Wednesday, September 28, 2016

One Shot: Napoleonic Court Suit, Early 1800s

     Among the seemingly endless list of things Napoleon Bonaparte attempted during his reign as Emperor of France was the establishment of particular court apparel for every rank and sort. This suit,  auctioned through Charles A Whitaker Auction Company in 2015, (which was listed at 3000 dollars), is from the early part of the 1800s.  What is especially interesting is the presence on the cape of the Napoleonic Bee, and of oak leaves, which were consistent images throughout the apparel of the court at that time.  Do we know of a certainty that this was a court costume for a gentleman of Napoleon's world?  We do not.  But it seems likely both in the presence of those images, and by the emphatic and somewhat overblown style of the clothes as a whole, that this was meant to be suitable court apparel for a gentleman under Napoleon's suzerainty.
    The extreme formality of this ensemble cannot be denied.  It was meant, regardless of its ultimate province, for the very highest of occasions.  As such it contributes to the idea that this was indeed a court outfit for a highly placed gentleman of Napoleon's court.  Or, at very least, someone who wanted to make a positive impression there.
    Made up in highest quality silk velvet of an intense royal blue, the embroidery shows a singular characteristic.  It seems hasty.  The bees on the cape seem sketched in the most lackadaisical fashion. And the other work lacks the depth and texture of so much of what survives from the same time. The work done on this ensemble, was either done in an very short period, or the client was a person of limited means who could not afford the ultimate level of embellishment possible from embroiderers.  This ensemble is about flash and dazzle, not about substance.  The embroidered work in gold is simplistic, and even to a degree rough in its execution. Perhaps the person who wore this had been only shortly called, without preamble, to court, and had to configure something acceptable in nearly no time whatever.  It's one of the clues we get from clothing of other eras when we look more deeply.  It's a peek into the motivations and reality of someone long gone, to see the finished product that they ordered, and look at what they got for their time and money.
The choice of color here is singular.  This shade of blue, even in the 1800s was one reserved for those of the highest noble rank. There is a reason why it was called "Royal Blue".  It was a hue sequestered into the narrow confines of rulers, like Imperial Purple.  So if the person who ordered this was not actually a royal, they were inviting scorn when they approached the Emperor.
    So much of what we do when we look at these things is little more than educated guessing.  I know that myself.  Yet there are compelling things here that point to something more than is superficially apparent.  Observing the small details of decoration and construction, we see that this was something out of the ordinary.  This was not the suit of some established, vastly wealthy courtier.  This was something belonging to someone who needed to make their way, and spent all they could to get there.  What is the enduring mystery is, did he make it?

Monday, September 26, 2016


    We are a remarkable species. With no biological protections to rely on like sharp teeth, long claws, or poisonous venom we have managed to expand across the globe to every kind of land, every kind of climate, facing every kind of natural threat. We have done so in very large part by our extraordinary skill at creating associations in our brains and using those connections to help us understand and navigate this place we call home.  In terms of how this skill relates to Attire, we have built up over millennia of time an endless stream of associations that direct our response to the people we see in our world.
    I have written before about our responses to colors.  Some of these have become so deeply rooted in our psyches they seem to have become hard wired, like our physiological response to red.  Others are culturally derived associations like the relation in Japanese culture of white with mourning, as opposed to black in Western culture.  What is interesting to observe in action, (and I see this every day in the answers to my blog posts here and on facebook), is how very difficult it is for us to get around these connections, once we have made them.  They act as a sort of unspoken set of laws we carry in our noggins.
    If for example we come from a culture where a brilliant pink is a color traditionally reserved for women and girls, it can subtly shift our perceptions of a male we see.  Where black leather carries potent connections to danger and sex, that un-worded point goes into the quickly growing list of things we observe as we assemble our final impression of who and what we are looking at.
     When there is a cultural association with a particular garment type as being appropriate for a certain activity, we find it hard to see it in another context. As an example, this past week I posted a contemporary menswear design for a coat that got more than one negative response because it looked too much in shape like a bathrobe.  We have trouble, once we have these bonds created, not implementing them when we see someone in our world, or view an outfit on a runway.  It is an act of will to step around it.  And since we do the huge majority of this kind of relating wordlessly and without conscious thought, that act of will becomes even more difficult to achieve.
    What I see then, is that this fantastic skill we have at creating and using the links we devise is a double edged thing.  Yes, it does give us valuable information. Yes, it does give us tools with which to build our understanding. Those very tools can misinform us, or cloud our rational judgement just as readily as they can aid it.  Very often the assumption we make based on these internal rules as build is erroneous.  The man in pink probably simply likes the color.  The person in leather may be the kindest and most gentle of souls with nary a nefarious thought.
    The biggest part of the inherent danger in these things is that it happens nearly instantaneously.  Before we are aware the connection is already in place, diverting us from whatever truth might be actually getting conveyed.  So it is wise to check ourselves, to reconsider and step back form our own judgements a moment before we deliver our assessment.  I find I am no less guilty of this than anyone else, and must make a deliberate effort to set these considerations aside.  It's work, real work to do so.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Scatter #119

    I gotta say I look forward to these weekly amalgams of odd things I dredge up and throw out at you.  I do.  It's fun selecting them and figuring out what I want/ need to say about each.  I hope you enjoy it too.  Herewith this week's set of entrants in the Scatter Sweepstakes.
    This image of an atelier worker finishing some couture embroidery work made me think of two things really.  First is our ongoing desire to take the natural world and transform it, both by using things from it in unexpected ways and by referencing things we encounter as parts of our apparel.  This embroidery design takes feathers, and by processing them changes how they appear so that they might be taken for bits of straw, but then re-changes them in the act of making the design, back into feathers; this time with their spines replaced by glittering glass stones.  It's rather like a piece of jewelry made from gold that is deliberately formed to look like a raw nugget of the metal it's made from, but through artifice, perfected, shifted.

    This for me isn't so much about cultural appropriation as it is about not knowing what we are about.  Even if this is meant to be costume, its ability to communicate effectively is hampered by a lack of understanding of the elements in use, and the dissonance of the hipstery tattoos with the tribal attire.  Whether the clothes worn here belong to an actual culture or not I don't know, but the result is the same.  It comes across as half hearted, ill considered, because the choices made here don't relate to the person in them.  It's a strong example of what we do each day when we dress ourselves. Does what we choose suit our interior and exterior selves?  If so, then great.  But if one or the other doesn't align, then those who see us, can see that.

    Apart from delivering staggeringly expensive clothing to a tiny segment of the population, the couture industry supplies something else that we all need and want, fantasy.  We need dreams to aspire to, even if they aren't things we actually want.  We still need to be able to place ourselves elsewhere for a time, and wonder about what it would be like if we were that person, or doing that thing, or wearing those clothes.  This fashion shoot image is of a Jean Paul Gaultier coat from the 1997-1998 season.  The evident luxury is beguiling. How would it feel, and where would we be going if we were in that coat?  Our daydreams are important.
    Granted this fellow, captured at the most recent Pitti Uomo in Milan is expensively dressed, but the point here is that this sort of individuality of Attire is not out of reach for the rest of us.  All the articles here can be found in slightly different versions that could create the same visual effect.  It comes down to what amount of effort one is willing to expend to find and utilize the words in an Attire vocabulary. I love that this is also an example of the emergence of strong floral prints for men, but seen in the real world, not a runway.  The entire ensemble here speaks about the shifts that are in process for men, and how they view themselves in our society.  Bravo dude, you brought it.
     In the Naryn province of Kyrgyzstan festival dress looks like this for the women of the region.  What strikes me here is another example of how endless is our human creativity.  In an area that is cold and severe this elegant and cultivated manner of dress emerges.  Sure, it's festival attire and as such is a more elaborate, and costly version of traditional dress.  That is true.  It just makes me smile inside and out that we find no end of ways to make ourselves marvelous.  As a small side note, the area where these women are singing is near Song Kol lake, which is 10499 feet above sea level.  Just think about singing nearly 2 miles up.  Them's some lungs.  We are amazingly adaptable beings.
    I say go for it.  If you're feeling the 70s love, then go there, and don't hold back.  Grab your tie dyed caftan, and the biggest piece of statement jewelry you can find.  Honestly, I'm delighted by this.  I suspect this isn't this fellow's everyday attire, but who cares?  To me it's a great option to play with.  Let yourself free to express, to move, and to find perhaps a chunk of yourself that lays hidden most of the time. 
    For over 300 years the London based firm of Ede & Ravenscroft has been in the tailoring business, with a strong focus on professional uniforms from clerical, and legal to military and royal.  What we forget is well into the beginning of the 20th century men entering the military in an officer capacity were required to approach either their own tailors, or a firm like Ede & Ravenscroft for their uniforms.  So where today in the military uniforms are truly that, uniform in cut, fit, and construction, there used to be a huge range of quality based on the officer's means, and the skills of his chosen tailor.  Of course a new officer would be encouraged to use a well known tailor so that the regiment would not be disgraced, but there was still some variation to be expected.  This image shows off the precision and elaboration of their work admirably.
    Say hello to Charlotte Margeurite de Montmorency, Princess de Conde'.  Peter Paul Rubens painted her in about 1610 in this amazing ensemble.  It's an interesting combination of new and old fashions.  Her lawn and lace collar follows the newer fashion for a flat surface, but clings to the older one of a wired, standing collar.  Her dress and sleeves are both extensively slashed, a fashion which was quickly fading by this time. Also, the use of long false sleeves that were open along the entire front seam to the cuff was sliding out of use.  What keeps her from looking out of pace is the inescapable opulence of her costume.  No one would challenge her about her choices when so much obvious wealth was brought to bear to make this outfit happen.   There is very little of the surface of her red satin dress that has not been plated with decoration.  It's all about saying, "Look at me!".
    Here is a real rarity.  We know from portraiture and fashion images that formal men's attire required what was called a wig bag. It was a cloth bag that was meant to encase the lower portion of a man's wig, and it was often, like here, decorated with ribbons, guimpe or embroidery.  Yes. it's an especial absurdity that we would devise a wig, and then insist on a bag to put it in that you had to wear, but our history through Attire is loaded with such weirdness.  The other item of note here is that this suit is quite unusual in that the lace cuffs you see are actually attached to the interior of the coat sleeves, and are not part of the shirt.  Though it is known that this was done, almost no examples exist of it in real terms.  I suspect that is mostly owing to the great expense of lace, which would mean that it would have been used elsewhere once a suit was not used any longer.  So this image has two oddities in it.
    Here's something else from around the same time, 1780.  This is one of the most extravagant men's suits I've ever seen.  The amount and the quality of the embroidery on the coat and waistcoat is amazing.  Worked in a narrow palette of white and pale grey silk flosses, the finished work gives the appearance of being silver. It is a piece of extreme elegance, and a testimonial to the very high level of craft able to be brought to bear on men's clothing at the time.  I'll take one, please.

    To finish out this week's grouping, a bit-o-bling.  This gold bracelet was made in 1840. The center medallion of enamel work depicts Mercury presenting a lyre to Apollo.  The Renaissance Revival style of the bracelet is enhanced by the extensive amount of high quality enamel. It's also set with amethyst, and pink topaz stones.  Every period seems to develop a fascination for some other time.  But the Victorians were unique in that they spread that fascination around so far. Their appreciation for times other than their own seemed to have few limits either of period or real knowledge.  What they didn't know for sure, they made up.  Just like this bracelet with it's faceted stones which would most likely not have been in use.  

So, now that you've had your dose of Scatter, it's time to get on with your weekend.  Have fun!  See you next week.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Reshaping Man

    If you think it's only the women in the room who have padded their parts, or cinched them in, think again.  The men in the crowd have been about the same thing for just as long.  Men have corseted their waists, padded chests, crotches, shoulders, thighs and calves. They have worn lifts in their shoes and devices to pull the shoulders back while pushing the chest forward.
    Sometimes these changes were meant to be so subtle as to go unnoticed as a deliberate falsehood, (like the padded 1840s vest pictured here with its discrete insert). Other times they were in your face exaggerations that were never meant to be taken as reality but only as a gesture of male power.
    In the Minoan culture men as well as women wore leather or metal belts to constrict the waist as small as they could manage.  By the early Renaissance men's doublets were often heavily padded through the shoulder and chest to create a more manly appearance. 
When the codpiece arrived it was soon not good enough to merely encase the penis in a cloth cover, you had to display your manhood in it's priapic glory, even if it was a flat out lie.  The doublets and coats of the 1500s spread a man's shoulders to the point where he ended up looking like a square with legs, but it was all about promoting male dominance through apparent physical size. 
    By the 1700s men were padding their calves if they weren't up to par, or filling out their thighs for the same reason.  In the 1800s, the padded waistcoat helped the boys along who were less than prodigious of chest.  And if that wasn't enough, a gent's tailor could help out by filling the interior of his jacket with cotton padding so he could have the correct proportions.  And it must be added that some form of corseting existed through all these phases.  And now, in the 21st century we have shapewear, injections, and surgery to lend a hand if the body natural is lacking in some way.
    So many men like to claim no no interest whatever in fashion or its vagaries, yet throughout our history all these things have existed to to assist men in achieving what nature denied them.  And all in the name of staying part of the society in place at the time.  For men, the preferred erogenous zone has shifted about just like it has for women.  One decade it's the legs, another the butt, another still the shoulders and chest.  But whatever the ideal of focus is, Attire has been ready to help with straps, ties, precise tailoring, and bunches of cotton batting.
    The only true difference today from all these prior helpful things is that now it is possible to literally alter the body's shape in a permanent way.  No need of special padding if you can insert a pair of silicone shapes under your pecs.

    It has been said that Vanity's name is Woman.  Not so at all.  Nor is it Man.  Vanity's name is Us.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Future Formal

    I have written a good deal about how our culture is shifting further and further to the informal in all manners of dress.  Just now though, women's formal attire seems to have ossified.  Little that is really a fresh take on evening attire is being done.  For the boys in the room however, the field is opening up considerably as menswear is playing with materials and manners of decoration that have been off the table for 200 years.
    The real question on the table though is where will formal attire end up?  Will it fade entirely out of existence?  Will it become so rarefied that it will only be something we rent, like the ubiquitous wedding tux?  Or will it find a new level that accommodates our need for ease and mobility, without losing the sense of luxury and occasion that such apparel has always had?
    For myself, I would vote for the last of these outcomes being most likely.  We are a magpie species. We love things that are shiny and have opulent textures.  And our desire to feel that sense of elevation that comes from special clothes is not one that is likely to go entirely out of our psyches.  Since the dawn of our existence as upright hominids we have done endless numbers of things to make ourselves feel and look special.  It is surely unlikely that all those of us who love a bit of glam in our world are suddenly going to drop it out of our Attire conversation.
    So, with that in mind, here's a sampling of menswear looks that point in a new direction for formal attire. Take a gander and see if anything is something you'd call your new glad rags.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Scatter #118

    And here we are again, my friends.  It's Saturday and it's Scatterday. It's time for your weekly dose of random fabulousness, so sit back, relax, and lets get this party started!
    To start us off we have a visit from his royal highness, King George V of England on a state visit to Delhi in 1915.  The portrait was done by Christopher Clarke, and it's about as potent an example of in your face cultural appropriation as you can imagine.  Sure, part of the reason the king is attired this way is to do honor to the people of India.  But it's also a manner of his claiming ownership over the country by not only wearing the garb of Indian royalty, but by injecting articles of western military apparel into the mix. His gauntleted gloves, his sword and the elaborate shoulder cord are all items of European military uniform.  It is an unsubtle statement of sway.  Gorgeous yes, but seriously divided in it's meanings.
    I find this effort by Proenza Shouler to be an interesting experiment in texture and proportion.  Just using the position and shape of the embroidered surface the eye is fooled into perceiving the waistline to be higher than it really is.  Also the oval cutout on the chest, combined with the arcs on the sleeve heads confuse us, since on its own the oval would seem to broaden the shoulder line, while the inward curving shapes on the sleeves undo that.  It's also interesting that we are being toyed with a bit.  While we have a cut out, where the navel might be exposed, what we see instead is part of the garment underneath the dress.  There is something distinctly armorial about the manner of the decoration, which calls chain mail into mind, but a totally 21st century version of it that, once again undoes that meaning, by poking holes through the protection in key places.  The choice of shoes for the runway? Sorry, no.
    King Johan III of Sweden is cutting quite a dash in his sugarloaf hat and fantastically embellished duds in this portrait by Johan Baptista van Uther from 1582.  Though he is primarily remembered for his attempts to close the gap between the new Lutheran church and the Catholic church, he is clearly a fellow who knew the importance of visual display on the part of a monarch.  No one looking at him could doubt his power and importance.  The sugarloaf hat is tall, even for the fashions of the day. His doublet and cloak are so laden with padded goldwork embroidery that they must have weighed a great deal, as well as being stiff.  But this ensemble is clearly meant for one thing, making sure you know who the boss is.  And a very stylish boss he was, too.
    In 1880 in the USA a sadly unknown dressmaker configured this rather unusual afternoon/ visiting dress.  The entire structure of the dress is of red orange silk faille from the tiny knife pleats at the hem to the top of the standing collar.  What makes this extraordinary is the double tiered crocheted layers over the skirt that both end with complex bead embellished fringes. This dates from a time before the sudden burst of interest in crocheted clothing, so it's quite unusual.  The lady who ordered this must have been quite well of to afford such a lavish, hand-worked detail on her dress.  And the glass beads on the fringes must have made an interesting sound as she moved.  We are lucky this survives.  Those crocheted panels could have been taken from this dress and used for something else later.
    In his final menswear collection before he left Dior in 2010, John Galliano really pushed the edges of what we were ready for.  The result is, to be honest, rather disjointed, but the emotional impact is undeniable. There is a perverse sexiness to the clothes, with their combination of party and combat modes.  We are shown a concept of the male that seems entirely capable of moving freely from one edge of the sexual continuum to another, and as such we are being deliberately challenged to see differently, think differently.  To me it is one of the primary things the design community can accomplish if it chooses to.  Now, 6 years later, this image is not nearly as in your face as it was when the model walked the runway, which only reinforces the value of such challenges. We do learn, albeit slowly.
    We don't think about it much when we look at the clothing styles of the late 1800s, but accommodations were indeed made for pregnant or nursing women.  This image pairs two night wear garments that address those special needs.  The top is loosely cut and comfortable, and has buttoned slits on the sides that can be undone so a mother could easily nurse her child without having to fully undress.  The pantalets are designed with a capacious space in front to comfortably handle a woman's expanding shape over the months of pregnancy, and the back has lacings to adjust the fit further should she need to.  And of course, ladies of means could spend the majority of their indisposition wearing their tea gowns, which allowed them to be without a corset if they wished.  Asa  final note, there do exist some examples of pregnancy corsets that have a split in the front to allow for a growing belly while still keeping everything else in its fashionable position.  Ridiculous now, but normal then.
     This imperious looking fellow is Henry Danvers, first Earl of Danby, as painted by Anthony van Dyke in the late 1620s.  What I often find interesting about such portraits is how they both reveal and conceal the way people actually dressed during the time the painting was done.  This image of Danvers does both things.  In general it reveals little about what was normative in daily or even formal apparel.  This is an ensemble designed for the express purpose of setting him apart from the rest of us, and may have been for his formal investiture into the peerage.  But there are small clues that are present that tell us about the time in bits and snippets.  His shoes have both the oddly placed heels and the huge ribbon roses popular at the time.  The placement of the belt, high on the torso is consistent with what was fashion at the time.  His ruff is stylish, and surprisingly moderate.  And lastly his face has a crescent shaped black patch on it.  The fashion for patching was one of our better oddities. The make up in use for both sexes was lead based, like putting house paint on your skin, and in consequence many developed pock marks from skin cancer.  Small pieces of black card or fabric were worn over the pocks to conceal them, often cut into interesting shapes.  So, it's by the details, not the totality that we get some glimpses of the time.
    When I came across this I was honestly divided in my feelings.  Part of me found it witty and surreal in aspect. Part thought it a trifle vulgar. And honestly part of me thought it a pointed remark on how women get sexualized for display.  It's interesting to me that the real reason this has such impact is not the choice of material, the cut, or the corseted waist, it is the skin-like color of the fabric that makes this such a challenging look.  Do this exact design in black and it would pass without remark.  Even in white our response to it would be milder.  But show it in a mockery of flesh and it becomes a deliberate act of provocation.  Sally LaPointe S/S 2017.
    When this form of undergarment came into being in the late 1800s it was a surprising innovation.  Women who wore the "combination" were a mite racy, and certainly forward thinking.  It's no big surprise that many of the erotic postcard images of the time show women in them.  Probably the biggest reason they were thought provocative was that they allowed a woman to dress and especially undress more rapidly since there were fewer things to deal with.  Also, since they buttoned in front a lady needed no assistance to shed her combination.  I suspect some gents thought with pleasure on what sort of undergear they might discover once behind closed doors.
    This mourning brooch is a lovely and sentimental piece of American history.  It once belonged to Martha Washington.  When in 1799 her husband George died, she has a small locket of his hair placed within the brooch, and later, when herself died, a locket of her own hair was added to it.  It's made of gold, with a bow knot of garnets and trailing ribbons of white and green enamel.  It's a charming memorial to them both and their life together.
    All three of these sweet girl's dresses date from the 1880s and show some of the range of style that existed for little girls whose families had plenty of cash to spare.  More than just clothes for kids these diminutive garments were a physical expression of wealth and status.  Of course it was a reflected status since it wasn't the child who was being touted that way.  Dressing your children expensively and in clothes that required significant care meant you had not only the money to order them made, but the staff to maintain them, and a governess to make sure they didn't run about in the dirt.  These clothes were also a wordless lesson to little girls about what they could expect of the future and their lives in it.  These clothes were a daily class in behavior.
    Speaking of behavior, lets look at cross dressing as our last entry today.  I came across this and though it made me smile for its relative naivete, it also got me musing again about the power of transformation;  how it affects us personally when we choose to step outside of our role and into another, and how it affects how others see us, and respond to us.  As someone who has cross dressed in a costume sense in my dim past I can say that it changed me forever, those dips into the shallows of the world of women.  Sure it was the most superficial of attempts, but I came away from it feeling as though I had momentarily merged with the women around me.  I certainly began to think more deeply about what women face, not just in their dress but otherwise.  I examined my own behavior while I was so dressed, and what it said about me, my understanding of women at the time, and our culture's requirements of them.  I am heartily in favor of everyone giving it a go. With an even partly open mind we can learn a lot.

So that's a wrap for this week, folks!  Have a great weekend!