Thursday, April 21, 2011

Napoleon: The Empire of Fashion Catalog: Regency Inspiration Writ Large

A typical page from the hardback catalog. Ladybug
is an 8-pound cat, to give you some idea of the size
of the book. It's nice and BIG!
If you're looking for Regency fashion inspiration directly from the contemporary fashion source -- Paris -- Napoleon & the Empire of Fashion: 1795-1815 is a super sourcebook, or so I would argue.

The volume is large, the many, many photographs full-page and crystal clear, the colors true, except for the seafoam silk gown, which looks grayish for some reason. As you have probably read reviews at Stay-ing AliveA Fashionable Frolick, and at Aylwen: Historical Costuming, among others, and of course at Natalie Garbett's blog (she being on the exhibition team), I shall not reprise them here. By the way, this review is not as an affiliate, I am not in any way benefitting from writing it, and have no connection with the exhibition.

One of the central aims of the exhibition is to show how high-fashion women, and a few men, actually appeared on the street, in their boudoirs, with children, or in the ballroom. Because, we learn, the foremost French fashion magazine of the time illustrated its plates from life, we should be getting a Vogue view of high fashion. The mannequins are completely dressed therefore, from carefully rendered hairstyles with good wigs, right down through jewelry and even, on one risque just-post-1800 model, thigh-high chemise and pink stocking garter peeping through the sheer muslin of the lady's dress. The clothes, well cleaned, are fresh. They fit the models beautifully. The curators had to develop custom mannequins, (oh, they are superbly rendered!) for the body shapes of the era were different from our modern shape, with smaller, higher chest cavities and bosom.

No time-stains here to taint our understanding of how color and contrast were used. Bravo, bravo, bravo! I can look at the models over and over, and have -- on the official web site -- and each time learn something new. This is the first time I have gotten a truly good sense of how someone might have looked, well-fitted, well coiffed, fresh, bright, dewy. Again, bravo!

For the first time, I have a good resource for constructing an entire look, not just from paintings and miniatures, but from carefully researched reconstructions. Wow.

Now, what this volume is and is not.
  • Like many exhibitions, this one is thematic, and along with the goal described above, the organizers aim to show how this era marked the birth of modern fashion. Some of the essays therefore make comparisions with modern-day fashion. It's fascinating, and I think their argument is valuable. For younger readers and those with concerns about modesty, I would warn that one essay deals, in part, with adult matter.
  • An example showing how the models are compared
    to fashion plates.
  • This is not a standard catalog. We are not taken on a chronological tour, one page per model, with explanatory data. Instead, the models are scattered among the essays. The captions along with the models and plates are minimal, so not all items a model wears are described or even named, and no dimensions are given. Nor are reproduction items identified. To do so for 50 models would have been a massive job, and I can understand why the team did not attempt it. Still, my detail-oriented mind would wish for this information.
  • The catalog has highly detailed images of scarce items. Many close-up views are given of embroidery and beading and lacework, and hats. Since this information is rare elsewhere (even the V&A books don't have this much), I am thrilled.
  • The catalog is not about chronicling year-by-year changes in fashion history, and it is not about garment construction. You cannot, in many cases, see seamlines. The garments are not rendered in schematic, and as mentioned, there are no dimensions given. If you want year-by-year information, go to fashion plates or to Cunnington's oldie-but-goodie English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. If you want seamlines and construction, go to Nancy Bradfield and Janet Arnold, etc.
  • This is not a catalog of the dress of all socio-economic levels, but a rendering of fashion as worn by those who could afford to and were interested in it. The essayists explain that the era marked a first democratization of fashion, with access to high fashion spreading through western societies, but the aim here is not to record that spread, but to record fashion at what was acknowledged as its source. 
  • One final note: this is a first edition of the catalog, and the essays are translated from Italian, I believe. There are some grammatical errors and oddities in sentence structure, and in some cases centuries are off, such as 1900 for 1800 (this due, most likely, to the different way the centuries are named in many European languages). I assume that later editions will correct some of these small errors. Again, the reader should not mind that much, and I expect later editions will correct the typos.
A Plea to the Exhibition Team: Even More Photos, or Even Video? Think Teaching Tools

Even if I am able to travel to the exhibition, should it eventually come close to Kentucky, it would still be of great benefit to professional and hobbyist costumers and living historians alike to see more photos of the models. After all, this is a very rare chance to see the costumes pulled together into real and convincing ensembles that show fit and accessories in a lifelike manner.

If the team ever thought of putting out a CD or some other set of images for sale, or a set of lectures in video, there are some of us who would sure appreciate having them for years to come, and my, what a teaching tool at the university or high-school level. If it had been me putting all this effort into researching and dressing these models, I'd be repurposing the information in as many ways as possible :}

10 comments:

Kleidung um 1800 said...

Very well written!
I do love the book and keep leafing through it again and again the past few days - so much inspiration, yet you're right, I , too, would love to see more pictures of the models!
Hopefully Natalie (Garbett) will go further into dteail on her blog and reveal even more about "behind the scenes".
Sabine

ZipZip said...

Dear Sabine,

Thank you! You do know about the "photographers set" (http://www.thomason-photography.net/CBML/index.html), do you not? The images are not that large, but many models have more than one image and it's been a great help to me. I will rue the day if they take it down. As I get ready for the Jane Austen festival and several other summertime events, am using the catalog, official site, and other set, all three :}

Very best,

Natalie

renna_darling said...

Very interesting Natalie! Although I am disappointed to hear that they don't identify what items are reproduced. I can see how that is not the focus of the exhibition but so often in the museum world there are discussions of "truth" in display and I feel that in this case they should have done so! Especially since the intent of the exhibit is to display an overall "look", what goes into that look is so important! I'll still be adding it to my wishlist though!

ZipZip said...

Dear renna_darling,
yes, I have to see I was a bit sad about the documentation. Still, the book and the exhibition are otherwise so well done that for this costumer, anyway, it's a super-valuable resource.

Hope your time in France is coming along well; bet you are learning and enjoying it all a lot!

Natalie

Jenni said...

How exciting! I can't wait to take a look at it.

ZipZip said...

You will on Easter Monday :} Happy Easter and see you then,

natalie

AvaTrimble said...

Good timing with this! On your recommendation (and I think I saw one of the other reviews the other day), I just ordered this from Amazon, since I conveniently had a birthday gift card. It will be here in a couple times, and I might even be able to cite it as a source (and put it in my annotated bibliography) for my senior thesis! yay! Thanks for the detailed review. :)

ZipZip said...

Dear Ava Trimble,
First, let me congratulate you in advance on your senior thesis! Would love to know more about the subject... I remember thesis writing time, though it's getting to be awhile ago :}

Second, glad the review was helpful!

Very best,

natalie

AvaTrimble said...

Natalie,

It's sort of a thesis of doom - I'm at Hampshire College, where we don't have grades, credits, or exams. And we all basically spend our final two semester on this massive independent project, the Division III, which gets translated into not-Hampshire-speak as "thesis."

Mine, if you're curious, is an online project. It's still in progress, but I'm building a site over at Wordpress documenting what I'm doing and trying to share research in a way that's useful (rather than doing all this work and then just having it all locked away in the library, never to be seen again after I graduate). It's at bygoneglamour.wordpress.com and is still only about halfway there, but it's coming along. :)

-Ava

ZipZip said...

Dear Ava Trimble,
Cool! I would really, really like to see the online project and will visit later today. Brocadegoddess did one a year or two ago and I was a faithful reader.

So excited to hear you're at Hampshire College. My sister Sally (nee Hanes) and brother in law David Hubble both went to Hampshire in the late 1980s. I heard a bit about project time and, whoo...

Very best indeed,

Natalie