Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Extravagant Hats on French Ladies, 1788

Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Susan reporting,

As much as I enjoy the immense variety of historical images that now can be discovered thanks to the internet, staring at a jpg on my laptop screen will never replace being able to see the real thing. 

Sometimes, that experience is a revelation. One of the paintings featured in the new Visitors to Versailles: 1682-1789 exhibition (currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is this one: Promenade of the Ambassadors of Tipu Sultan in the Park of Saint-Cloud. The entire painting is shown below (and as always, please click on the images to enlarge them.)

It's a justly famous painting, for it shows how truly international the 18thc world could be: the delegation of Tipu Sultan had come halfway around the world to seek French assistance in removing the British from Mysore, and to negotiate more favorable direct trading with France. Crowds of French people have come to welcome (and likely to gawk at) the ambassadors as they walk in the Park at Saint-Cloud.

When this painting is used to illustrate the international politics of the late 18thc, it's usually a small reproduction that emphasizes the crowds, the lawns, and the nodding greenery. But when I saw it in person, all I could see was the HATS.

The late 1780s were a time of oversized and extravagant hats and caps, with curving brims, plumes, buckles, ribbons, silk flowers, and silk gauze ruffles. The variety of fashionable examples - like wedding cakes for the head! - captured in this painting are truly stunning. It's all in miniature, too; the entire painting measures about 38" wide, so most of these figures are at most a couple of inches tall.

There are also some delightful small dramatic scenes: the little boy either having a tantrum or a fainting fit while his nursemaid scowls up at his negligent mother, upper left; footmen in elaborate royal livery try to contain the crowds around the ambassadors, upper right; and two women have decided it's all too much and have retreated beneath their wide parasol to a park bench, where a black-clad gentleman in a wonderful wig (perhaps a clergyman?) has joined them, lower left.

But my favorite detail, lower right, shows a man selling prints and sheet music. He's wearing jaunty striped trousers and a long-tailed coat as he stands before his wares, which are pinned on rows of strings to display. He's playing a horn for his dog, who is dancing on its hind-legs with a stick in its front paws - what better way to attract customers?

Promenade of the Ambassadors of Tipu Sultan in the Park of Saint-Cloud by Charles-Eloi Asselin, 1788, Cité de la Céramique-Sèvres et Limoges. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Fashions for Mature Women in the 1800s

Monday, April 23, 2018
Lady Anne Hamilton at age 49
Loretta reports:

A reader asked, “Do you have any fashion plates of older women?”
The answer is no. Whether it’s the 1800s or the 1900s or the 2000s, fashion is most usually displayed on younger women.

The fashions I post monthly seem to be mainly for married women. In France, for instance, unmarried young women were expected to dress with almost nunlike simplicity; and it’s my sense that young English women, while not dressing as severely as their French counterparts, generally did dress more demurely than matrons, at least through the Regency.

Still, there’s nothing matronly about the fashion prints. The images are always of young, slender women with, depending on the era, ridiculously tiny waists. I’ve yet to see older faces or plumper bodies. The fashion plates always show the idealized youthful image of the time.

Then as now, that is the way fashion is sold. A style blog focused on the over-forty woman offers an explanation that I believe is applicable to previous centuries of fashion merchandising.

Today, we do see the occasional exception. A few brands will feature 40+ models and/or fuller-figured women in their advertising. But these are rare. Rarer still are mature and/or fuller-figured models on the runways. This always seems to be the case, even though older women are buying the clothing.

To get an idea of what older women wore in earlier eras, we need to turn to portraits. It's possible that the subject isn’t necessarily wearing the latest fashion. Then as now, a woman might have stuck with a style she found comfortable and believed becoming. However, when it comes to royals and aristocrats, the portraits are generally very stylish, which makes sense: Since they could afford to buy new things all the time, and they weren't shy about showing off their wealth, they were more likely to wear the current fashion when they had their portrait painted.
Maria Amalia of Naples & Sicily about age 57

Let’s also not forget that well-off people were not buying their clothing ready-made. The fashion plate would be no more than a possible starting point. A lady would have her favorite dressmaker, who would adapt styles or create a distinctive look. Though the fashion plates featured young women, I suspect older women then would have had a better chance than we do of getting clothes that fit and flattered them. Dressmakers were far from rare, labor was cheap, and the competition for customers was fierce: It was simply good business to make the customer look great, no matter what her age or figure.

James Lonsdale, 1815 Portrait of Lady Anne Hamilton (1766–1846), lady-in-waiting to Queen Caroline1815
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Louis-Édouard Rioult after Louis Hersent, Portrait of Maria Amalia of Naples and Sicily (1782-1866) about 1839
Current location Palace of Versailles 

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Breakfast Links: Week of April 16, 2018

Saturday, April 21, 2018
Breakfast Links are served! Our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• The decades-long quest to find and honor the grave of pioneering 19thc black sculptor Edmonia Lewis.
• Treasure maps, pirate utopias, and author Robert Louis Stevenson.
• Little-known story of the six Chinese men who survived the sinking of the Titanic, only to be immediately deported after arriving in NYC.
• The Hancocks of 18thc Boston in wool, silk, and linen.
• GIFs that return ancient ruins to their former glory.
The Progress of a Water-Coloured Drawing: highlights from a how-to-paint book from 1804.
Love letters between 19th inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary reveal secret communications and relationships at the famously isolating prison.
Image: Necklace fashioned posthumously from radical author Mary Wollstonecroft's hair.
Medieval graffiti: the lost voices of England's churches in the middle ages.
• Women's riding apparel, in the 1920s and now.
• The tragic story of Elizabeth Whitman, the inspiration for The Mysterious Coquette.
• Biscuits, broth, and hasty pudding: the diets of the Romantic Poets.
Image: All about the honey: a medieval Winnie the Pooh appears in this 15thc Italian manuscript.
• The myth of Dolley Madison and the White House Easter Egg Roll.
• James Ince & Sons, umbrella makers.
Queen Mary I of England washes the feet of the poor.
• Albany's Willy Wonka: remembering hand-made chocolates.
Image: Title page of translation of Plutarch's Lives, as critically annotated by Mark Twain.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Friday Video: Loretta's Musket Training

Friday, April 20, 2018
Loretta reports:

I’d never fired a weapon in my life. The closest I’d come was holding Baron de Berenger’s unloaded musket at the Kensington Central Library.

Last November, I found out from author Caroline Linden that one could fire a black powder weapon at Colonial Williamsburg. Susan Holloway Scott—aka the other Nerdy History Girl—sent me photos of her family's experience not long thereafter. I was sold. There's lots of history one can only read in books. I am not going to turn down a chance to experience it firsthand.

The video is very short. What I learned is very long. I fired two weapons, a musket and a fowler. What you don’t see in the video is Loretta trying to heft either of them. The musket weighs ten pounds, the fowler is a little bit lighter, and they're both looong. My arms shook, lifting the gun. Then I had to hold it and aim at the same time. Also, you don’t see how hard it is to draw back the cock. I had to use two hands. (I really need to work on my upper body strength.) Meanwhile, there's the loading process, with which I received a great deal of assistance. Otherwise, I could have been there for half an hour for each shot. Soldiers could load their weapons in 15 seconds.

These are far from accurate weapons. Even when you know how to aim, you can’t be sure the ball will go where it should. But yes, I did badly wound a couple of paper bottles.

Video: Loretta Shoots!!
On my YouTube Channel
Readers who receive our blog via email might see a rectangle, square, or nothing where the video ought to be. To watch the video, please click on the title to this post or the video title.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A 1770s Dress Worn by One of the "Visitors to Versailles"

Wednesday, April 18, 2018
Susan reporting,

Last week I previewed a major new exhibition called Visitors at Versailles, 1682-1789, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through July 29, 2018. Created in partnership with the Château de Versailles along with loans from many other institutions, the exhibition brings together nearly two hundred paintings, drawings, tapestries, porcelains sculptures, furnishings, books, and costumes (and even a sedan chair) to recreate the era when the palace of Versailles and its gardens truly were the center not only of the France, but also the world of fashion, diplomacy, and sophistication.

Versailles was a public court, drawing visitors from around the world. Yet it wasn't just courtiers jockeying for a moment of king's favor. During the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI, Versailles brought together the leading artists, musicians, intellectuals, and master artisans in one place as well, and visitors as diverse as Benjamin Franklin and the seven-year-old crown prince of Cochinchina (modern Vietnam). We can't go back in time to visit Versailles in its 17thc-18thc glory ourselves, but this exhibition is an excellent introduction, and highly recommended.

One of the first galleries features the lavish clothing required by the French court, and I'll be featuring some of these costumes in future blogs. The style of this beautiful silk dress was called a sack, or, more glamorously, a robe à la française. According to the museum's gallery notes:

"Characterized by free-flowing back pleats that extended from shoulder to hem, the robe à la française had been largely abandoned by the 1770s - except at court. A woman conveyed her status not only through the display of rich textiles, but also through her elegant negotiation of the cumbersome hoop under the large skirt, a learned skill intended to give the impression of natural grace."

While the dress and its matching petticoat have survived together, the original stomacher (the triangular insert that filled in the two sides of the bodice) has not. This isn't that unusual. A stomacher was an important 18thc accessory. Because stomachers were pinned into place for wearing, women could easily update an older gown or change its look by swapping stomachers.

According to the Met's website, this dress has been displayed several times before, and it has been shown each time with a different stomacher - perhaps in the spirit of that 18thc lady. For the current exhibition, the dress's fabric and trim were carefully recreated for a matching stomacher inspired by contemporary fashion prints. Earlier exhibitions have featured a stomacher with buttons and lace, and another sported rows of exuberant bows. It's also interesting to see the changing styles in modern display mannequins. Which do you prefer?

 Link for more information about Visitors at Versailles, 1682-1789.

Above: Dress (robe à la française), French, c1770-75. Silk faille with cannelé stripes, brocaded in polychrome floral motif, trimmed with self fabric and silk fly fringe. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Top left image by Susan Holloway Scott; all others Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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