Tuesday, September 6, 2011

When Too Much is Not Enough: A French Lady's Accessories, c. 1770

Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Susan reporting:

So often when clothes from the past are displayed in museums, they're shown as a single isolated piece, without any of the little personal additions that changes clothes into *my* clothes.  As we've discussed here before, the 18th century was an era of splendid fashion excess when it came to accessories (see here, here, and here, from a current exhibition in Colonial Williamsburg.)

True, the word "accessories" is a modern one, but these two now-unknown French ladies, c. 1770, left, certainly understood the concept. In this wonderful double portrait, both young women are wearing what appears to be silk damask gowns, robes a l'anglaise. As elegant as these gowns may be, they're only the foundation for everything else that's added on.

Both ladies have tied sheer white silk gauze aprons with ruffles on the edges over their gowns.(Here's an English example.) The triple-flounced lace cuffs, called engageantes, (here are examples) are pinned inside the sleeves of the gown, and the silk ribbon bows at the elbows are pinned on, too – clever ways that a lady could change the look of a gown. The lady in pink wears a gathered lace scarf around her neck, while the other lady wears one of fur, both anchored by more bows, pinned in place.

Flowers were popular decorative elements throughout the 18th century. While the red rose in the lady's hand is probably real (and symbolic of love and romance), the ones that decorate their clothes and bonnets are likely made of paper, artfully tinted and shaped. The bonnets are linen and lace, pinned on top of their tall, powered hair. The lady on the left carries another favorite 18th century accessory, a fan, that may be lace, silk, pierced ivory, or even painted chicken skin.

And then there's the jewelry. Both women are wearing chatelaines hanging from their waists. A chatelaine is a piece that hangs or clips to the waistband, with dangling chains that hold a lady's little necessities, like keys, scissors, seals, and watches. (Here is an example from the V&A, and another.) While the origins of chatelaines are useful, they're often beautifully made, costly status symbols, like the gold ones here that feature large gold watches with enamel faces.

The ladies wear matching heart-shaped necklaces (alas, the resolution of jpg isn't high enough for me to see them in detail.) They both wear clip earrings as well, plus jeweled brooches scattered across their hair and bonnets.  Are they real gemstones, or artful paste jewels? Either is possible, for ladies then, as now, mixed faux jewels with the real thing. There's one more accessory in this picture, one that no 18th c. lady would be without: the small spaniel, sitting on a silk cushion with his mistresses.

Above: Two ladies, one holding a fan and the other a rose, by an unknown French painter, c. 1770, The Bowes Museum

16 comments:

Hels said...

Nobody could put on all these foundation garments, clothes, overgarments, head gear and jewellery items themselves. It must have taken a team every morning, just to leave the bedroom.

MrsC said...

So how do we say BLING in French? hehehe

Anonymous said...

So if the lace elbow ruffles and bows were pinned on, those would be straight pins that they'd be using, right? How did people keep from constantly pricking themselves (or others)from all the pins hidden in their clothing and accessories which were holding them together?

Kristin said...

Anonymous, from my reenacting, we baste or tack such things onto our gowns, so that we don't prick ourselves. The only thing that is pinned with straight pins is the actual garment itself, to the stays.

Whether this is true or not back then, I do not know ... I've never seen a portrait showing pins. Artist omission? Possibly. Or maybe they really did tack/baste these things onto their clothes.

Heather said...

Pins were a necessity and were worked with on an every day basis, so our ladies would have known how to put them in and wear them without pricking themselves or others- it can be done- as an F and I re-enactor, I've done it, though not as much bling, that's for sure! We've also sewn ourselves into an outfit- such as a close fitting bodice over a set of 'jumps' or corset- much easier to handle-stays in and pins aren't on the front to prick anyone. Lace on the arms could have been sewn in for the day and then pulled out when finished- just as we cut and pull the thread out of the bodice at the end of the day- and let's face it- dressed like this, these ladies aren't makin' dinner for the family or washing the clothes! I'm sure their movements were limited to needlework or reading the latest novel!

Gwendolyn Gage said...

This is great and interesting information! Thanks for posting :-)

Allison said...

My understanding is that chatelaine is a 19th century term, so it's interesting that the V&A is using it to describe 18th century watches on chains. I know that this is an issue that comes up in the reenactor community, so maybe someone with more knowledge than me can pipe up.

Chris Woodyard said...

The 18th century term for what we know as a chatelaine is "equipage". Chatelaine was used after 1828. [source Antique Needlework Tools and Embroideries, Nerylla Taunton--a lovely book, if you are interested in needlework accessories.]
Love these ladies! They have a Russian look to me (and there was, of course, a strong French/Russian fashion connection.) Russian and Spanish portraits generally show a lot more bling than the average English portrait. Nothing succeeds like excess!

Time Traveling in Costume said...

I was really influenced by the accessories exhibit there, and gathered enough photos to help me with accessorize my gowns from the 1770s up to the 1830s. So many accessories, and so little money.:(
Val

Heather said...

One other thought- the ladies in the Old Order Amish Community in my area (Western New York and North Western PA.) still 'pin' themselves together- using only straight pins to close dresses- down the front- and skirts- at the waist. No buttons or hooks used in some of these orders. The little girls do use a one piece dress and they are buttoned up the back.
Other progressive orders in the area will use hook and eye and/or buttons for closures on women's clothing.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Now if you dip the point of one of those pins in poison, what are the odds of killing your victim?

Jenny Girl said...

Beautiful yet these gorgeous dresses and adornments must have been so very warm! Thanks for brightening my day as usual :)

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous1: There's an idea for a historical thriller!

What I like in this portrait is the reminder that, then as now, friends reinforce each other by choosing very similar styles and adornments.

Teresa Ramona said...

Susan,
I would like to make a comment on the "portrait of two French ladies", if I may. The first impression I got was that these two "ladies" appear to be mother and daughter. Considering the shorter life span of that era and the age at which women could marry and bear children, it would Be reasonable to imagine a mother of around 27 years of age posing for a portrait with her daughter of around 12. I've read that it was common for female children to start being laced into stays at the tender age of two years old!
It seems to me that the taller lady is holding her arm around the smaller "lady" in a protective fashion. Close examination of their faces reveals striking similarities, and the smaller chin of the "daughter" indicates that she is not yet an adult. Is it possible that 18th century mothers occasionally dressed up their daughters to look like miniatures of themselves?

MrsT said...

I'd like to find the painting at the head of this blogpost on the Bowes Museum website to request permission to use it to illustrate an article I am writing for the Proceedings of the 2015 Association for Living History Farms and Museums conference. I've tried the Bowes website search feature but I'm not having any luck. Not having the artist's name is a problem! Suggestions? Thank you (love your blog! I'm a regular reader!)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Mrs. T - Why don't you email a copy of the image directly to the Bowes and ask them? They should be able to recognize it. I wrote this post a while ago, so I don't recall exactly where I came across the image, but I'm guessing it was probably the Bowes site. But you know how museum search engines can be - you see something once, and then it vanishes forever (the V&A site is the best/worst example of this.) Sorry I can't be more help, but good luck - and many thanks for your kind words for the blog. :)

 
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