Thursday, February 11, 2016

From the Archives: The Myth of the Regency Sylph

Thursday, February 11, 2016
Isabella reporting:

Seeing the fashions of 1810 featured in Loretta's blog reminded me of how fashion influences more than just silk and ribbons: it can also determine the stylish ideal of the body beneath those clothes.

Too often, however, the modern perception of what was hot in the late 18th-early 19th c is more a reflection of 21st ideals, especially as influenced by contemporary film versions of Jane Austen's novels. Our sylphs would not have been theirs. Keira Knightley, right, and Gwyneth Paltrow would have been pitied as sad, scrawny creatures, even perhaps consumptive. The ladies that everyone was ogling in a real Regency ballroom would have looked much more like this caricature of the notorious Emma, Lady Hamiltonleft, by Thomas Rowlandson.

While later in her career, Emma would be cruelly depicted as blowsy and obese, here she is shown as an eminently desirable and fashionable beauty, with high breasts and well-rounded thighs and bottom. The same kind of lush figure tumbles through countless other drawings by Rowlandson and James Gillray; Google either artist, and you'll see these women over and over. It's easy to look at this body-type and imagine it wearing the clothes in the 1810 fashion plate, or in this one from 1808

The more flattering portrait of Emma, below, also shows exactly how robust a stylish lower half must have been. With fashion dictating a temporary respite from boned corseting, narrow waists lost their importance as an erogenous zone. Instead the interest  shifted to the lush, voluptuous curves below the waist, revealed by the drifting drapery of light silks and linens. For men who had been raised in an era when these mysterious body-parts had been hidden by hoops and heavily draped skirts, the sudden change must have been...exciting.

Where did this different kind of body ideal come from? Just as ancient Roman and Greek art and architecture was influencing nearly every aspect of the decorative arts in the late 18th-early 19th c, fashion, too, took a classical turn. High-waisted gowns and draping shawls were designed to emulate ancient fashions, embroidery patterns featured classical motifs, and looped and knotted hairstyles showed a classical influence as well.

But the undressed bodies of ancient nude statuary also set new standards of physical beauty. While Georgian aristocrats on their Grand Tours were busily checking out naked marble goddesses all across the Continent, one of the must-see statutes was the Aphrodite Kallipygos, right, on display in Naples. This much-admired statue is thought to be a 1st c BC Roman copy of an earlier Greek bronze, and her provocative pose must have left a definite impression of classical booty on countless young Englishmen.

The statue may also have influenced Lady Hamilton, living with her husband Sir William in Naples. For special guests to their villa, Emma performed her "Attitudes," a series of graceful poses inspired by classical art – the same "Attitudes" satirized by Rowlandson in the caricature at the top of this page. While Emma performed in a quasi-classical costume, not in the buff as Rowlandson shows her, there is a similarity between the pose – and the voluptuous figure.

Top left: Lady Hamilton's Attitudes by Thomas Rowlandson, 1790
Lower left: Detail, Emma, Lady Hamilton as Ariadne by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1790
Lower right: Aphrodite Kallipygos, artist unknown, 1st c BC, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Queen Victoria's Stormy Wedding Day

Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Cruikshank, Very Unpleasant Weather
Loretta reports:

This week in history—
Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on 10 February 1840. I used the event, and the bad weather preceding it, as a backdrop to a short story.

“The weather during the preceding night was more boisterous than any we have experienced during the winter.  It “blew great guns from ten o’clock until sunrise when—
      The dawn was overcast, the morning lower’d,
      And heavily in clouds brought on the day,
      The great, th’important day,
on which were to be celebrated the nuptials of our maiden Sovereign and Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg.

It continued to rain almost without intermission until noon, when the weather partially cleared up and continued fine, but threatening during the remainder of the day.”— The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 1840
The detailed account of the wedding begins here. And you can find my other blogs on the subject here and here. If you search “white wedding dress,” you’ll find posts explaining that Queen Victoria was not the first bride to wear white.

Image: George Cruikshank, Very Unpleasant Weather,1835, courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

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.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Advice for Writers of Romantic Fiction, 1790 - and 2016

Sunday, February 7, 2016
Isabella reporting,

Publishers, editors, and critics have always been ready with suggestions for writers - handy rules that, if followed, are sure to guarantee a story that readers will devour. The advice in the clipping, below right, comes from an 18thc newspaper, The World, appearing in the September 17, 1790 edition. Although nearly 250 years old, modern writers and readers of romantic fiction may find these rules surprisingly (or perhaps depressingly) current.

I've transcribed them below:

"It is absolutely necessary for female NAMES to be culled with delicacy, that they may be more interesting – HARRIET, ISABELLA, LEONORA, AUGUSTA, INDAMORA, FLORINDA, WILHEMINA, ALMERIA, SOPHONISBA, &C. And as for surnames, take the NEVILLES, the GRENVILLES, the BELVILLES, the SAVILLES, the HOWARDS, the GODOLPHINS, the MOWBRAYS, and the MONTGOMERIES; be particularly careful, that they are all Honourable, or Right Honourable, or Dutchesses, or Countesses, or Baronesses, or Baronetesses, by which means the dignity of the story is preserved; for who could with any decency be supposed to love HANNAH GRIMES,  or MARTHA DICKENS, or MARGARET SIMS! As for the MEN, they must all be Lords, Knights, Captains, Colonels, or Counts, and should generally keep phaetons and four, or elegant little gigs; they must have fought duels without end, and be fond of deep play; and if, from excess of sensibility, they have occasioned a FEW DIVORCES, it makes the work infinitely more interesting.

The more things change....

Many thanks to another of our friends of the blog, writer/historian Emily Brand, who spotted this item for us.

Above: Young Girl Writing a Love Letter, by Pietro Antonio Rotari, c1755, Norton Simon Art Foundation.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Breakfast Links: Week of February 1, 2016

Saturday, February 6, 2016
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• The history of resourceful 20thc clothing made from printed flour and feed sacks.
• Fascinating new site from the Newberry Library highlighting historical paleography (history of handwriting.)
• "Like swallowes", or what happens when a 17thc poem meets a recipe for face cream.
• An 1851 chemise for comfort.
• Drunkard, Merryboy, Younker: some popular names for 17thc dogs.
Image: Women from India, Syria, and Japan who completed their medical education in Philadelphia, 1885.
• Ten fabulous French chateaux for sale in case you win the lottery.
• Do you have an "open head"? Mrs. Corlyn's unique headache remedies can address that.
Image: Animation showing how Boston's Old State House - and its setting - has changed over the centuries.
• Elite dining in early 1900s Manhattan: frogs legs and potato chips.
• Eight classic novels reduced to their punctuation.
• Ancient Romans once filled the Colosseum with water and staged a mock sea battle.
• Victorian cat funerals. 
Image: The blue-and-white dishes in this 17thc Dutch doll house are Chinese export ware.
Transportation and love tokens.
Napoleon was a popular subject for 19thc chess sets.
• Eight words that reveal the sexism at the heart of the English language.
• Historical sheet music: dancing Downton-style.
• London's Duke of Monmouth street names.
• "Laura had a feeling": Fascinating interpretation of Little House on the Prairie.
Image: A tartan treat for celebrating Burns Night - Royal Stuart tartan kilt ensemble, 1822.
• The queen mother's rebel cousin.
• London's Sailortown: servicing the Royal Navy in the 18th-19th centuries.
• Rare painted cloth banner celebrating Thomas Jefferson's election over John Adams, 1800.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Friday Video: Boston by Streetcar, c1903

Friday, February 5, 2016

Isabella reporting,

Some of our most popular Friday Videos have featured turn-of-the-20th-century cities captured by early outdoor cameramen, usually from a streetcar. Here is Paris, and here's New York (in a blizzard) - and now we have these street scenes of Boston, c1903.

For those familiar with the city, this short film includes views of North Station, South Station, Atlantic Avenue, Copley Square, and Huntingdon Avenue. It's also a chronicle of urban transportation: while most people are traveling by foot, there are plenty of horse-drawn vehicles as well as streetcars, plus the newer trolleys and elevated cars whose tunnels are seen under construction.  It's also a time without crosswalks or traffic lights, with pedestrians jaywalking with bravado. I love seeing how formally everyone is dressed, too, with almost every man and woman wearing a hat. For more about the film, see this article by the New England Historical Society.

This video was shared with me almost simultaneously by two of the blog's New England friends, Kimberly Alexander and Andrea Cawelti. Thank you both!
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