Last year I wrote a post about a sharp-dressed 18th c. English gentleman, and how the centerpiece of his sartorial splendor was a leopard-print waistcoat. I hadn't realized that leopard-patterned menswear was trendy long before 1980s heavy metal bands – once again, I have Mark Hutter, Colonial Williamsburg's tailor in the Historic Trades program, to thank for opening my eyes – but after I blogged about Baron Cawdor's portrait, I began spotting more 18th c. Men in Spots everywhere I looked.
The young Italian gentleman, topleft, (this is a detail of a larger painting) is not only sporting a leopard-print waistcoat beneath his blue coat, but matching leopard breeches. Since the fashion for leopard print most likely originated in Italy, with Englishmen on their Grand Tour bringing the style home as a rakish souvenir, it's not surprising to find the fashion at its most extreme here. But I particularly admire the expression on the face of the lady in this painting: most likely she's studying the drawing in the gentleman's hands, but I have to think there's also a little bit of Fashion Police in the way she's pulling back, a genteel double-take at those jungle-cat breeches.
The stylish fellow, right, is Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810.) He was an innovative French dancer and balletmaster, and served as the maitre des ballets of the Paris Opera at the request of Marie Antoinette. He was prominent in artistic circles throughout Europe – he was friends with Voltaire, Mozart, and David Garrick – and clearly he dressed with artistic flair, too. There's nothing shy about the spreading leopard-patterned lapels on his coat. I can't quite tell from the reproduction, but it's possible that the leopard is actual fur, not printed, the ultimate statement in exoticism.
But not all leopard-wearing men were gentlemen or accomplished artists. This portly, unshaven character lounges to one side of a 1772 satirical print called The Macarony Dressing Room. Believe it or not, he isn't the foppish macaroni, but you'd never know it from the leopard-print waistcoat and matching breeches, plus the patterned stockings and short boots – even though he's in the print as a figure of ridicule. To the average, print-buying Englishman, the high fashion of leopard print would have been suspect at best. I'm sure there's also significance to his unusual hat and the outsized nosegay of flowers (lupins?) sprouting from his chest. Any art historians out there willing to interpret their meaning? (Thanks to Mike Rendell of the Georgian Gentleman blog for recently posting this print.)
Top left: Detail, An Interior with Elegant Company, by Venceslao Verlin, c. 1770, private collection. Right: Portrait of Jean-Georges Noverre, by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, c. 1780, Louvre Museum. Bottom left: Detail, The Macarony Dressing Room, by Charles White, printmaker, after a painting by Captain Minshull. 1772. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.