For people like me who love 18thc clothing, the 19thc can be a very dark period. For an era that has a reputation for being grim and dour, the Victorians seized any excuse to dress up in fancy dress. Costume balls, masquerades, pageants, amateur charades and pantomimes after supper were all the rage, and they loved, loved, loved the gorgeous silks and velvets of the Georgians.
While some of the most elaborate fancy-dress outfits worn by the upper classes were created to order by designers like Charles Frederick Worth, the majority of Englishmen and women would simply ransack the attic for a good costume. If great-grandmother's dress or great-grandfather's coat wasn't considered worthy of remaking into something modern, it became fair game for dress-up.
Nor were the clothes treated with much respect. The idea of preserving the past through the material culture of clothing is a relatively new idea. Old clothes were simply old clothes, and it was more important - and fun - to let everyone amuse themselves with makeshift fancy dress, from adults to children. Some 18thc clothes, too, were donated to theatrical companies, where they suffered the additional indignities of being smeared with stage make-up and worn under hot lights. Still other clothes wound up in the wardrobes of artist's studios, ready to dress a model for a painting with an historical theme.
Modern costume curators all have horror stories of how once-glorious Georgian dresses and suits in their collections were battered and stained and remade until they became only faded, tattered shades of their former selves: a scrap of embroidered silk here, or a jewel-studded button there. But until I saw this painting last month while visiting the RISDMuseum, I'd never witnessed the very act of Victorian costume-crime.
A Game of Charades, above (click on the image to enlarge), was painted by the popular historical and genre artist Edward Matthew Ward. A lively family group is amusing itself with charades in the parlor, and the improvised costumes include a sailor, some sort of rough frontiersman, and a gypsy. Of course there's a guy in drag, too, with a cap and kerchief on his head, because there always is.
I'm not quite sure about the clothes of the two young women dancing together, and the two women musicians. The museum dates the painting at c1840, which would make their dresses with the enormous sleeves about ten or fifteen years out of date. Are those sleeves far enough from current fashion that the dresses would have already become ripe for ridicule and costume - much the way today that people invited to parties with a 1980s theme will wear huge shoulder pads? The yellow dress seems to be worn with some ankle-length bloomers plus "exotic" slippers, which makes me think it's become a costume. Or are the young women not wearing costumes at all, but are simply a bit behind the current trends?
But it's the woman in the painting's foreground (and right) who really breaks my heart. She's wearing a gorgeous gown, petticoat, and apron from around 1775, complete with a ruffled cap that she likely found in the same trunk. The pale blue silk in that apron shimmers richly, and the petticoat that peeks out from beneath the gown looks like it might have gold threads. The rose silk of the gown is either a damask weave, or perhaps embroidered with flowers. This is still-beautiful clothing that must have been the height of fashion when new, and costly, too, yet by 1840 it's been relegated to charades, or perhaps to the artist's costume collection. What became of it all since then, I wonder? Above: A Game of Charades, by Edward Matthew Ward, c1840, RISDMuseum.
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.