Friday, July 3, 2009

Fashion forecasts

Court costume from Louis XIV to Louis XVI was a matter of donning the vestments of function as king or entering into the rites of one's situation in relation to the king. It had little to do with fashion. About appearance, yes, but as it serves a role, fulfills a duty. Last Sunday I rushed out to see the final day of the superb exhibit at the chateau of Versailles, Fastes de cour (Court Pomp) 1650-1800.

Dashing young Louis XV at 7 with jewel encrusted coat

This event required 10 years of preparation. Part of the difficulty in putting it together came from the astounding fact that although Paris was furnishing all the royal courts of Europe of the period, nothing is left of France's own royal wardrobes. All of the precious and fragile costumes exhibited here are from Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Russia, and England where coronation and wedding dress was carefully preserved as relics. Blame the revolution - or look perhaps to the church who often recycled textiles of its noble benefactors for the clergy.

The sumptuous garments, jewels, paintings and documents tell us we are in another sphere. It's not just the richness and solemnity of it all. All is codified. The closer you were to the King as a woman, the longer was your train. For men, a higher rank was distinguished from lower by the addition of a border to his cape. And do not dream of appearing before the king without the adequate attire. Pas question ! Louis XIV was very clever to get this whole etiquette business started and used it as a constant sign of his power. As long as his court was occupied with this, there was no time for plotting against him.

What we realize through the exhibit is that there were no real changes in the shape of royal costume. It is the very image of immutable royal power. Since this power is invested by God; the king is his highest priest or God himself as Louis XIV would have had us believe. The outward sign of his power is the opulence of dress made of silver and gold threads and embroidered with diamonds and other precious stones. Some cloths seem to be made of metal repoussé so sculptural is the effect.
a bouquet made of gemstones intended to be hand held by a lady
of the court St Petersbourg
detail of Louis XV regalia: hand of justice, scepter with fleur de lys, crown

detail of portrait of Marie Antoinette, feminine but with regal attributes:
fleur de lys, hermine, crown

even more feminine
Interesting to note that Marie Antoinette's move toward fashion when she sought a more personal way of adorning herself, took her out of the realm of a royal icon. Her portrait in a fashionable négligé in garden surroundings by Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun in 1783 was considered a scandal. True, we don't recognize her as a queen. The Queen's playing paysanne contributed to delapidating the royal treasury and this for gowns that did not even follow l'etiquette. She was certainly not assuming her role ! She did not look like a queen and would not be one much longer. As irony would have it, the only gown left of this first fashionable queen is the négligé - not in this exhibit - she wore awaiting the guillotine. Yes, we can say that fashion forecasts, only its signs are easier to interpret with hindsight.

Here is a view of the exhibit from the vernissage. It wasn't possible to take pictures so do watch the video even if you don't speak French. I don't know how long it will be kept on youtube.