Originally published in French in 2002, Laurence Benaïm’s biography was the basis for Yves Saint Laurent, the first of 2014’s two biopics about the iconic designer. Kate Deimling’s new translation preserves the florid, novelistic quality of the French original (it may remind readers of Edmonde Charles-Roux‘s similarly overripe-yet-authoritative biography of Coco Chanel). But while this English version is welcome, it’s a bit more than fashionably late.
At a dense 544 pages, it’s tempting to call the book the definitive biography of Saint Laurent, but it has some major gaps, both chronological and substantive. It ends with Saint Laurent’s retirement in 2002, and while it has been “updated” for reissue in English, the updates are not to the text itself. The author has written a new preface and extended the timeline in the appendix by 11 pages, bringing it up to the present day (That’s where you’ll find bullet point references to Tom Ford, Hedi Slimane, the work of the Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, and various auctions, retrospectives, perfume launches, and corporate takeovers, plus the deaths of Saint Laurent, his partner—in life and business—Pierre Bergé). Bizarrely, she’s even added a playlist. Yet, she has neither expanded nor reevaluated Saint Laurent’s story, nor has she seen fit to include a single image.
Moreover, Benaïm, a respected fashion journalist and scholar, seems to have fallen into the journalistic trap of trading objectivity for access. In addition to Saint Laurent and Bergé, she interviewed Saint Laurent’s premières, clients, chauffeurs, and muses. The book is overly worshipful—Benaïm praises Saint Laurent as nothing less than “the sum of all the couturiers of the twentieth century: Poiret,Vionnet, Chanel, Balenciaga, Dior, Schiaparelli, and also Givenchy” —and detailed to a fault. Surely, we could have been spared teenage Yves’ pretentious poetry?
Saint Laurent was still a teenager when he went to work for Christian Dior. The couture cobbler Roger Vivier described him as “a thin young man with glasses on his nose who looked very serious. . . . There was something very strict, very diligent about him, which clashed with the traditional image of a fashion designer.” But Dior knew talent when he saw it. As the painter Bernard Buffet, told L’Express: “People said that Christian Dior was a magician. But his final accomplishment was surely, at the most essential moment, to make the right young man appear—not to replace him, but to continue his legacy.” At the age of just 21, the shy, bespectacled beanpole inherited Dior’s mantle following his sudden death in 1957. Within a few years, he was head of his own namesake couture house. (He poached half of his staff from Dior’s atelier).
Benaïm deftly teases out lifelong themes like Saint Laurent’s love of theatre (“he had grown up with the idea that fashion was costume”); his ties to Algeria, where he was born; and his physical and emotional fragility. She is less insightful when it comes to another constant in his life: his relationship with Bergé, whom he met for the first time at Dior’s funeral. Bergé remains a cipher, probably because he cooperated with the author. Saint Laurent, too, comes off as positively monk-like in his single-minded pursuit of elegance; Benaïm glosses over the less savory aspects of his character, such as his self-destructive streak and his petulance (he blamed “bad models” for his failed Winter 1963-64 collection). A master sketcher, he would disappear for weeks of intense drawing before beginning each collection. He then left it to his poor seamstresses to work out how to bring his visions to life, which they frequently managed only with great difficulty. It’s a shame, because Saint Laurent is less interesting without his flaws, as anyone who has read The Beautiful Fall, a chronicle Saint Laurent’s rivalry with Karl Lagerfeld, or the dishy oral history Loulou & Yveswill appreciate.
Saint Laurent presided over the death of haute couture, which was done in not by any single designer but by changing economics and gender roles, and the rise of the Nouvelle Vague youth culture. It was not a seamless transition: the Chambre Syndicale banished Pierre Cardin for five years when he dared to show a pret-à-porter collection. But while other couturiers bemoaned the rise of ready-to-wear, Saint Laurent embraced it. Without going as far as André Courrèges, who pushed fashion forward into the Space Age, Saint Laurent embraced street style as a way of experiencing the youth he himself had been denied. But he also had to face reality: the women who could afford couture were seldom young or slim. While Dior built shapewear into his dresses so they could flatter any figure, Saint Laurent’s “made the chest disappear and were off limits to anyone measuring over thirty-five inches,” Benaïm writes.
The media frequently pitted Saint Laurent against Coco Chanel, fresh off her postwar comeback, contrasting her restraint with his theatricality. But Benaïm points out that they actually had a lot in common. “He shared Chanel’s aversion of styles that were small, precious, flowery, or cutesy—woman as trinket.” Saint Laurent’s early solo collections included trousers, “suits without padding, slim coats, light, porous wool pieces,” and lots of black. The jeweler Robert Goossens nailed the difference: Saint Laurent had Bergé to shield him from the harsh realities of life and business, while Chanel combined Yves’ creativity with Bergé’s formidable and sometimes frightening energy.
While “YSL’s” androgynous chic was perfect for the 1970s, he was out of touch and out of fashion by the late 80s. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the house’s 30th-anniversary show at the Opéra Bastille in 1992 a “veterans’ retreat in a devasted city.” Saint Laurent couldn’t understand the appeal of couture’s latest enfant terrible, Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose clothes looked like they had come from “a brothel in Germany,” he complained. Yet “the whole world was shocked,” Benaïm writes, when Saint Laurent announced his retirement in January 2002; he was, after all, only 65. His couture business retired with him. In October of the same year, Tom Ford presented his first collection for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. The “Rive Gauche” would be dropped in 2004, as there was no longer any need to distinguish ready-to-wear from couture. Hedi Slimane brought back the couture operation in 2015, though he axed the “Yves”; today, the house is known simply as “Saint Laurent.” Maybe that was the impetus for this tardy translation: to remind the world of the man behind the monogram.
Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant, and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is a frequent contributor to books, scholarly journals, and magazines, as well as an experienced lecturer. Her areas of expertise include European fashion and textiles and French and British painting and decorative arts of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. She is the author of Fashion Victims (2015) and the forthcoming Worn on This Day (November 2019).
Sometimes I come across the strangest things while doing research. Many are aware of the more traditional elements of the history of the Motorcycle jacket, and its association with twentieth-century rebellion, youth, and masculinity.
Its history lies in World War I and aviation attire, but the standard asymmetrical motorcycle jacket style was defined in the late 1920s with a Schott Brothers design called the “Perfecto” (Schott 2019). They were the first to put a zipper on a jacket, and the look took hold. Hollywood films of the 1950s, combined with rock-and-roll style solidified the image of the tough, rebellious biker with slicked-back hair, spawning the greaser trend. By the 1970s the black leather jacket was being used by New York City Punk musicians and gay subcultures who added studs, chains, safety pins and other personalization’s. It is an iconic representation of twentieth-century American culture.
However, I recently unearthed two odd tidbits about the motorcycle jacket’s trajectory:
Did you know that Mussolini’s Motorcycle Jacket impacted knitwear styles in 1933? Or that you could clothe your 2-year-old in a Marlon-Brando-Perfecto-Style leather motorcycle jacket as early as 1955?
Apparently, after Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (1883- 1945), Italy’s Fascist leader, appeared in American newspapers and newsreels inspecting and leading 10,000 of his troops in a celebratory parade from a motorcycle in late May of 1933, Bradley Knitting Company (of Delavan, Wisconsin) began producing skiwear inspired by his look. Mussolini motorcycle coats were made of beige and brown wool with metal buttons with a matching knit cap.
And then there’s this square-looking six-year-old in a tie-wearing the more recognizable version of an ‘authentic’ motorcycle jacket in 1955 by Los Angeles-based, California Sportswear. . .
*Mussolini is warmly applauded when he leads a rally at Rome driving his own motorcycle Date: May 1933
DeLong, Marilyn, and Juyeon Park. 2008. “From Cool to Hot to Cool: The Case for the Black Leather Jacket.” In The Men’s Fashion Reader, edited by Andrew Reilly and Sarah Cosbey, 166–179. New York: Fairchild Books.
Duffy, Keanan. 2009. Rebel, Rebel: Anti-Style. New York: Universe Publishing.
Podolsky, Jeffrey. 2014. “Cruising the History of Biker Jackets.” New York Times Magazine. March 4. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/…/on-view-cruising-the-history-of-biker-jackets/
Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is forthcoming in 2020 from ABC-CLIO. More posts by the Author »
Hair is both deeply personal and distinctly public. It can be a form of individual expression or organizational control. It can be an emblem of belonging or it can reinforce difference. As a topic of study, hair spans the entirety of human history. From biology to anthropology, gender identity to ethnic identity, politics to hygiene, hairstyles to hair care – the subject of hair is exceptionally broad. A scholar could pull any strand and find rich material to research.
Hair: An Illustrated History (Bloomsbury Visual Arts 2018) is both lavishly illustrated and well researched. Susan Vincent focuses on how, over the past 500 years, hair practices have participated in the creation of social identities and fashionable ideals for both men and women. Some of Vincent’s finds are touching, such as this excerpt from a 17th-century letter by a husband describing the hair of his wife, who had recently passed, “It was by many degrees softer then the softest that euer I saw…This is the onely beauty remaining of her that death had no power ouer…[and] a part of her beauty that I am confident no woman in the world can parallele.”
The introduction begins by looking at how visual codes of hair color, texture, and style have been used to judge character, personality, health, and overall acceptability.
“Once given the interpretive key, whichinclude hair colour and texture, any observer could thus ‘read’ appearance to unlock the moral truth within.”
Certainly, hair has been used in the West to identify and group folks by social status, profession, political group, age, gender, and ethnicity. But the author is quick to point out that hair is also objectified. For centuries it has been used as a stand-in for a person (think reliquaries to baby or love lockets), as well as an impersonal commodity, creating a market for hair from the 18th century to today. During the 19th century the “cult of hair” reached fever pitch, and hair work was made or purchased for items such as jewelry, scrapbooks, purses, or parlor decorations. Vincent includes a photograph of an incredible knit cap, circa 1850, made entirely from human hair!
As a result of such demand, the author tells tales of hair stolen from young women in Boston, Pennsylvania, and London towards the end of the 19th century. However, when she turns to the contemporary market, Vincent barely mentions that today’s hair trade, whether legitimate or illicit, has a tremendous impact on communities around the world. Vincent does note anthropologist Emma Tarlo’s Entanglement, a 2017 book entirely about the human hair trade, but she could have added a few sentences on some of the troubling effects of this global commodity prized by the West.
Following her enjoyable introduction, Vincent delves into the themes of the book and does a fine job of maintaining a lively tone throughout. Chapter One focuses on “the practice of haircare and its associated material culture.” Vincent discusses tonics and potions used to solve the “problem” of hair. Interestingly, the same issues have concerned us for the past 500 years: hair growth, hair loss, hair removal, hair texture, and hair color.
Chapter Two looks at the variety of providers of hair care services, from servants to salons, and the social customs and traditions that arose around them. Did you know that barbers were once notoriously providers of condoms?
Chapter Three examines the practice of shaving and shows how it was not just a means to “manage” hair but also served “to punish and control, to shame and disempower.” Auschwitz still houses nearly two tons of hair shaved from the heads of prisoners. The razor, an important tool, gets significant attention in this chapter as well.
The following chapters are “Case Studies.” “The practice of being hairy” dives into the attraction and aversion to facial hair on men (and women), introduces us to new words like pogonotrophy(1), and takes measure of the fashion, culture, and counter-culture of beards. “The politics of appearance” examines ways that the English politicized hair during the 17th and 18th centuries. “Social challenge: The long and the short of it” covers bobbed hair in the 1920s and the long hair of hippies in the 1970s, but oddly leaves out any mention of the afro and the “black is beautiful” movement.
While Vincent states clearly that her book centers on “the key ways that [hair] has been managed over the last five hundred years,” its research is mostly limited to those of European descent. Not every subject can be covered in a book of this scope, but the author misses a number of moments when she could address non-western cultures and customs. Since she focuses on British and American histories, why omit afro hair or the Black British or African-American experience? In chapter two, for example, “From servant to stylist,” Vincent could have taken the opportunity to discuss how hair salons and barber shops are important cultural centers for the African American community. Or in chapter six, “Social challenge,” when she brings up school dress codes, she had the chance to discuss how natural afro hair has been controlled and even banned. There was some discussion of hair in relationship to queer culture, but given how much new research exists in this area, this topic was also marginalized (For example, the books Queer Style and A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk were left out of the bibliography).
“We have a hair genealogy, and I hope this book helps illuminate our place in it.”
Hair: An Illustrated History is an entertaining and informative work. It appears at a time when there is a growing body of scholarship on a variety of hairy topics. Since many books on hair are compendiums of essays, Vincent’s book stands out. Her anecdotes are charming, and she finds absorbing ways to relate the histories of hair and appearance to the human experience. She includes a wide array of engaging images of people and their hair practices and uses a rich assortment of primary sources. Curious readers can easily dig more deeply into the extensive endnotes and bibliography.
Hair is a well-written and enjoyable read that draws you in and takes you on a journey around a surprisingly rich topic, although Vincent’s “hairy genealogy” in global terms is not for everyone. No book on hair can be encyclopedic. We hope Sarah Vincent has a companion volume in the works.
Tamsen Young has over 20 years of museum experience. She currently heads the department of Digital Media for The Museum at FIT where she oversees web development, online collections, video production, in-gallery media, digital marketing, and social media engagement. In 2014, the online presence for the exhibition A Queer History of Fashion won an American Alliance of Museums Silver Muse Award in recognition of the highest standards of excellence in the use of media & technology for Digital Communities. In 2015, Tamsen was keynote speaker at the Digital Fashion Futures conference organized at MoMU by Europeana Fashion and presented “A Small Museum Goes Global” at the Museum Computer Network conference. She founded the blog Hair is For Pulling in 2011. More posts by the Author »
HEAVENLY BODIES: FASHION AND THE CATHOLIC IMAGINATION
THROUGH OCTOBER 8, 2018
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is a title that seems simple on the surface. Its stated purpose is to show the influence of the Roman Catholic faith on designers of fashionable dress. However, the question arises—what IS “the Catholic Imagination?” Why is its influence so compelling that even designers who have left the faith or who are scarred by it are inspired by its power?
It is a broad topic to be sure, one that encompasses memory, history, and emotion. To answer this question, the Costume Institute, under the patient direction of Curator Andrew Bolton, has mounted its largest exhibit and in two locations: the Met Fifth Avenue building and the Cloisters, its branch in the upper reaches of Manhattan devoted to the art of the Middle Ages. Because I feel much of the mystery and grandeur of the Roman Catholic Church evolved in the Middle Ages, I chose to approach this exhibit in two parts and explore the Cloisters’ portion of the exhibit first.
I get a sense of mystery every time I visit the Cloisters. It is an intimate space, so it is a good place to feel the intense faith and singular focus of the medieval world when the Church was all-powerful. There were no other doors to the divine then. The worldview and the view of time were entwined with Biblical time. It seems the right place to start to try to comprehend the mystery of the Catholic imagination.
The first sight of fashion comes right at the entrance to the museum in the Romanesque hallway. One sees the glittering of crystals which cover a heavy floor-length jute gown with shoulders built up above the ears and long sleeves like tubes that hang below the hands. Jeweled rosaries can be seen twisted around both of the mannequin’s arms that peek from the sleeves. The austere piece by Victor and Rolf from 1999-2000 is more like a religious statute than a garment. That impression is reinforced by the two wooden statues of the Madonna from twelfth-century France on each side.
A turn to the left takes one into the Fuentiduena Chapel, another Romanesque space dominated by a giant crucifix. This chapel is devoted to showing the influence of the sacraments of the Church—marriage, communion, and baptism. Some of the simplest dresses on display are here, including a simple white cotton poplin shirtwaist subtly decorated with inserts of sheer crosses designed by Azzedine Alaia in 1992. However, the eye is inevitably drawn to one of the most iconic creations in couture history—Balenciaga’s wedding dress and coif-like headdress from 1967. The restraint and simplicity of this garment show a creative strength that can only be drawn from great craft and imagination. It’s a far cry from the glitz and glitter recently on display at the Met’s Gala and gives a sense of the strength of belief that sustained Balenciaga, a man raised in the very traditional Spanish Church.
Next door two long black capes by Valentino stand on high pedestals amid the arches of a smaller Romanesque cloister. The mounting of these robes is one of the unique features of this exhibit since it requires visitors to look at them in a new way. One is covered with black velvet appliques that echo the arches surrounding it. Like the Victor and Rolf garment at the entrance, these figures look like religious statues.
Bolton has chosen to place part of this exhibit around the outdoor garden of The Cuxa Cloister The garments here are influenced by the religious orders. Each is simple, depending only on cut for its effect. Two of the eight garments on the west side are by an American, Claire McCardell, whose black Monastic Dress of wool jersey set new standards in American style in 1938. Its simple pleated lines secured by a belt made it a garment that could be worn by many women with many different body types. Monastic robes must be adaptable to many different bodies too. They render them the same before God. There’s another lesser known McCardell here, the “Cloister Dress” of cream colored wool jersey with dolman sleeves and a slightly dropped waistline. Designed as a wedding dress during the 1940s, it too can flatter many figure types due to its simplicity.
The monastic line-up includes dresses by Madame Gres, including two stunning taffeta Gres gowns with enormous sleeves like exaggerated choir robes from 1969. Along the south wall are more Valentino’s with severely simple lines interspersed with two Rick Owens’ menswear from 2015-16. These sweatshirt-like robes are distinguished by “peephole crotches,” a witty touch that was influenced by the bawdy monastic figures in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Owens’ garments are a good reminder that the range of fashion inspired by the Catholic Church are not always ethereal, otherworldly garb.
The Early Gothic Chapel is devoted to another important Catholic influence—Mary, the mother of Christ, who is venerated above all women. All three of the dresses here are by John Paul Gaultier, two stunning silk jersey pieces in the color blue, the color associated with Mary the Virgin. One features a red heart on the chest pierced with a dagger. Stained glass inspires a third gown with fractured images of the Virgin and Child much like the window behind it.
In the Gothic Chapel, the influence is “Goth” dress which started in England in the late twentieth century. Religious symbols are an important component of Goth dress along with the color black. The centerpiece of the Gothic Chapel is a gown and headdress by John Galliano for Dior in 2006-7 influenced by the Crusaders and Joan of Arc. The mannequin is lying down like a tomb sculpture wearing a gown encrusted with black paillettes, silver metallic embroidery with a section of silver armor on the left shoulder. It is topped with a fantastical headdress of silver wire and cascading crystals. Goth designs by Gareth Pugh and Oscar Theyskens flank Galliano’s showy piece—all in black, of course!
Downstairs in the Glass Gallery, the fashions are inspired by the Garden of Eden. At each end of this gallery are 2014 Valentino ball gowns, both exquisitely embroidered. One has the figures of Adam and Eve in the Garden based on a painting by Lucas Cranach, the Elder. The other is covered with gold wheat. Wheat symbolizes the bread of the Eucharist which becomes the body of Christ. Also, in the hall are witty creations by Junko Takahashi from 2011. They are mini-dresses and platform shoes covered with images taken from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, painted in the early 16th Century. The inclusion of these pieces is interesting because Takahashi is Japanese and raised outside the Catholic Church, unlike the other designers in the exhibit who were exposed to the Church when they were young. I’m guessing that Takahashi, who is drawn to dramatic images, was inspired by the weird images in Bosch’s painting which are unique in the history of Western art.
At the end of the gallery hiding behind a door to a confessional is another Galliano, a red gown of linen twill coated in rubber inspired by Machiavelli’s The Prince, a work condemned by the church. It’s a reminder of the dark side of the Catholic imagination that periodically condemned works that challenged its dogma.
The Treasury contains the most precious artifacts of the Cloisters. First on view is a striking silver crown of thorns made for Alexander McQueen. Its stark simplicity is powerful. The crown of thorns is one of the most revered symbols of the Christian faith, so McQueen’s decision to recreate it for his “Dante” collection in 1996-7 was a bold one. It raises the question—does use of such a symbol on the fashion runway diminish it?
Behind another set of glass doors, we find works used in religious sacraments, such as chalices and reliquaries. There are also two chasubles, poncho-like robes worn during Mass. These are more recent creations, one made for John Paul II in 1997 is of cream silk covered in multicolored crosses. The other was designed by French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac for World Youth Day also in 1997. This one struck me as curious. It too is cream with rainbow stripes that run vertically down the middle of the front and back. The official reason for the stripes was that they were a tribute to nature, but the rainbow stripes are also on the flag of the Gay Pride Movement. An article in Interview from 2016 states that Castelbajac told John-Paul about this connection, but the Pope replied, “But Jean-Charles, there is no copyright on the rainbow.” So, the Pope, 500 bishops, and 5,000 priests wore the rainbow colors that day. This is the only mention, thought very tangential, of the Church’s teaching on theological teaching against homosexuality. Many of the designers in the exhibit are gay, but we get no hint about how this doctrine of the Church affected their psyches and imaginations.
Upstairs in the Boppard Room, three straw hats by Philip Treacy are mounted in front of an altar featuring three Netherlandish busts of female saints. The hats are based on headdresses for the Virgin and are reminiscent of nun’s headdresses with wings that encircle the head. They seem to soar about the head glittering slightly from a dusting of gold.
The last gallery contains another bride. This one by Dolce and Gabanna is all gold lace and trims. The figure is really like a religious statue of the Virgin that might be carried through the streets in a saint’s day celebration. The figure with its very Italian influence shares the gallery with work the evokes Northern Europe from McQueen’s “Angels and Demons” collection of 1997-8. The labels tell us that McQueen’s favorite period in art history was fifteenth-century Flanders. Though he references the period with its color and imagery, it is worth remembering that this was a time when the Church was being challenged there.
Heavenly Bodies took on a huge, difficult subject. The exhibit aims to show us how religious faith of the Roman Catholic Church affected fashion and its creators. It isn’t always easy to understand the spirituality behind what can be seen as just clothes—fine, beautifully crafted clothes, but still, clothes for the very wealthy. However, in the intimate chapels of the Cloisters, it is possible to sense the spiritual undergirding of religious inspiration. Not all the garments convey the power of the religious inspiration, but a few, like the pure lines of Balenciaga wedding gown, can take one to another place. It’s worth a trip to the Cloisters to touch that feeling if only fleetingly.
Note: There’s another benefit of making the trip to The Cloisters. It’s situated in the midst of one of New York City’s most beautiful public parks, Fort Tyron. You can walk through gardens with a beautiful view of the Hudson River as you go to and from the exhibit. It’s truly a lovely day trip.
A 5-minute overview of the Cloisters exhibit for some additional visuals and details:
Nadine Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT!
Editors Note: Even though most of the fashion media is focusing today on the Met Ball in support of Heavenly Bodies at the Costume Institute, Nadine Stewart and I agreed that it was important to take a virtual visit to the Met’s current show (on view through July 29), Visitors to Versailles, 1682-1789. Here is Nadine’s review:
The halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are busy this spring getting the Byzantine and Medieval galleries ready for the upcoming Costume Institute exhibit. High platforms containing one mannequin each are up in the hallways on each side of the grand stairway while in the back in the medieval galleries shrouded mannequins await their unveiling. But summer visitors should remember that the Met is a place for many interests. Go up to the special exhibition gallery on the second floor for an exhibit that is about spectacle, fashion, and power in Versailles, the place to see and be seen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the high point of royal pageantry in all the world.
What makes this exhibit so pleasurable is its point of view. It draws on the accounts of travelers, diplomats, and courtiers to tell the story of the lure of a hunting lodge converted to the largest palace in the world, they symbol of France’s might and power. The pleasure is increased with the audio guide [ The onine version of the exhibit includes audio]. Usually these guides comment on the art in more detail. This guide uses actors who read the words of the visitors of the day. There’s no better way to get a feeling for the effect this huge palace had at the time.
Each gallery has a theme. The first deals with how visitors got there. Versailles is twelve miles for Paris accessible by boat (by far the most enjoyable trip), sedan chair or private coach, or large sixteen seat public carriages which lurched and swayed putting their passengers uncomfortably close to each other. Once the visitor arrived, the next problem was acquiring the right clothes to wear in court, so the first thing we, the visitors to the exhibit, see is a display of eighteenth century dress for men and women. The contrast between a wool riding habit and a man’s wool suit, both from England, and the silk French Robe à la Française and Habit à la Française is striking. The huge case in the gallery has several examples of both, including the blue silk habit of Count Axel Fersen, rumored lover of Queen Marie Antoinette. You can walk around the case and see the garments from all angles.
One had to appear in the court in French clothes and be coifed in French style, so there were places in Paris where one could purchase the right garments and be groomed for presentation. In 1754, British architect Robert Adam wrote to his mother about his transformation: “Would you incline to know the appearance of your once plain friend? A most Frenchified head of hair, loaded with powder, ornaments his top; a complete suit of cut velvet of two colours, his body . . .”
Once properly dressed though, the visitor found Versailles a very public place where the King was often on view to his subjects. The king took daily walk in the gardens of Versailles, which is the theme of the next gallery. They were a wonder with a menagerie featuring rare animals and birds like the ostrich and camel and a labyrinth. Both of these were destroyed when they fell into disrepair later n the eighteenth century. We can get a sense of the magnificence of these gardens from the large landscape paintings, which show the grounds and, even more important, the crowds promenading along the paths. If one visits Versailles today, the place is thronged with tourists. It’s easy to see from these paintings things have not changed, only the fashions. Another gallery shows how the royal family was on display most of the day from the lever, a formal awakening of the King only accessible to special visitors, to the procession to chapel for mass and the Grand Couvert, a banquet held several times a week where the public could watch the King and his court eat. Apparently, the French themselves were just as fascinated with their king as foreign visitors, so these events were well attended.
European ambassadors to France were required to follow rigid rules for presentation to the court. One particularly poignant painting here shows the Dutch ambassador being presented to a tiny Louis XV around 1720. One British ambassador’s wife was weighted down with diamonds worth 60-thousand pounds and a robe a la francasie she found very difficult to maneuver. There was a special technique for moving properly when being presented to the king. Coaching was required since one could never turn away from the king. One woman forgot the trick of kicking her train out behind her as she left the King’s presence and had to be rescued and disentangled.
Thousands of spectators showed up for the exotic diplomats from Asia and the Middle East. Missions came from Siam, India, Persia, and even the kingdom now known as Vietnam. These ambassadors were urged to wear their national dress to emphasize the reach of the French state. A delegation from Siam presented the King with a cannon decorated in silver, which is on display along with a sampling of other diplomatic gifts–a huge carpet, a high lompok or Siamese conical hat of rank with its carrying case, a bejeweled powder flask and quiver. Portraits of the diplomats in their finery, which often inspired fashion crazes, are throughout the gallery. The most special one shows the very young Nguyen Phuc Canh, seven-year-old price of Vietnam in 1787. He wears an “intricately tied turban that inspired French wig makers.”
Foreign royalty came to Versailles too, often incognito, which meant they could bypass rigid etiquette though they were still treated to balls, ballets, and banquets. Some royal visitors were more successful than others. Gustave III of Sweden visited twice, while Queen Marie Antoinette’s brother Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II insisted on being treated as a sovereign on his visit. This probably did not contribute to the popularity of the Austrians in the French court including the Queen herself. Royal portraits and gifts line this gallery including one which shows Joseph II meeting the Queen and her husband, Louis XVI.
Visitors came to Versailles as part of the grand cultural tour of Europe. This group included American form the New World. After 1776 though, American diplomats came to Versailles seeking money to fund their revolution against England. Benjamin Franklin spent many years there and became quite a celebrity. He shrewdly dressed in a plain plum-colored suit in court, a simple one with no extra embellishment like embroidery. That suit is on display here [on loan from the Smithsonian] along with a fine portrait and the Severes porcelain commemorating the signing of our alliance with France—an alliance Louis XVI could not afford that contributed to his downfall in the French Revolution. Versailles became decrepit and fell into disrepair under Louis XVI. Visitors commented on the shock of seeing beggars outside its gates. On October 5, 1789 a mob lead by the market women of Paris stormed the gates of the palace. The royal family tried to flee to the Netherlands but was caught and taken into custody. Courtiers left Versailles to save their own lives. A Russian came to the virtually abandoned palace in 1790. According to him, without its courtiers and visitors, Versailles was like a body without a soul, but still compelling.
Visitors to Versailles combines paintings, artifacts, and first-person accounts to give a rich picture of the lively court during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Right before the French Revolution, Gouverneur Morris, an American diplomat who succeeded Franklin, ridiculed Versailles as “an immense monument [to] the vanity and folly of Louis Fourteenth.” Perhaps it is, but it also still casts a compelling spell that showcases France and French culture. Visitors still flock there and French leaders like Emmanuel Marcon use it as a stage for their diplomatic events. Strolling through the galleries, I gained a sense of what my own visit might have been like all those centuries ago. It’s a story worth telling.
The Exhibition Catalog was just published today and is available here:
Nadine Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT!
Earlier this year, I was thrilled to share that Piecework Magazine published my article on the history of the knitted nightingale (January/February 2017). I started by explaining that “The nineteenth-century wrap that became known as “The Nightingale,” a garment worn over the shoulders in bed, was the Victorian ancestor of the modern-day slanket (blanket with sleeves) or snuggie.
“Also called a bed jacket, dressing gown, shawl, wrap, cape, cloak, or sacque, the Nightingale was, over time, made from different fabrics.” The research was a fun romp through the early history of nursing and Florence Nightingale’s career, the Crimean war, wartime knitting, and yes, even Fashion History (an 1856 issue of Godey’s pictured a mantle called the “Nightingale” likely based on published images of Florence Nightingale).
My article also included a re-worked pattern for a Knitted Nightingale, which I’m happy to share is now for sale on the Interweave website. “This pattern is based on the Knitted Nightingale in Weldon’s Practical Knitter Sixteenth Series. With the exception of the choice of ribbon color, this knitted nightingale is true to the original Weldon’s pattern. The lapels on this Nightingale are fairly wide and are intended to imitate those seen in portraits of Florence Nightingale from the 1850s. They can easily be adjusted to your own preference. Extra length in the dolman-like sleeves allows for a generous range of movement and an added sense of coziness.” It was a long-time project that began July 16, 2015, and finished with a crochet edge on May 4, 2016.
*Florence Nightingale; Frances Parthenope, Lady Verney by William White watercolour, circa 1836 18 1/4 in. x 14 1/8 in. (462 mm x 358 mm) overall Given by Sir Harry Lushington Stephen, 3rd Bt, 1945 NPG 3246
I’m thrilled to share that the Fashion Encyclopedia I helped create has just won a prestigious award at the American Library Association! I continually find myself grateful to all the wonderful contributors for their hard work and diligence!
“The most noteworthy reference titles published in 2016 have been named to the 2017 Outstanding References Sources List, an annual list selected by experts of the Collection Development and Evaluation Section (CODES) of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). The list was announced January 22, at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta.
The Outstanding Reference Sources Committee was established in 1958 to recommend the most outstanding reference publications published the previous year for small and medium-sized public and academic libraries. The selected titles are valuable reference resources and are highly recommended for inclusion in any library’s reference collections.”
Released in September, “The Silhouette: From the 18th Century to the Present Day” is a beautiful, full-color coffee table style work from French sociologist Georges Vigarello. Though not a fashion historian, Vigarello is an historian, and research director at the The School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, a leading French institution for research and higher education in the social sciences.
Published in English for the first time, the book is a scholarly look at the cultural implications of the human form, as a “symbol of status, sexuality and the aspirational quest for physical and moral ‘perfection’.”
The shape of both mens’ and womens’ bodies are explored and illustrated through paintings, silhouette portraiture, sketches and line drawings, as well as caricatures and cartoons. What is unexpected is the true focus on the history of silhouettes as an art form, and how their creation changed over time. The book primarily focuses on the 18th century, with the invention of the word “silhouette,” and runs up through 2012 (though modern chapters are quiet brief). An interesting, though densely worded, coffee table book it’s likely something I will dip into slowly over time.
If you’re a member of the Costume Society of America, you know from their most recent (October) newsletter that the CSA Series has changed hands, and is now being published through Kent State University Press and managed by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Prior to this, the CSA Series was published by Texas Tech University Press, managed by Phyllis Spect. Phyllis is still managing the tail end of that relationship, and to that end a new book in the series from Texas Tech has been released:
The authors analyze legal and apparel industry documents; governmental reports; and their own primary research conducted in museums, archives, and special collections to shed light on arguments both for and against design piracy.”
Much of the book also appears to focus on the Fashion Originators Guild of America (FOGA), which attempts to protect original design. I’ve waded into a few of its pages, and hope to have a chance to learn more from these esteemed authors. Add it to your reading list!
In my continuing series of recently released books (that I want to read, or have started to read), I present this weeks book:Dress History: New Directions in Theory and Practice, Edited by Charlotte Nicklas and Annabella Pollen [ Bloomsbury, Oct 2015]. For more in this series, see previously reviewed books here.
If one were to judge a book by it’s cover, after reading blurbs by the likes of Nancy Deihl (NYU); Clare Sauro (Drexel); Jean L Druesedow (Kent State); and Abby Lillethun (Montclair State), one might reasonably expect to see some US-based scholarship here. Unfortunately, the series of essays include only scholarship from the UK and Canada (though the dust jacket says “international case studies.”)
That said, it does look to be a fascinating collection of essays by a good mix of early-career and established scholars. With an introduction by THE Lou Taylor (Establishing Dress History, and The Study of Dress History), it’s got some impressive clout.
Topics include gloves in the 18th Century; 19th Century Afro-Brazilian dress; African dress in the V & A; Aesthetic dress in 19th Century Britain; gender identity and Norman Hartnell; and even sari revival in Tamilnadu, India (among many others). Collections explored include the V&A; Narryna Heritage Museum; Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum; Royal Ontario Museum; and The Hartnell-Mitchison Archive.
It really does appear to be an outstanding contribution to the field, and aims to move Taylor’s work forward. I’m looking forward to continuing my reading!*
*I’m also looking forward to a book of similar impact that includes US-based collections and scholars.