Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Glimpse of Fashion

I used to knew a delightful picture framer. We became good friends and enjoyed many happy conversations about this and that whenever I brought a picture in to be framed. One day, he presented me with a large brown envelope. Inside were nineteen assorted costume prints from the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries.

He told me that a neighbour was just about to throw them out and he’d rescued them. ‘Give them to me!’ he’d cried. ‘I know a lady who would just love them!’ The neighbour was glad to get rid of them and this lady was thrilled to have them. Here are two of them.

The first is a Promenade Dress of 1809 from Ackermann’s Repository. The lady is gazing out to sea, shielding her complexion from the injurious effect of the sea breezes with the latest Pagoda parasol, fringed around the edge. I just love that shawl with the sophisticated dark red design on the petrol blue.

The other one is dated 1829 and comes from Costumes Parisiens. There is no other identification. My guess is that the couple are in evening wear: both are wearing the de rigeur white gloves. The lady holds a fashionably small fan and her skirt is shorter than a day dress would be to allow her freedom of movement to dance – and the gentleman to catch an intoxicating glimpse of her ankles. The gentleman himself is definitely wearing dancing pumps with the distinctive bow at the front – and note how he sports the very latest in beards – little more than a trim around his face. Very 1829, my dear!

But it’s the lady’s hair which fascinates me. It’s obviously dressed for an indoor activity because she couldn’t possibly wear a hat with a hair-do like that! Just look at it! All those curls, twists and knots. How on earth did it stay up? Such a distinctive hair-style must surely have a name – any help here would be gratefully received. And how on earth does she get her breasts (delicately suggested by the shading) up so high? According to my research, the bodice was kept in place simply by its tight fit and was without bones.

I’m wondering about the colour, too. Wasn’t pale mauve a half-mourning colour? In which case, why was the lady preparing to dance at all? Going to a ball whilst in half-mourning was surely not on. However, in my copy of The Ladies’ Pocket Magazine of 1831, I see that ‘lilac’ is noted as a fashionable colour, so perhaps it’s a question of tone, and the skirt’s colour is certainly quite bright.

Or perhaps her tiresome elderly husband popped off a year ago, and she’s making up for lost time. Her finger is pointing towards the gentleman in a somewhat indiscreet manner, so possibly…

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Carolb said...

I've got a copy of Fashions in Hair: the first five thousand years by Richard Corson. For 1831-1834 there are a number of variations of that general style illustrated, but sadly the information in that section doesn't give any obvious name for it.
It was clearly the latest hairstyle for that year.
A few years later Godey's referred to them as 'headdresses of hair' which is a great description.
Merry Christmas.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your interesting reply, Carol. I, too, like 'headdresses of hair'. It does make one wonder whether it was all natural, though. I know there was a flourishing trade in buying and selling hair, so perhaps one could purchase the top knot, or something.

Jan Jones said...

What a find, Elizabeth!

I love the pensive air of the first print. A real contrast to the second one, which to me looks over-complicated.

Presumably, though half-mourning could be mauve, mauve wasn't limited to those in mourning?

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Good point, Jan. According to my research, half mourning colours were:'grey, lavender, mauve, violet, or black, grey and white stripes'. Perhaps 'lilac' was seen as a different colour - and, certainly, in the print it has quite a lot of pink in it.

Or maybe things were different in France - the print does comes from Costumes Parisiens, after all.

sarah malloy said...

Love the prints, Elizabeth. I find fashions from late Regency too be far too frilly for my taste - and quite agree about the hair in the second print. I am sure it was all the fashion but to modern eyes - I remember the first Star Wars movie and how odd we thought Pincess Lea's hairstyle!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thanks for your comment, Sarah.

I think fashion always has had a social, even political, dimension, too. The return to what was imagined to be Greek costume - with its connotations of Socratic virtues - during the French Revolution, cannot be a coincidence. Simplicity in dress, hair-style etc has a moral dimension as well as making a fashion statement. Anyone, rich or poor, can wear the simple dresses and do their own hair.

By 1829, things have changed. Once again, ladies' fashions are firmly restricting and the complicated hair-style says very clearly that here is a lady who can afford an experienced (and expensive) lady's maid. It is no longer fashion for the masses.

Anonymous said...

Mauve is a fascinating colour. It was the first aniline dye, derived from coal tar in 1856. So, strictly speaking, the second print cannot be mauve. (There speaks the unreconstructed pedant of Hereford, I fear!)

The discoverer of mauve, William Henry Perkin, first called it Tyrian Purple. Later he named it after a French flower. Queen Victoria was taken with it and by 1858, any lady who could afford it was wearing mauve. Perkin, not yet 21 years old, had opened a dye factory and was already very rich!

Herbert Norris's book shows a lady with a similar evening hairstyle. He says that the back hair was gathered on top into a series of stiff, high loops kept up with wire frames and held in position by an ornamental comb. On ceremonial occasions, artificial puffs were added. These were stiffened with wire and attached to the head as high as possible by means of small, long-toothed combs. Maybe that's how the lady in the second picture achieved the effect? But I'm amazed it stayed in place before the invention of hairspray!

Louise Allen said...

I'm sure it must be largely false and then I suppose those pieces could have a fine lacquer on them. I wonder if they used beaten egg white to hold hair in place? I'm with Sarah - once the waists come down I find the fashions too fussy. The beach scene is one of my favourites and it is well worth magnifying the scene in the background with peple walking and the shrimp fisherman. Lovely!

Anonymous said...

I remember my mother telling me they used dark beer instead of hairspray in my grandmother's day... maybe that's how the hairstyles were kept in place? OK, my grandmother was young in the 1940s, but beer was available before that. ;)

I don't really think all that hair is really natural. If it isn't, it would explain the expression "headdress of hair", wouldn't it?

Princess Tatiana said...

From a fashion point of view I would have to agree with most and prefer the empire line, but (speaking as an artist) the fine attention to detail in the second engraving is just beautiful, as are the subtle washes of colour.

I have not made a study of historical hairstyles, but I would have thought for sure the complicated hairstyle must have been false.

I am still trying to get past the fact that anyone would actually consider throwing such a collection of prints out! :O

Thanks for sharing these lovely images.

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