Thursday, June 30, 2011

Material Girls

Collections:  Costume collections the world over are a rich resource for the fashions of the elite.  Often, the cult of celebrity has fueled the flames of fashion to reach for the ridiculous as well as the sublime.  Certainly this has been true of the fashions of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Luckily for those of us interested in the dress, manner and customs of the past, a wealth of "material" survives.  While many of the clothes that make up the great collections of the museums of the world have documented fashionable dress for most of the past 300 years, the identity of their owners has been lost. But, having said that, certainly the influences of a handful of women can be seen.  My tribute is to the ultimate "Material Girls".  Those women who influenced the generation that shared the stage with them.
18th century display, Museum of Costume, Bath

At the court of Louis XV of France, Madame de Pompadour was certainly the "it" girl.  She met Louis at a masked ball for 5000 at Versailles.  The ball was part of the celebrations for the marriage of his son, the Dauphin.  Her uncle worked in the cabinet and secured an invitation for her.  She came dressed as Diana, Goddess of the Hunt.  Louis, along with 15 men of the bedchamber, came dressed as a forest of yew trees.  One observer recounted how she ran in and out of the forest of men looking for the king.  She certainly was on the hunt.  She had such an enormous impact on the manners, customs and design of her day that a colour was created to honor her.  "Pompadour Pink".  A well educated women, she is shown below in a portrait of grace and refinement.  Set in her boudoir, the artist has chosen to contrast her beauty and fashionable appearance against a desk laden with architectural prints, sheet music and published volumes.  He wanted us to see that not only was she well educated, but that she was a great patron of the arts and writers of her day.  She even supported Diderot with the publication of his Encyclopedia.

Her gown is of the newly fashionable painted silks.  These were a reaction to the cheaper Indian printed cottons that were threatening the silk industry in France.
Brocaded Silk, MET collection
Madam de Pompadour

Detail of fly fringe decoration

Within a generation of the death of Madame
de Pompadour, the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette arrives at the court of Versailles.  At 13, she will marry the grandson of Louis XV and heir to the throne. Literally the first fashion victim, she and her ladies were a product of the time.  So interested was she in her appearance, that her dress maker, Rose Bertin, was given apartments within the palace.  They met to discuss and plan the Queen's attire twice a week.
Rose Bertin
Marie Antoinette
Unfortunately, nothing of the fabulous wardrobe of Marie Antoinette survives.  At least, not that can be accounted for by hard evidence such as bills, journals or any paintings.  The French Revolution swept away any attributions.  Although, the shoe that she wore to the guillotine has survived.  The dress below, has been attributed to the workshop of Rose Bertin.  It is fascinating to ponder the possibility that this garment once donned the body of the ill fated queen.
Collection of Royal Ontario Museum
Collection of Kyoto Costume Institute
Certainly, the Toronto example, is less exaggerated than the court example on display in Japan.  Like the silk worn earlier by Madam de Pompadour, it has been hand painted.

Empress Eugenie of France
When the dust of the French Revolution had settled and Napoleon had had his day, the time was ripe for another fashionista.  The empress of the second empire, Eugenie.  The ultimate clothes horse, it is said that she changed her clothing on average 7 times a day!  It is also claimed that she never wore the same gown twice and that when women were invited for the week to the hunting lodge at Compeigne, they packed 28 changes of clothing.  A great beauty in her day, she shocked society by wearing eye liner and rouge.  Talk about an age of conspicuous consumption.  Is it surprising that under her patronage the couture industry in France began?
Crinoline supported gown, circa 1865
At the same time, England had its' own fashion icon.  Alexandra, Princess of Wales.  Like the late Princess Diana, she too set the trends for a generation.  The princess seam was designed to take advantage of her 18" waist.  The dog collar necklaces and her favorite color, lilac, to note two more.
Princess Alexandra of Wales, 1883
Museum of Costume, Bath 1896
Gown of Princess Alexandra
Do the material girls end here?  Not on your life.  We will revisit this fascinating costume heritage again.

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