Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Slightly Pre-Joan Rivers Red Carpet Fashion Report, 1800-1815

A chic ensemble from Dalvimart's Costume of Turkey

As we've seen in recent Booktryst posts on stately homes and the "lower orders," color plate books were very much the "in" thing in the early 1800s. A favorite genre was the Costume Book, and in honor of the beginning of Red Carpet season at last Sunday's Emmy Awards, this week Booktryst asks, "Who What the HECK are you wearing?"

Between 1800 and 1818, London publishers William Miller, T. M'Lean, and William Bulmer brought out a series of color plate books featuring the costumes of various exotic lands, as well as those of both the "lower orders" and the aristocracy. We even get to see the early 19th century version of a Starbucks:

A "salop" seller from Pyne's Costumes of Great Britain

The opulent and brightly colored costumes in Octavien Dalvimart's Costume of Turkey (1802) are mostly those of the ruling classes, although he does represent a wide variety of native dress from the many regions of the vast Turkish empire of the day, which included Bosnia, Albania, Syria, Egypt, and parts of Greece. It is particularly interesting to contrast the clothing of the very heavily veiled Turkish and Egyptian women with the much more relaxed style of the Greek women and the nearly immodest garb of the female Bedouin. We also are shown a eunuch, an odalisque from the harem, a grand vizier, various royal functionaries, and government officials, all splendidly attired.

A Chinese bookseller, in attire that might be seen at a book fair today

The pictures in George Henry Mason's Costume of China (1800) portray ordinary working class men and women toiling at their trades. We see a bookseller with his wares spread out on a mat, women sewing and embroidering, a butcher, a fisher, a barber, a man with a "magic lantern" show, and a "man striking a small gong during an eclipse," an ancient ritual that the author tells us he was privileged to witness on 17 November 1789.

A "magic lantern" show

Mason's follow-up, Punishments of China (1801), is filled with (almost gleefully) painful depictions of all degrees of disciplinary action, from the relatively minor twisting of the ears or chaining to an iron pole, to the humiliating ordeal of the wooden collar to methods of execution by beheading or by crucifixion using a cord.

The more serious version of the "finger trap" game

Hard to see what these have to do with costume, really, unless wooden stocks are all the rage for fall. And, frankly, haven't we all see more ridiculous (and more painful) get-ups in fashion magazines or on the runway? I'm looking at you, Lady Gaga.

Really suffering for fashion

The Costume of the Russian Empire, attributed to William Alexander, C. W. Müller, and others (1803), is based on engravings done by at the request of Empress Catherine the Great, and is focused on the ethnic dress of the empire's many holdings. The Laplanders and Finns wear clothing that would look familiar to most Europeans, but the Mongols in their Oriental dress would be quite exotic. The clothing of the northern tribes, such as the Kamchatkans, Aleutians, Koriaks, and Tungoosi, will impress the modern reader with their similarity to the traditional dress of Native American and First Nation peoples:

Buckskin is always a classic for fall

William Pyne's Costumes of Great Britain is one of the most highly praised works in this genre, and for good reason: the simple working men and women of Britain it depicts are always shown going about their daily tasks in the midst of a well-realized scene. The woman selling "salop" (a hot morning beverage) is seated at her cart with its urn, judiciously located by the watchman's stall, surrounded by customers including soldiers and a woman with her market basket (see photo above).

Pyne's entertainer with bells on his toes

A fireman with an ax and a torch hurries toward his engine company while they unwrap their hose. The potter is at his wheel, the tanner is cleaning skins, and the bill-sticker posts the winning lottery numbers. The clothing, while carefully detailed, is almost secondary to the depictions of everyday life. Pyne shows us his range here: he was also the person responsible for the opulent publication on Royal Residences.

Coronation of Henry V

Charles Hamilton Smith's "Ancient Costume of Great Britain and Ireland" (1814) displays raiment worn in the kingdom from the eighth through the 15th century. Prepared for an august list of subscribers headed by Her Majesty and the Prince Regent, this volume contains portraits of specific people (the Countess of Lancaster, the Earl of Oxford, Edward the Black Prince) as well as soldiers, fishermen, clergy, and nobles. We see everything from the coronation of Henry V (of Agincourt and Shakespeare's "We happy few" fame) to the gatekeeper of a castle and his guard dog. It is presumed that what appears to be an enormous studded pen is in fact some devices for raising a drawbridge or portcullis.

A bold accessory is the key to a successful look

While the fashion police compile their "best and worst" lists, bibliophiles can take refuge in the exotic costumes of the past, and reflect on the fact that few could have been stranger or more uncomfortable that those weird Alexander McQueen "hoof shoes."

See you on the red carpet!

SJG Note: No wish to horn in on Cokie's post but apologies to Joan Rivers for my headline. Ms. Rivers, as young Joan Molinsky, once worked as a window-dresser at Lord & Taylor in NYC with an old friend of SJG's mother. SJG (hopefully) preempts a barbed riposte from Ms. Rivers with the painful admission that he modeled children's fashions at Lord & Taylor when he was a little kid. (Thanks, Mom, the scars of humiliation, though pale, remain). He still has a three-piece gray flannel suit (w/shorts; no long pants yet) from that c.1956 era. (Thanks again, Ma!). Oh, the horror, the horror, the horror...

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