The Perfect Dress For A Night On The Town: Historical Fashion

Elsa Schiaparelli, Surrealist Fashion Desiger

Usually when I am selecting a historical costume to present for my Historical Costume blog series, I chose something for centuries ago and presented in a painting, usually a portrait.

This month is different. If you are a reader of my blog then you know that I studied fashion design at F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology). Because of that connection and the fact that the museum is shut down because of this pandemic I decided to show the great fashions the museum possesses.

So for May 2020, the spotlight shines on this stunning red number and the female designer that doesn’t shine as bright on her legacy as it does on Coco Chanel (her biggest rival). That designer is Elsa Schiaparelli.

On September 10, 1890 Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli was born in Rome to Maria Luisa, a Neapolitan aristocrat, and Celestine Schiaparelli, a scholar in the Islamic world and Middle Ages, who was Dean of University of Rome. Raising in this cultural and academic surroundings, Elsa developed a love of ancient cultures, its lore as well as its religious rites. She wrote a book of poems entitled Arethusa based on the ancient Greek myth of the hunt. But she had her wicked moments, which got her sent to a Catholic boarding school. No happy to be there, she held a hunger strike and was permit to leave.

Instead of returning home to Rome, Elsa headed to England for a job a friend arranged for her. Well, that didn’t work out but her life did change. While in England, she attended a lecture on theosophy–a philosophical or religious thought based on a mystical insight into the divine nature. The lecturer was Wilhem de Wendt, who went under various alias, and claimed to have psychic powers and numerous academic credentials. He claimed to be a detective, criminal psychologist, a doctor, lecturer, and even performed in Vaudeville. This man became Elsa’s husband on June 21, 1914. She was twenty-three and Wilhem was thrity.

Elsa began helping with his work, promoting his act. In 1915, the couple was forced to leave London when Wilhelm was convicted for practicing the then illegal fortune-telling. The couple made their way around France before departing for America in 1916.

In New York City, they rented out offices for their Bureau of Psychology, which was the same act they did in England. This caught the eye of the F.B. I. so Elsa and her husband headed to Boston to continue their “work.”

On June 15, 1920, the couple became a trio with the birth of their daughter, Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha was born. Gogo as she was called by her mother. Wilhelm abandoned the ladies. Then in 1921, Togo was diagnosed with polio. That same year, the mother and daughter returned to New York. A year later, mother and daughter sailed to France.

In France, Elsa’s friend, Gabrielle “Gaby” Buffet-Picabia, wife of Dada and Surrealist artist Francis Picabia, would bring her into a circle that would inspire Elsa for the rest of her days and became a major part of her style. She developed friendships with Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Stuckin.

Elsa now began making clothes. Couturier Paul Poiret (a major designer of early 19th century) encouraged her to open her business. Though she received favorable reviews her business closed in 1926.

Not one to give up, Elsa launched her new collection of knitwear in 1927. She used a special double layered stitch that Armenian refugees created and sweaters with surrealist trompe l’oeil images. The Pour le Sport collection expanded in 1928. It included bathing suits, ski-wear and linen dress. The business grew that in 1931 she added evening wear and the shop moved to 21 Placve Vendome.

Then the world changed. In 1939, France declared war against Germany and then a year later on June 14, Paris fell to the Germans. Elsa and her daughter sailed to New York for work and she remained there until the end of the war.

Naturally, the fashion house closed but when the war ended, Elsa returned to Paris and reopened her house where it remained open until 1954. Elsa died at 83 on November 13, 1973 in Paris.

Elsa Schiaparelli changed fashion in a ways you might not be aware of. She first introduced zippers that matched the fabric, brooches like a buttons on clothing and even modern day catwalks are thanks to her. She also introduced a new color called Schiaparelli Pink, a shocking bright pink that you probably have seen hundreds of times.

This evening gown is from circa 1955 and is haute couture, which translates to made to measure. The gown is constructed of red silk faille and pink silk. The vibrant color has not fade or lost its vibrancy. The classic strapless gown appears to be boned or corseted to keep its shape and give support to the lucky lady who might have donned this gown. The hourglass silhouette accentuates a woman’s figure that was popular in the 1950s. A drape sash cuts across the hips for a train lined in the pink silk drapes asymmetrically.

The gown was sewn by hand by Schiarapelli’s fashion house workers and must have taken weeks to construct after being fitted and refitted to the measurements of the woman and model who donned this gown.

As for accessories that a lady would have wore with this, I would have gone with a simple yet refined look. Perhaps, pink strapped shoes that match the pink of gown so with every step, perfectly manicured red toes peeked out from beneath the hem. I would wear my hair swept up to show off the shoulders and perhaps, diamonds or simple necklace to highlight a perfect expanse of flesh. Maybe a shawl to cover up from the evening chill.

Wearing this gown, you can’t help but feel utterly sexy and classy. Perfect to got to the theatre or a ball and dance the night away even to fall in love.

Il Dottore: Historical Doctor Outfit

When I was searching for the outfit for this month’s Historical Costume post, I knew that only one outfit would do during these times. That of the the Plague doctor with his beaked mask and long gown. The Plague Doctor is an image that has lasted through the centuries. You can still see him partying during Carnivale di Venezia (Carnival of Venice).

The Plague first struck in the fourteenth century and roared a deadly path through the nineteenth century in some place in the world. Yet, this image of the Plague Doctor dates to the 17th Century. Modern eyes might look upon this outfit as a ridiculous garment. But it all about functionality.

This garment was a historical doctor’s PPE or haz-met suit. Each item served to protect the doctor from contracting the plague as he cared for a town’s plague victims. The costume’s invention was credited to Charles de Lornewho treated King Louis XIII of France.

Now, the design was not fanciful as crazy as it may seem but practical in every way even modeled on a soldier’s armor.

Let’s dissect the costume.

The first item that catches your eye is the beaked mask. Before the discovery of germs, it was believed that sickness was based on a miasma. If it smelled bad then it would get you sick. This belief dates back to the Greeks. In some way, that belief is true. That is why people carried nosegays (a historical face mask). The doctor though need his hands free so the that’s where the mask comes in. He would stuff the beak with pungent or sweet smelling herbs to protect against the miasma. But why that shape? It was believed the shape would give the doctor time to be protected by herbs. I don’t know how exactly. But if you have donned a face masked during the coronavirus pandemic then you know how uncomfortable it is to breathe in that thing so just imagine with smoke swirling about your face.

To protect his eyes, the plague doctor would don round spectacles like goggles over the mask. They resembled thick bifocals. I wonder if the doc’s vision was distorted in some way. It was certainly limited I imagine.

The next item of clothing is the actual garment. The doctor would slip on a long waxed leather or waxed canvas gown, leggings that were waxed, gloves, hat, and for a little flair shoes with bows. All these items were waxed so blood and other bodily fluids didn’t soak into the fabric.

If you look at the drawing, the doctor has a stick with a hourglass resting on wings which told people that he was the doctor and here to help.

So, how many doctors truly wore this? Various museums do have numerous beaks in their collections so it might have been worn by many and not just a few. Yet, that doesn’t mean that doctors treated patients. People as they do now fled the area. Thankfully, not our doctors and nurses.

I do have to say that if a person was feverish and dying seeing this beaked figure hovering over your prone figure must have been terrifying especially in a dim room, smoky from the fire that hung thick in a cramped room. In those religious times, it must have been as if the devil himself had come.

But it was treatment and I doubt many people went to doctors when ill. Most remedies came from housewives and other women who were skill in care.

But care was put in place. In Italy and I believe elsewhere, cities and towns had to hire a doctor to care for plague patients. As part of their contract the doctors had to wear this outfit to treat the sick.

The task of caring for the sick and dying was not easy (as it is not even today). During the plague a doctor had to serve a long quarantine after seeing a plague patient. And those that served were volunteers, second-rate doctors or young doctors new at their careers.

Much has changed in the medical field. But the medical community stands up and does their jobs from the doctors and nurses to the janitors who clean the rooms.

Stay safe and healthy.

A Favorite Queen: Queen Anne

Queen Anne by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Around 1690, Sir Godfrey Kneller painted the portrait of Queen Anne of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which during her reign these nations would become the United Kingdom. This portrait is 92 inches by 56 1/4 and is oil on canvas. Sir Godfrey was German born and a Dutch trained painter. In 1676, Kneller traveled to England to see Van Dyck’s works who dominated English art for more than 30 years. He became principal painter to the King–William III of William and Mary and the Glorious Revolution. This portrait of Queen Anne was not his first portrait of this Stuart Queen. His other works date circa 1686 portraits. This portrait can be seen in the Primary Collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London. That is after the coronavirus pandemic ends.

On February 6 1665 at St. James’s Palace, Anne was born to her mother Anne Hyde and her father, James, heir presumptive to Charles II. She was the second daughter. On 6 February 1685, James, the Duke of York, became King of England, Scotland and Ireland but in 1688, the Glorious Revolution happened and James was deposed. His eldest daughter, Mary, who was married to William III of Orange became the isle nation’s monarchs.

By this Anne was married to Prince George of Denmark who she wed in 1683. Since Mary and William did not have children, Anne was the heir apparent. Roughly a year later, Anne gave birth to her first child, a daughter who was stillborn. This would be the beginning of tragedy for the Stuart Queen. She was pregnant seventeen times in life. None of her children survived, either she miscarried, the child was stillborn or lived for a month or a couple of years. Only one child lived the longest–Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, died at eleven on July 30 1700Her last child–a stillborn–was born fourteen years before her death. A woman who never enjoyed great health these losses must have destroyed her body, heart and soul with each loss.

As a child, Anne was suffered an eye condition that caused excessive watering. She was sent to France for medical treatment. And her health never improved. She developed gout, which impaired her mobility so she was carried around on a sedan chair, and she grew obsese. Modern doctors speculated about possible causes for her health issues but certainly the pregnancy wrecked her body as well as the loss of her children. That must have ripped pieces of her.

Nevertheless, Queen Anne changed history. On March 8, 1702, Anne became Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland. She was crowned on 23 April 1702. In May of that year, England entered the War of Spanish Succession. But the most enduring act she had committed was the Acts of Union. Wales formed part of the English crown. Scotland was independent sovereign state. In 1707, the Acts of the Union was signed and these nations became known as the United Kingdom.

In October 1708, her husband died. Then in 1713, the queen lost the ability to walk. By March she was seriously ill and all awaited her. She still attended to her state duties but cancelled on in July 1714. She suffered a stroke on 30 July and died on 1 August 1714.

Anne was buried beside her husband and children in Henry VIII chapel in Westminster Abbey on 24 August 1714.

In the 1690s Queen’s Anne’s style of costume was at the height of fashion. Nothing less is expected of a monarch.

Anne has donned a mantua, a style that would exist at the height of fashion for more than fifty years in different variations. The woman’s overdress or gown was worn over an underskirt. The unboned bodice, loosely fitted, attached to the overskirt with a long train. The overskirt parted in the front to reveal the petticoat. This outfit was worn on social and formal occasions.

Let’s dissect her costume. The mantua is a gold pattern silk, bejeweled by pearls and a black stone, onyx perhaps or even black diamonds (She is queen after all) The train is lined in ermine, the royal fur.

Her body is tightly corseted and the gold silk is cut to fit precisely over the corset. It feels as if we have caught still dressing and the costume has a more relaxed feel to it. The deeply scooped neckline of the bodice seems to barely hang onto her shoulders and hanging from the arms is the scalloped sleeve with black, teardrop jewels on each scalloped edge and dotted with a pearl. The shape of the sleeve has an Roman quality to it as if Queen Anne is telling the world that the UK is the new empire, which it would transform into one day.

Beneath her bodice, she has a done a lace trimmed chemise. The lace probably Flanders lace peeks out from the bodice edge and hangs from the full, loose sleeves to drape to her forearm.

Anne would also have donned stocking and shoes which cannot be seen in the portrait. In this time period, her shoes would have been heeled and constructed of matching material. She would have spent the money on such a luxury.

And a luxury she could have enjoyed was to be dripping in jewels. Yet, she has no necklace, earrings, or rings. However, this time period, less jewelry was worn than before and the jewelry of choice was pearl.

Anne has pearls on. A pearl and black stone slash cuts across from her left shoulder to her waist. A rosette or brooch of black gems holds or simulates the holding of her long train draped about her lower body, which would dragged behind her and require servants to hold. Another Roman influence, perhaps. But on the pedestal, we can see a crown, golden and jeweled, just to remind people she is the monarch.

If Anne wanted to put on that crown, I think it would have been fitting for her hairstyle. The fashionable one of the era. Her dark hair is brushed back from her face and piled high on her head. The top would be curled and pinned and long curls draped over her shoulder, the fashion length.

Queen Anne was a fascinating woman with a tragic life. I hope this post and the fictional movie The Favorite and novel by the same name sparks your interest in this queen.

The Lady Wore

This portrait of Madame de Senonnes is my second favorite work of art. It is also painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (who painted our previous historical fashion post).

Before our sitter was Madame de Senonnes, this lady was Marie-Genevieve-Marguerite Marcoz. Marie was born to a wealthy family and in 1802, she married a merchant draper named Jean Marcoz. In 1803, the couple moved to the eternal city, Rome and had a daughter that same year.

But the marriage was an unhappy one and by 1809, the couple separated. During this time, Marie mixed in artistic circles and she met Alexandre de la Motte-Barace, Viscount of Senonne. They married in 1815 and returned to France.

In France, the Bourbon Restoration had occurred first in 1814 when Napoleon was defeated in Russia and the Peninsular War. Even though in June 1815, Napoleon had escaped from Elba and again, raised an army. He was defeated at Waterloo and exiled to the island of St. Helena where Louis XVIII of France once again claimed the French throne.

This time period was experiencing a Romantic movement as well as a Neoclassical one. Both influences are very much on display in this portrait. The Grecian style dress silhouette and hairstyles were fashionable until the mid-1820s. But the romantic movement that was at its height and can be seen in the gown’s details.

Before we deconstruct her gown, let’s determine what she has underneath it all. Beneath her gown, she would be wearing garments that every woman would have don. First she would have put on her chemise. That garment would have be constructed of linen or cotton. Then she would have had put on stays. This undergarment would have been stiffened to support her breast. And she would have slipped on her stockings (not seen in the portrait). These could have been of silk or wool and held up by a garter.

The Romantic movement looked to the past especially the middle ages and the renaissance. Madame de Senonnes is wearing an afternoon dress. This is determined by the lower neckline with long sleeves and made of silk or fancier fabric than a morning dress would have been made of.

Madame de Senonnes’ dress is made of red or maroon velvet. It has long sleeves with attached dove blue silk slashes to simulate the historical Renaissance fashion of the sixteenth century. In 1815, the fashion was for heavier fabrics than a couple of years before. The silhouette of the garment would have had a flatter front and would be fuller in back of skirts (that cannot be seen in portrait). Another style choice of the romantic movement is the white lace cuff that imitates the ruffs of the sixteenth century. Her neckline is square and constructed of fine white sheer fabric and finished with a three tier lace neck ruff. Her high-waisted gown has a matching dove blue silk or satin sash.

Madame de Senonnes accents her gown with her accessories. She has donned numerous gold necklaces with charms that include a cross and another that resembles a hourglass. She has a brooch of jade and perhaps ruby pinned just below the sash. She is wearing stacked jeweled rings on four fingers while the middle finger of the right hand has one ring. Clutched In her hand is a white handkerchief. On her ears, she is wearing ruby earring that might be silver or white gold. And tucked in her twisted up hair is a hair comb made of gold and red jewels most likely rubies. These accessories reflect an afternoon style through in a portrait the sitter would wear their best garments and jewels.

Another accessory that I just love is her shawl that drapes behind her and wraps around her to the left of her. It’s is made of ivory cashmere with a wide embroidered edge. The designs reminds me of something found in an illuminated manuscript from medieval times or a design from India or another foreign country whose styles centers on a natural design. The embriodery is of a red, blue and mustardy-yellow floral print and accented with scrolls.

Madame de Senonnes died in 1828. This is what remains of her.

Dressing a 13th Century Historical Romance Heroine

You may not know this but I love fashion especially historical costume. I studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology so it is natural that I blend my two passions together: Writing and fashion.

In my medieval Highlander Romance, The Laird’s Right, my heroine Portia de Mowbray is an English woman who finds herself kidnapped by Laird Alec Cameron. Portia may be surrounded by Highlanders but she sticks to her English styled garments. The Laird's Right Cover A Medieval Scottish Romance

During the medieval times, the style is different from our modern day style but both function and fashion play an important part. After all, that is what clothing must do.

For Portia, she would be wearing numerous items both under and outer garments. First off, our tough Portia would have worn hose and garters with fancy buckles to hold them up (after all there was no elastic) and a chemise with long sleeves and a high neckline. The chemise would have been constructed of linen. And she would not be donning any underwear. No panties or bra for Portia.

Now Portia would slip her côte over her head. The côte was a wide garment. It was wide at the shoulder and narrowed at the wrist. It’s the image we all have the medieval princess that is plastered around us. The natural waist was usually belted. Portia would have worn two layers one made of a linen then a wool or silk one even a velvet one to show off her status.

She’s not finished getting dressed yet.

Of course, Portia isn’t walking away yet because she needs shoes. In the 1250s, her shoes would be a soft shoe with more of a pointed toe that could have been embroidered in a floral motif or scrolls. Anything that she thought was fashionable or like. Back then, there was no right or left foot shoe so it would look odd to our eyes. Also it would have been constructed of leather.

Now she would choose some accessories. A belt for her côte, one made of silver or gold even with jewels, depending on what she might afford. Portia could put on a brooch or a jeweled collar or pendant to add a little flash. She might have taken gloves and her drawstring purse and dirk that may have jewels on the hilt.

Now with Portia dressed, she must do something with her hair. Perhaps, she has better skills than me or her maid does better than Portia. Her long blonde hair would be parted in the center and plaited. She might have her braids twisted into a bun since she is a widow. Her head would be covered with a coif, wimple or barbette even a gold or silver chaplet to give her that romantic look.

So, Portia is ready to face the day but if it was a chilly one, she would have had a cloak, which would have been a long mantle trailing on the ground and fastened in the front with a brooch. That too would have reflected her status and her fashion choices. It would have been wool or velvet. It could have been trimmed in fur and even fur-lined.

Maciejowski_Bible_Woman
The most basic of what Portia may have looked it once dressed. Though, with more flair as she has a bit more coin.

 

To your modern eyes and sensibilities, would you don these garments? Sounds pretty comfortable to me.