I received my copy of this book as part of my Mothering Sunday haul of books last weekend ( You didn’t expect I would receive flowers, did you? Not in this household…) It is, of course, the catalogue to a rather intriguing costume exhibition that was held last year in Milan.
Cristina Baretto and Martin Lancaster, independent researchers and textile consultants of the Napoleonic period, have collected clothing from that era (1795-1815) for many years. They wanted to stage an exhibition of their costumes, all perfectly accessorized, in order to explain why this style of clothing was adopted in France and what influenced its development and spread; they also wanted to exhibit a variety of clothes, as worn by the different echelons of society in order to put into the context the reason why this fashion was so revolutionary. The resulting exhibition, Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion, showcased fifty-one of their magnificent items after they had first been fully restored to pristine condition. The object of the restoration was to have them appear as they would have done when they were first made, over 200 years ago. I’m not sure whether this is the politically correct thing to do, but you have to admit, from the photographic evidence in this catalogue, that the results are breath-taking. And the chapter on the restoration in the catalogue makes for fascinating reading. A new mannequin was also commissioned for the exhibition ( one that looks very like the actor, Phoebe Nichols, shown below, who played Elizabeth Elliot in Nick Dear’s Persuasion, to me…)
The new mannequin was ordered so that the clothes could appear to their best advantage, by being worn by a model whose body shape reflected the measurements of ladies of the era, all taken from the clothing and, further, who looked as if she was wearing the corsets/undergarments of the day. Using this new mannequin meant that something akin to the original effect of these clothes could be achieved.
The catalogue has, apart from magnificent and plentiful reproductions of the clothes in the exhibition themselves, many reproductions of fashion plates of the day, mostly taken from the Journal des Dames at des Modes and Costume Parisien. These are also from the Lancaster /Barreto collection.
From comparing the examples of both clothing and prints you can see very clearly how the designs were interpreted by the dressmakers and subsequently worn by their customers.
There are interesting chapters on men’s clothing in the period, with the emphasis on the growth of tailoring, and how early 19th century men’s clothes eventually became the basis for the present 3-piece suit, now worn in many societies all over the world
Though the emphasis is on French fashion, many English garments and accessories are included in the exhibition and, indeed, in the catalogue there is a special chapter on Jane Austen and her attitude to fashion. This chapter also contrasts English fashions and habits with French fashions of the day.
The catalogue contains good explanatory chapters on life in early 19th century France, how its society worked and how the clothes reflected this. And there is a fascinating chapter on Napoleon and his manipulation and promotion of the French fashion industry, all part of his intention to promote France as the leader of fashion industry in ther late 18th/early 19th centuries, thereby also stimulating the French economy. All fascinating stuff, particularly regarding his proportion of the Jacquard loom and the wearing of linen.
The clothes exhibited in the catalogue range from the most sumptuous court dresses
and embroidered court trains
and wedding dresses
to the more comfortable and humbler clothes worn by women in pregnancy.
The catalogue is well written and very interesting, though I’m not sure I necessarily agree with all of its claims. For anyone who has the least interest in the fashion of the period, it is a must buy. The exhibition has now closed but it’s website, accessible here, is still open. If you go here you have a chance to vote as to where the exhibition will next appear. I’ve already voted, and am prepared to go to France of London to see it! If you go here you can see hundreds of photographs of the exhibition taken by the photographer, Phil Thomason. And below is a short five minute video of the exhibition from YouTube:.
I know you are all going to enjoy this magnificent book and, if you are lucky in the ballot, will all rush to see the exhibition that inspired it.