particularly drew our attention at the new Magazin de Modes, in St. James's-street: the pelerine, or bust part, which is richly embroidered in open work, or let in with stripes of narrow footing, or beading, is lined with blush-colored sarsnet. For the more moderate weather, spensers of silk still continue in favour ; they are chiefly of royal purple, trimmed with such narrow roulœux of white satin, as to appear like a cordon, or of peach or lilac, ornamented with white satin palm leaves. Carriage pelisses, of white figure satin, richly trimmed with blond, are amongst the present elegancies worn by the rich and great. Rainbow scarfs, of an elastic fabric, are in high estimation.
A few weeks ago, we shared a silly-history video about the Georgian language of fans. This week it seems only fair to go into the garden, and observe the Victorian language of flowers. Since both "languages" come by way of the Horrible Histories, you won't have to brush up on any real language skills - just enjoy!
Lord and Lady Clapham date to the much earlier time period of Susan’s historical novels, rather than my books—which makes them all the more wondrous. Not only have they survived more than 300 years, but they’ve still got their clothes, even their underwear! Equally thrilling to a Nerdy History Girl, they’re believed to have belonged to descendants of Samuel Pepys.
You can find detailed descriptions of the dolls here and here at the V&A site, as well as more photographs of their attire, including closeups of their little bodies and even their stockings & garters.
They are jointed, and obviously were meant to be dressed and undressed, which makes it even more amazing that they’re in such splendid condition. Think of all those old Barbies one comes across at yard sales. No, better yet, think what happens to Barbies once a little girl gets her hands on them.
More children’s treasures at the V&A include this 1835 doll, and this one from a slightly earlier period.
By now most of our fellow nerdy-history-lovers have heard of the recent sale of a rare Jane Austen (1775-1817) manuscript. The incomplete draft of The Watsons, 68 pages of a novel left unfinished at her death, was estimated by Sotheby's to sell for £200,000-300,000. But the continuing interest and appreciation of Jane Austen's works made that estimate meaningless, and the final realized price was a staggering £993,250 - over a million American dollars. See here for more details about the condition of the draft plus details of the sale. The first pages of the draft are in the collection of the Morgan Library in NYC; see it on line here.
While the identity of the buyer was unknown on the date of the sale, it soon became known: Oxford's Bodleian Libraries. The purchase was made possible by a large grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, plus several other generous groups and supporters. Austen fans and scholars around the world rejoiced. Instead of vanishing into a private collection, the manuscript will soon go on public display. Here's more about the Bodleian purchase, and their admirable plans for the manuscript.
This is, obviously, wonderful news for all involved. But as a fellow-writer, I couldn't help but wonder what Jane herself would have made of the sale. (Yes, I know, I've wondered in a similar vein before.) Of course she would have been shocked by the price; such a sum is amazing enough in modern money, but translated into early 19th c. value would be almost beyond comprehension. She likely would have been proud and pleased by the international recognition and celebrity.
But because fiction writing is such a solitary endeavor, most novelists I know (including me) have a wicked hard time letting go of our characters and stories. Like worrying parents, we want to make certain they are the very best they can be before they are launched into public, and to this end we polish and rewrite until the last possible moment (usually the one when the editor is begging tearfully on the phone.) The draft of The Watsons, c. 1804 is exactly that, a draft, full of strike-outs and blots, the lasting tracks of a racing imagination. It's a tantalizing glimpse of a favorite author at work.
Yet would Jane Austen herself have approved of having her creative process made so public? Compare the page, above, from The Watsons with this one, from a "fair" or finished manuscript copy of another novel, Lady Susan.No blots or changes here. Instead every word is the exact right one, in unblemished penmanship. Which version, I wonder, would Jane have wished to survive for posterity?
Eager to read more Jane Austen manuscripts? Check out the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition here.
Now that we’ve had a chance to see examples of real clothes from the Romantic era, and compare them to the fashion prints I've previously posted, I thought it would be fun to look at the very early 1800s, and those white muslin dresses for which the era is noted (more here and here).
Here’s the description for the July 1807 fashion print
No. 2.—Full Dress. A round robe of white Italian crape over white sarsnet; with frock back, plain sleeve, and pointed front; trimmed round the bottom, bosom, and sleeves with an elegant border, composed of the pearl bead, blended with green foil and gold. The robe confined at the centre of the bosom with a brooch formed of a single pearl. One row of the same forms the necklace, which is fastened with an emerald snap. Hoop earrings, and bracelets to correspond. Hair à-la-Madona on the forehead, twisted behind, and flowing in full curls on the crown of the head ; a bunch of white roses in front, inclining towards the right side. Gloves of French kid; shoes of white satin, with silver trimming. Square shawl of Chinese silk, with a rich pointed border; finished at each point with correspondent tassels. The style of wearing this graceful ornament is, simply giving it a twist from the cross corners, and flinging it negligently over the left shoulder; thus one point ornaments the figure behind, while the others, falling irregularly, form a drapery on the left side, and gracefully occupy the right hand. Chinese fan of frosted crape, with ivory sticks, carved in Egyptian characters.
—La Belle Assemblée, Volume 2, 1807
~~~ Though it’s not precisely the same dress, and dated “about 1800” (and the shawl is not, apparently, fashionably draped) the dress at right from the Victoria & Albert Museum is a wonderful example of how airy and delicate these white muslin dresses could be, and how rich and beautiful the colors of the shawl. The muslin is from India. The shawl is “silk twill with a brocaded pattern woven in silk,” believed to have been made in Spitalfields, London. There's more about the dress here.
We've discussed stays, the 18th c. version of a corset, here at the TNHG, and we've also discussed stays for young Georgian children here and here. But these are the first photographs that we've been able to share that show children's stays being worn as they would have been 250 years ago: over a linen shift, and ready for a gown to be worn over them.
The purpose of 18th c. stays was not to compress and narrow the waist, but to shape and support the figure. Stays share none of the health perils and physical restrictions caused by the tight-laced Victorian and Edwardian corsets in the next century. While stays do rely on layers of stiffened, stitched fabric reinforced with bones of baleen, wood, or cane splints stitched into channels for their rigid shape, a correctly fitted pair should not be uncomfortable.
Both young girls and boys wore stays. The goal was to improve the posture, a way of helping achieve a straight, genteel figure. The recommended fit was likened to a fond hug. While modern parents might find the idea of stays for children horrifying, their Georgian counterparts would be equally appalled by the thought of their child being clad in the harmfully disreputable ease of a t-shirt and sweatpants.
The pair of 18th c style stays worn by the young model here was made by the mantua-makers of the Margaret Hunter shop, Colonial Williamsburg, who also kindly supplied these photographs. The photographer also reports that the model was much more interested in the day lilies than in being historically correct. For more photos, including step-by-step pictures of how the stays were constructed, please visit the Margaret Hunter Facebook page here.
Above and below: Replica child's stays in style of 1770. Photographs copyright & used by permission of the Margaret Hunter shop, Colonial Williamsburg.
We’re thick in the middle of summer’s heat now, but we’re still dishing up a fresh serving of Breakfast Links for you. For your enjoyment, here’s our latest collection of links to blogs, web sites, pictures, and news stories gathered this week from the Twitterverse.
• First-person account with details of travel, inns, & meals: A Journey to Bath, 1784. http://post.ly/2NMeP
Feathers and plumes have always been a favorite way to decorate hats and hair. Fashionable Georgian ladies had a particular love for extravagant plumage. While all feathers could be stylish (there's even a description of headdresses using vulture feathers), the most desired were ostrich. Showy, fragile, and imported, the feathers were expensive, which, of course, made them all the more in demand. In 18th c. parlance, a plume was a cluster of feathers bound together at the barb, and towering white ostrich plumes on the head were actually required for English court dress.
Needless to say, the fashion didn't escape the keen eye of satirical artists. This print, left, titled The Feather'd Fair in a Fright, takes the ostrich's point of view, who is justly furious at being plucked clean of his feathers for beauty's sake.
Yet as is often the case, what's old in fashion will eventually become new. Feathers are once again turning up in stylish hair, this time in the form of colored rooster-feather extensions, a fad driven not by the royal court, but by music celebrities like Ke$ha and Steven Tyler. This time around, too, the birds have more vocal defenders in the form of the Audubon Society and PETA – though not surprisingly, the fashionistas still seem to get the last word over hapless fowl. Above: The Feather'd Fair in a Fright by John Collet, c.1777, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Many thanks to Janea Whitacre & Sarah Woodyard for first sharing this print with me!
Today I'm showing another example of 19th C children’s dress. This one, from 1835—the year of Silk is for Seduction—is the sort of thing little Lucie might wear . . . during her geography lesson.
(No. 7.) TOILETTE D' INTERIEUR—Robe de chambre of mousseline de laine; the corsage and skirt made all in one. The collar or pelerine is à revers, rounded at back and pointed on the shoulders, where it is ornamented with small tassels: this revers folds back as far as the waist in front (see plate). The sleeves are immensely full all the way down: the dress is fastened round the waist by a ceinture of itself, from which depends two long ends, finished by tassels. A small liseré or piping of blue satin goes entirely round the dress. The robe de chambre is wadded and lined. Cap of Grecian net, with a plain round caul and double border of the same, standing up from the face (see plate): the cap is ornamented with small blue wild flowers, and bows of satin ribbon of the same colour. The hair is in plain bands. On the neck is a guimpe of fine cambric (see plate), with a single frill at top, of the same, festonné at the edge, and which, as well as the entire front of the guimpe, is small plaited; it is drawn in at the neck with a small cord and tassels. Cotton stockings, à jours and wadded silk shoes.
CHILD'S DRESS.— Frock and trousers of white muslin, the latter embroidered. The corsage à l’Enfant, the sleeves short and full. Ceinture and nœuds de page of pink satin ribbon: black silk mittens, trimmed at the tops with a ruche or quilling of tulle. The hair is divided in a point (see plate): the front hair, which is curled, falls as low as the neck; and the back hair is brought in two braids to the temples, where it is fastened up with bows of pink ribbon, to match those on the dress. Kid shoes, and gaiters of drap de soie couleur Hanneton.
— Lady’s Magazine & Museum Vol. VI, 1835
Seeing Queen Caroline's bath yesterday reminded me of Dr. William Buchan (1729-1805), left, last mentioned on this blog herediscussing the importance of healthy perspiration. This Scottish physician became a household name in 18th c. Great Britain by writing one of the earliest bestsellers of medical advice, a straightforward volume that became the standard reference in thousands of homes. Domestic Medicine: or, A Treatise on the Prevention & Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines was first published in 1769, and went on to be reprinted over and over throughout the 18th and 19th c., selling an estimated 80,000 copies. Dr. Buchan was a firm believer in cleanliness and washing as promoting good health, as this excerpt demonstrates:
"Frequent washing not only removes the filth and sordes which adhere to the skin, but likewise promotes the perspiration, braces the body, and enlivens the spirits. How refreshed, how cheerful, and agreeable does one feel on being shaved, washed, and shifted, especially when these offices have been neglected longer than usual!.... Cleanliness is certainly agreeable to our nature. We cannot help approving it in others, even though we should not practice it ourselves. It sooner attracts our regard than even finery itself, and often gains esteem where that fails. It is an ornament to the highest as well as the lowest station, and cannot be dispensed with in either. Few virtues are of more importance to society than general cleanliness. It ought to be carefully cultivated everywhere; but in populous cities, it should be almost revered."
Did all of Dr. Buchan's readers follow his excellent advice regarding cleanliness? Probably not. But then, how many modern readers of doctor-written bestsellers are following similar excellent advice regarding diet, exercise, and plenty of sleep?
Above: William Buchan, M.D., frontispiece from 1805 edition of Domestic Medicine.
Susan & I have posted extensively about bathing. In our Annals of Bathing, We’ve looked at historical hygiene from various angles. (If you missed that investigation, you can get caught up by checking out Episodes One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six.) In the process of answering our readers’ questions, we learned that finding extant pre-Victorian bathrooms is tricky—mainly because so many of the houses were modernized.
She, it seems was the life of the party, a cultivated, socially adept woman who amply compensated for her spouse’s unsparkling, reclusive personality. After she died, the grieving king lost interest in Hampton Court Palace. His successor, King George III, hated it. Since the second George was the last British monarch to live here, it didn't undergo much in the way of transformation. It's had a few restorations, but the rooms are much as they were then, with many of the same furnishings in their original places.
This means that, among other things, we can see a not-modern bathroom—if one takes a peek through the doors at the back of the Queen’s Dressing Room.
Queen Caroline liked to bathe—and here’s evidence that for her, this meant full-body bathing—to an extent that wasn't usual at the time in England and was considered rather strange. The wooden bathtub is a replica. (Note the linens lining it.) The marble thing at the back is a cistern for cold water.
With Independence Day to begin the week, this selection of Breakfast Links has a definite patriotic flavor. But you’ll also find everything from 16th c. armour to 20th c. suffragettes in our collection of noteworthy tidbits gathered from other blogs, web sites, and news stories from around the Twitterverse.
• Early 4th of July celebrations at the White House by Thomas Jefferson, others: http://bit.ly/jCGQMU • A special treat on 18th c American dining tables (at least on George Washington's): robins! http://bit.ly/b2dffP
• Modern myth that needs debunking:African-American quilts used as secret codes by slaves on 19th c Underground Railroad: http://bit.ly/lLYwSr
We can't claim any special connection to these very funny British comedians except that we're all "history girls." As they say on their website: "The History Girls take their version of history and put a wig on it - a sort of Brontë Python." In this sketch, they put their silly-wig on the writing Brontë sisters. We especially like the part about coming up with a really, really good title – a constant challenge to novelists (okay, at least it's a constant challenge to us) though perhaps not with such amusing results. Oh, if only our books had moors in them, too!
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.