Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Supporting Harriette

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Susan reports:

Reading Loretta's blog yesterday, I was struck not so much by the white muslin gowns themselves, but what was happening beneath them.  This high-waisted style must have been truly shocking.  For the first time in hundreds of years, the curves of a woman's breasts were on display.

European ladies began reshaping their bodies for fashion in the 15th century or so, via stays, corsets, busks, boning, even iron.  Weirdly, their goal didn't do nothin' for feminine attributes.  The ideal was a long, pointed, straight front that bound the breasts almost flat. Check out these two examples below left: the  first is mid-16th century, the second is two hundred years later in the mid-18th century, but the silhouette is almost exactly the same.

All this changes in the last decade of the 18th century. Whether it's a classical inspiration, the French Revolution, or just the ever-swinging pendulum of fashion, suddenly it was stylish to show the actual shape of both breasts.  Yes, there are caricatures of the time showing dubious "ladies" going completely au natural, but most women turned instead to the newest in corsetry (above left) for support, separation, and enhancement.  Divide and conquer, indeed.  

As fashion/art historian Aileen Ribeiro notes in her excellent Ingres in Fashion, "It is interesting how many portraits of this period exploit the sexual appeal of the early nineteenth-century equivalent of a Wonderbra and depict women leaning forward in this way; Lawrence's portrait of the Countess of Blessington [below right] exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822 is an example."

So are the portraits of Madame Recamier and Harriette Wilson. Can you hear those early 19th century men still cheering?


Vanessa Kelly said...

Those are lovely portraits, Susan! Thank you for posting them. And Lady Blessington looks so at ease - she can actually lean forward, unlike the other two woman who look like they can barely move! Was Lady B's artist trying to capture a sense of informality that was lacking in the formal portraits of earlier periods, do you think?

You know, I can almost hear the Earl of Blessington giving a hearty cheer.

Loretta Chase said...

Susan, this certainly helps us understand why the elders bemoaned the "nakedness" of the younger generation. Between the women in their wonderbras and the men in those revealing tight pantaloons, I can see why people thought their world had turned into Sodom and Gomorrah.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

The earlier ladies look stiff because they literally cannot move. If the strips of whalebone or caning stitched tight against their sides and back arent' enough, most of the corsets/stays from that period also have a busk inserted down the front; imagine a wooden ruler strapped down the length of your front, and that's a busk. Ouch.

But it also does explain why the new styles seemed so "loose" to the older generation!

That leaning-forward pose is very popular in portraits. Here's another one that I love, by Ingres (couldn't post it with the blog for copyright reasons, alas!)


ConnieG said...

The portrait of Countess Blessington has appeared on several book jackets. She's lovely. I hadn't known she also was so important. Those new fashions must have been quite the eye opener for the gentlemen.

Valerie L. said...

I just love portraits by Ingres. And I can't help but feel sorry for all those women who were gradually shoved and proded back into stays and busks and corsets as fashion changed back by 1830. How it must have hurt to give up their relative freedom.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

Gosh, Susan, I never made that connection re styles that began to show the female figure. Thank you NHG! Of course, Valerie L's comment made me wonder about whether men were driving fashion at the time -- were they the designers for the most part as so many men still are in fashion? And then...what did the buttoning up of styles have to say about what was influencing the male designers sociopolitically, I guess? Of course, maybe chick designers ruled the day.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

ConnieG -- Lady Blessington's portrait has to be one of the loveliest in English art. No wonder it turns up on bookcovers!

Valerie -- I LOVE Ingres portraits, too. Try to track down that Ribeiro book -- it has drawings and paintings I've seen nowhere else, and beautifully reproduced.

Michelle -- At this time (early 19th c.), it's still primarily women making women's clothes, and men making men's. And what a surprise, a male tailor was considered much more skilled and prestigious than a female mantua-maker/seamstress. Later in the 19th c., male designers begin to emerge, particularly in Paris, but the biggest name in 18th c. French design is the milliner/modiste Rose Bertin, dressmaker to Marie Antoinette.

(Though corsets are made and fitted primarily by men, because women's hands are strong enough to stitch through the many layers of canvas and buckram stiffening. How strange must those fittings have been...and inspiration for numerous titillating cartoons!)

So I don't think we can blame the boys in this case for the switch back to more restrictive fashion. I think the styles reflect a general retrenchment in 19th c. society's moral tone, with the Victorian era rising up to end the fun. Wah!

Valerie L. said...

Ah the joys of working in a university library. I will definitely go looking for that Riberio book. Interlibrary loan is a wonderful thing. Thanks.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

A university library: you ARE lucky, Valerie! Not only do you have all those books at your disposal, plus the interlibrary loan system, but the databases -- ahh, the databases!! They've entirely changed how research is conducted these days.

The Ingres book is definitely worth hunting down. It's a Yale U. press book, so you know it's a goodie. :)

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket