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October 1, 2009

But why study historical costume? (Allow me to wax philosophical!)

ladyaclandWhile we were in England, I had two different people (both of whom I met while on the tour but who were not in our group) ask me why we’d bring over a group to study clothing, of all things. Weren’t there far more important things we could have devoted our time to? Clothing just seemed, well, frivolous–lacking any real depth.

Naturally, I beg to differ. And so allow me to give you the philosophical underpinnings of my lifelong passion for the study of historical fashion (particularly women’s clothing) through the centuries.

This topic actually came up the first full day of our London tour when we went through the Globe. Our guide, Kitty, gave a detailed costume demonstration and touched on many of the very things I love to discuss about clothing. But first, a little background.

These post-modern times hold out a schizophrenic approach to dress. On the one hand, we’re told that no one should judge a book by its cover and that clothing really doesn’t matter at all — if I want to wear torn jeans and a wrinkled tee-shirt with bed-head, that’s just fine, and please don’t even think about calling me a slacker. On the other hand, our checkout lanes are stuffed to overflowing with celebrity-soaked fashion magazines full of headlines screaming about the latest “must-haves” and what is “in” this season (and so yesterday from last spring)–the clear implication being that clothes make the man, and you’d better not be left out of the constantly changing parade of style. So how you dress either shouldn’t matter in the least, or it is of utmost importance and should consume your pop-culture-bound life. But what’s reality?

"I don't know, dear.... Don't you think just a few more pearls would better express my status as Marquess?"

"I don't know, dear.... Don't you think just a few more pearls would better express my status as Marquess?"

Let’s get back to our Globe tour, because history has a lot to tell us about ourselves. During Shakespeare’s time, there were “sumptuary laws” dictating exactly who could wear what type of fabric, trimming, lace, jewels, etc. To boil it down to a short synopsis, there was a runaway problem of young men spending themselves into debt to dress “above their station” — trying to imitate the fashions of the nobility whether or not they could afford the expense. And clothing was very expensive for centuries before the industrial revolution brought us giant looms and mills full of laborers (which is another subject entirely, so don’t get me on that bunny trail!). In order to rein in the excesses of expensive fashion, the Elizabethans came up with sumptuary statutes spelling out exactly who could wear what types of finery (even specifying particular colors for certain officials, royalty, etc.). We might scratch our heads at this and wonder what all the fuss was about, but here’s where I think our Elizabethan forebears showed a greater understanding of what clothing communicates than we do–even if their response to it went overboard legislatively.

Benjamin West's depiction of a scene from King Lear, in which clothing plays an important supporting role as Shakespeare explores deceit, disguise, rank, and true nobility.

Benjamin West's depiction of a scene from King Lear, in which clothing plays an important supporting role as Shakespeare explores deceit, disguise, rank, and true nobility.

Our Globe guide, Kitty, mentioned that the nobility often donated their “cast-offs” to theater companies for use as costumes so that an actor could play a proper duke or represent a particular high office realistically. But it was clearly understood that the actor was only playing a part and that what he portrayed would stay inside the theater. In fact, any actor caught wearing the apparel of a noble outside of the theater could be jailed or fined one thousand pounds! This was such a stiff penalty that no one risked it. Now do you begin to see the significance of disguise in so many of Shakespeare’s plays? To put on apparel belonging to someone of another station was essentially to deceive others about your own position in life — a highly risky thing to do in those times. It was dramatically exciting in a way that we can’t quite comprehend in our so-called egalitarian age. Our guide talked about the play we’d be seeing at the Globe, “As You Like It,” in which disguise plays such an important part. The main character, Rosalind, disguises herself as a boy when she flees from her uncle into the forest of Arden. Kitty asked if any of our ladies had ever dressed up as a boy. When one said she had done so for a play, Kitty asked, “Didn’t it make you act differently? Didn’t you immediately put on male mannerisms and try to fit the message your clothing communicated?” Our young actress nodded, acknowledging that the clothing made a huge difference.


And this is the seat of reality, however we may congratulate ourselves on how “advanced” we are when it comes to not judging books by their covers. The truth is (and always will be as long as humans are humans) that clothes do communicate, and we do read (and misread) the messages they are sending. The fact that we do this comes up for comment in the New Testament, where James admonishes believers not to judge based on appearances:

For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? ~ James 2:2-4

The point is clear: Because clothes communicate something about the wearer, we do have a tendency to judge based on appearances, and we have to work to overcome a judgmental or preferential attitude. If we were angels instead of humans, we wouldn’t need the exhortation. Some take this a step too far and insist that clothing should be merely functional and not at all ornamental. If we have a tendency to judge, then we should just eliminate the possibility by having rigid rules that force everyone to dress the same — or we should create a legalistic code of dress that ensures no one will be tempted to dress to impress. But such approaches miss the mark as much as Elizabethan sumptuary laws did. Top-down approaches to uniformity will never get to the heart of the matter.

Illustration of men's and women's clothing from Greco-Roman times (NYPL Digital Library)

Illustration of men's and women's clothing from Greco-Roman times (NYPL Digital Library)

Clothing always has and always will communicate a message. For the most part, men’s clothing has told the viewer exactly what kind of occupation the wearer held. In Colonial times, if someone was called a “leather apron man,” you knew he was in a trade like soap-making, printing, iron work, or another job requiring manual labor. Occupational clothing goes all the way back to ancient times when men wore short tunics coming to the knees to keep their legs unhindered for hard manual labor in the fields or on horseback — or for fighting and marching, as soldiers did. Even today, we have terms like “blue-collar” and “white-collar” to describe the different fields of work — phrases which had their birth in clothing styles worn by men in particular trades.

For centuries upon centuries, women’s clothing has said, “I am feminine. I am different.” Seeing how this plays out (and how fashion repeats itself over and over again) is utterly fascinating. I love to study timelines of fashion from ancient days forward and across cultural lines (for a good starter timeline, click here — for more, go to this link). You think the bikini was new and shocking in 1946? Think again. Truly, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Bikinis show up in Greco-Roman frescos dating back to 1400 B.C. What has been will be again, and understanding what our clothing says about us is important if we desire to communicate a clear message in confused times.

bustledressNo one who has visited my website can doubt that I am a huge fan of femininity and feminine dress. I think it is a tremendous privilege to be female, and I love to dress the part. I love studying how our foremothers clothed themselves in distinctly feminine ways. Yes, there have been excesses and ridiculous turns for the worse in fashion — as much as I may love to look at them, I’m glad I don’t have to live in those over-the-top bustle dresses of the 1880s. ;) But I do love the unabashed celebration of femininity that has persisted down through the centuries, even with all the foibles and fripperies thrown into the mix. How dull would fashion history be if our foremothers had all slopped around in sweats and shapeless tee-shirts? The past century has represented a dramatic and unprecedented shift in the way women clothe themselves. And I’ll be frank here: I don’t think the change has been for the better. You can gripe ’til you’re blue in the face about the “restrictive” corsets and beruffled skirts of the Victorian Era, but you can’t convince me that a woman sweating on an elliptical trainer to be a size two isn’t just as restricted, despite her “freeing” Lycra workout suit. We’re trying way too hard to convince ourselves that we’ve outgrown our ancestors, only to come back around full circle and let pop culture dictate the shape of our bodies and the drape of our clothes.

The study of clothing isn’t therefore just a frivolous hobby for me or something I do for the sheer fun of it. It is fun, but I take it as seriously as I take the study of any other facet of history or literature. Clothing has told a story from the Garden of Eden onward, and to ignore the story or pretend it doesn’t matter is to become bound up in our own age as the be-all and end-all of civilization–which it most certainly is not. When I study portraits of my foremothers, I see character leap from the canvas. I gain a better understanding of biography, of place, of historical antecedents. It’s why I’m so grateful I have photographs of my ancestors dating back to the 1840s. It’s why I absolutely love the fact that the Proverbs 31 woman is represented as clothed with feminine dignity:

She makes tapestry for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple.
She makes linen garments and sells them,
And supplies sashes for the merchants.
Strength and honor are her clothing;
She shall rejoice in time to come. (verses 22, 24-25)

I believe this is our heritage as women–our birthright, so to speak. Femininity is an amazing privilege, and to see it shrugged off as insignificant or unimportant just strikes me as oddly ironic in this age of “equality.” Why does menswear get the upper hand? Why is it the default when it comes to casual Friday or slouching around the house? Do we not see the inheritance we’ve sold for a mess of unisex “style” in our day? Call me old-fashioned, but I think we could learn an awful lot from the unabashedly feminine women who have gone before us. We can glean from what they did right and thoughtfully archive what they did wrong. The key lies in searching out and preserving the timeless feminine style that transcends.

vigee-lebrunmariachristinaportraitSo I design historical patterns. And I take women to museums and art galleries to ponder the fashions of ages past. And I teach my girls to climb trees and swing from branches in sturdy pantaloons and girly dresses because it is absolutely delightful to glory in and enjoy our feminine heritage in a modern context. Restrictive? Far from it. Feminine adornment is freeing. It says I am proud to be a woman; that I tip my hat to my foremothers; that I embrace my place in history without pushing aside its feminine context. Study historical costume? You betcha. Thanks for coming along for the ride with me — and for letting me wax philosophical today. ;)

September 17, 2009

A peek at Tuesday…

Well, our day in Greenwich yesterday was so full that we just came back and collapsed, sleeping in this morning. So I obviously didn’t do any blogging. I did manage to go through photos with Lindsay, but she hasn’t had a chance to convert them from “raw” format to JPEG, so you’ll just have to wait to see all the yummy pictures from Kensington Palace and the Museum of London!

However, I did snap a few things with my own little camera, so here is a taste just to hold you over:

The famous sunken garden behind Kensington Palace (you see the palace in the background)

The famous sunken garden behind Kensington Palace (you see the palace in the background)

Another view of the garden, which was dormant when I was here in March...

Another view of the garden, which was dormant when I was here in March...

Some of our ladies seated for luncheon in the palace Orangery -- a beautiful, window-filled hall with high ceilings.

Some of our ladies seated for luncheon in the palace Orangery -- a beautiful, window-filled hall with high ceilings.

This is the sculpture in the center of our private end room, which was circular and let us all see each other during lunch.

This is the sculpture in the center of our private end room, which was circular and let us all see each other during lunch.

Finally, here’s a little peek into what we did yesterday in Greenwich. This is a group of us in the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College:

Snapping pictures of one another in full costume!

Snapping pictures of one another in full costume!

Yes, the majority of us spent the entire day in full costume (mostly Regency with a couple of Romantic and Edwardian thrown in for good measure!). We used the Royal Naval College as our backdrop for some stunning portraits Lindsay took of the ladies. When I share some pictures later, you should recognize the colonnade and chapel of the RNC, as they have been used in a large number of BBC costume dramas (including the recent “Little Dorrit”).

I promise to do my best to get pictures up tonight! I’m spending the morning relaxing while my husband and son go to the British Museum and Parliament. Several other ladies have popped off to the Tower. We bade farewell to seven of our ladies last night, and my husband saw them off this morning at 5:30 a.m., bless him! The rest of us will miss them when we head on to Bath tomorrow!

March 11, 2009

Day Three: Church and the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Bria and I thoroughly enjoyed having a day to sleep in, as we didn’t leave for church until 10:15am, and breakfast was about 9:15. It was wonderful to get all that sleep after our long day of walking in Bath! Benjamin obliged by sleeping in himself, which is a rarity for him. Hurrah! The day started out sunny, though still quite chilly and windy. We enjoyed going to church at the Metropolitan Tabernacle (the late Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s church) with our host family, then came home for a delicious, thoroughly English lunch. Afterwards, an immense thunderstorm blew in, bringing driving sleet and amazing thunder and lightning. What a turn the weather can take! During the storm, I took a brief nap until Benjamin woke up fussy. After feeding him and getting him settled back down to sleep, I decided to brave the outdoors and walk to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, down the Common and across beautiful Dulwich Park (which is what you see in this photograph). Our hostess walked with me through some fitful rain, showing me the right path to take through the extensive park.

The Picture Gallery was the first public art gallery established in England. The history of the gallery is a fascinating one, as is the origin of its collection (you can read about it here). It contains some very famous works of art by artists like Thomas Gainsborough, all beautifully displayed. The interior is flooded with natural light from the domed skylights of the roof above, and the rich red coloring of the main walls makes it feel like you’re walking through a jewelry box. It’s just luscious. I was surprised to see one of my favorite works of art on display–Rembrandt’s “Girl in a Window”–as I’d thought it was in a larger museum collection elsewhere (“Girl with a Broom” is in the National Gallery of Art in D.C., for example). So it was a treat to see it here. The painting just leaps off the wall and overshadows everything around it due to Rembrandt’s deft use of color. It really was a “gasp” moment to see it framed in a doorway as I walked past! My photos can’t do it justice, but I had to take some:

The gallery contains many wonderful portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries, rich with detail. I especially enjoyed all the amazing details of the ladies’ gowns. Below is a portrait with an interesting story. Titled “Mrs. Elizabeth Moody and her Two Sons,” the portrait originally only included Mrs. Moody. She died when her sons were much closer to infancy, and they were painted in later (one in her arms, and one holding her hand). She never lived to see them at the age they are depicted on canvas, sadly.

Across the doorway from this portrait is one of the Linley sisters from the 1780s:

Seeing these up close is amazing, as the details of fabric and trimming are just eye-popping. Every wall contains amazing portraits. I loved the one below of a 17th-century gent in his gilded armor:

The detail level is unbelievable. 1550-1870 was the height of English portraiture when it comes to realism. I like the impressionists, but you lose the photo-realistic detailing that all of us who love historical costuming prize. In these portraits, it is possible to see the exact pattern of the lace on a cuff or the embroidery on a lady’s gown. It’s breathtaking. Here’s another wonderful portrait of a lady from the 1770s (very high up on the wall):

To the left you see a tiny portrait of Queen Victoria at four years old. This portrait was extremely popular after Victoria became queen and prints of it found their way to many parlor walls across the kingdom. It really is darling and looks very much like the older Victoria. What is interesting is that a copy of this portrait is used in the film, “The Young Victoria,” which just opened in England. However, the portrait used in the film is about three feet by fo
ur feet, and this original (not including the frame) is about nine inches by twelve inches! It’s quite tiny. I remember the first time I saw some of Vermeer’s portraits in the National Gallery, shocked at how tiny they were. Things look a lot bigger in coffee table art books than they often are in real life! For such a tiny portrait, this one is nevertheless filled with amazing details. I believe the princess is wearing an ermine tippet crossed in front, with cuffs to match. So cute!

Below is one more beautiful piece that I enjoyed. It is actually just a small section of a much larger canvas that was, unfortunately, destroyed at some point. The detail of two women’s heads is lovely–the front lady’s hairstyle is wonderful:

After enjoying an hour and a half in the gallery, I walked outside into glorious sunshine and snapped this photo of the grounds that surround Dulwich Picture Gallery:

I rounded the corner and headed back through Dulwich Park toward the house. Below is a picture of an adorable Tudor-style cottage within the park grounds. It has been boarded up and is not inhabited. My hostess tells me they wish the park would fix them up for tenants rather than letting them just sit to deteriorate. I couldn’t agree more. Anyone for a darling English cottage in an extensive park?

Next time I’ll tell you about our day in Kensington!

October 12, 2006

Derbyshire and Chatsworth

Now I’ve uploaded the pictures from our drive through the hills and dales of Derbyshire and our visit to Chatsworth House. I hope you enjoy all the incredible scenery as much as we did!

Derbyshire Scenery

In and Around Chatsworth

P.S. – Whoops! I got a note from someone who said the Chatsworth photos would not enlarge. I figured out why and fixed the problem. Now you can click to get enlarged photos in that gallery. Thanks for letting me know, Lisa!