Saturday, November 21, 2009

Marquise Elle Reviews "A Harlot's Progress"

What a naughty marquise I've been this past month! How naughty, you ask? Why, terribly so- I've neglected to write to you! (Whatever did you think I meant?)

I just viewed the 2006 film "A Harlot's Progress," starring Toby Jones as William Hogarth. As you may have guessed, the film follows Hogarth's famous series of engravings with the same title. If you are unfamiliar with the work, do look it up; it is an invaluable snapshot of 1730s London, at once charming and repugnant. Wikipedia has a lovely write-up about it with detailed descriptions of each scene:

Go on, take a look. I'll wait.


Wonderful, wasn't it? I highly recommend his other pieces as well ("A Rake's Progress," which I mentioned in a past post, and "Marriage a la Mode" are wonderful).

Now, back to the business at hand. The film implies that the harlot in question was indeed a real person, and that Hogarth shared an intimate relationship with her (well, if one instance of rather awkward sex counts as intimate- but I suppose what I'm getting at is more of an emotional intimacy). It follows the events of Hogarth's series, interwoven with Hogarth's personal life and his relationship with Mary the "harlot." We even get a few glimpses of Henry Fielding, a good friend and admirer of Hogarth's, mostly being a party animal (though what more could you expect from the author of Tom Jones?).

All in all, I thought the film was splendid. The filming reminded me of "Barry Lyndon"- which I simply must review in full at some point- in that it had the same flat, painting-like character where everything is in sharp focus, making it difficult to determine depth. The engravings are incorporated seamlessly into the film, as well as reproductions of the paintings (I assume they are reproductions, as the originals were sadly lost in a fire in 1755). The casting was excellent, as if the characters had stepped out of the engravings and into the film. There were also elements in the production which reminded me of "From Hell" and "Sweeny Todd," in the rapid camera work and choice of ambient music, that gave the London of the past a dingy, squalid, claustrophobic feel. The story itself was captivating and very believable. I also appreciated the captions at the bottom of the screen, inserted here and there with background information of all sorts, giving an even greater impression of the Zeitgeist of the time and place.

And did I mention the costumes? Invariably when I watch a period film, particularly one set in the 18th century, I am very attentive to the costume choices, and very vocal about any mistakes I notice. ("Are those buttons running down the front of his shirt?" "Why aren't these women wearing caps?" "Is that a back-laced dress on a grown woman?" "SHOWER CAP!") But while watching this film, all I could do was stare in awe of the amazingly accurate costume design. It even gave me a few ideas for my own sewing! The opulent garments of the wealthy were stunning, yet at the same time the costumes of the poor were incredibly convincing- dirty, tattered, worn. Even the choices for different age groups were spot-on: older men wore the larger coats and ponderous wigs that were more fashionable in their youth, while Hogarth and pals wore more "modern" styles. Of course, much of this was probably gleaned from the engravings themselves, but it was wonderful to see the incredible attention to detail. Of course this attention was not only seen in the costumes- the entire film was Hogarth's work come to life.

I don't generally gush about period films- I tend to be overly critical of them if anything- but I was more than impressed with this film. I highly recommend it, Netflix has it, go forth and see it for yourself!

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Shape in Neat Stays

Beauty and Fashion

Then of late, you're so fickle that few people mind you;
For my part, I can never tell where to find you;
Now drest in a cap, now naked in none,
Now loose in a mob, now close in a Joan;
Without handkerchief now, and now buried in ruff,
Now plain as a Quaker, now all of a puff;
Now a shape in neat stays, now a slattern in jumps,
Now high in French heels, now low in your pumps;
Now monstr'ous in hoop, now trapish, and walking
With your petticoats clung to your heels, like a maulkin;
Like the cock on the tower, that shews you the weather,
You are hardly the same for two days together.

-London Magazine, 1762

Stays (the English word for "corset" in the 18th century) are a wonderful garment that I personally wish had never gone out of style. They support the back, promote good posture, and give women of every size a gorgeous shape. (Not to mention what they do for the girls- is there anything more appealing than a pushed-up bust?) It is a personal pet peeve of mine (and of many reenactresses) when I hear descriptions of how uncomfortable, unhealthy, and impractical 18th century corsets were- and this often from people who are supposed to be in the know! It is one thing for the writers of "Pirates of the Caribbean" to be misinformed on the subject (afterall, they can't even seem to decide what year the movie takes place in- the Golden Age of Piracy was 1690-1720, and yet the costumes of the movie drift idly from 1740 to 1780), but it really puts my knickers in a twist when supposedly reputable educational sources start bashing the practice of wearing stays (as in this article). So, here I hope to argue against some of the more popular misconceptions regarding an item of clothing that I take great joy in wearing, and perhaps I will convince more than one lady out there with an antiquated sense of fashion to give them a try.

1. Stays are uncomfortable. This is the big one. Let me start by saying right now that I have been wearing corsets of the 18th century and 19th century style (and yes, there is a difference! see #5) for the past few years, and provided that the garment fits you properly, you should NOT feel any discomfort. But as Hamlet would say, there's the rub- it is very difficult to find a corset that fits you without having it made specifically to your measurements. (The great burlesque artist Dita von Teese knows this, and in this
interview she says she never wears a corset that hasn't been custom made to fit her. Incidentally, she can get her waist down to a remarkable 16"!) The reason for this is simple: stays and corsets are garments that are meant to fit and support your body exactly. Imagine wearing a bra that was entirely the wrong size, or jeans that were too tight and too short. You wouldn't be very comfortable, would you?

2. Stays make it so you can't move/breathe.
"I think I'm going to faint!" I'm sick to death of that old chestnut. (Except when Aunt Pittypat does it in "Gone with the Wind"- then it's positively droll.) First of all, the frail damsel fainting dead away is one of those remnants of the Victorian mindset, when an attractive, well-bred woman was supposed to be delicate and easily distressed. It's amazing how much of history is STILL being viewed through the Victorian-tinted glass. (The Golden Age of Piracy being one victim of Victorian sensibility- I'm looking at YOU again, PotC!) But let's forget about that for a moment and get practical. Stays were not strictly an upper class garment. Stays were worn by everyone. That includes the lower class, servants, and working women. (Whether slaves here in America wore them often is not yet known, but I believe there is evidence that at least some of them- house slaves perhaps- did.) Stays were meant to be lived in, worked in- they supported the body. In fact, stays were considered so necessary for a woman's well-being that there were charities formed with the sole purpose of providing stays to poor women. Now, if stays restrict your movements and suppress your breathing, how exactly are you supposed to work effectively? I would argue that if anything, stays facilitate the kind of work that women had to do around the house. For lifting heavy objects like firewood and pails of water, and supporting your back when sitting on a backless stool, there really is nothing better than a well-made set of stays.

But I'd hate to make some sort of supposition about working women wearing stays without backing it up with some hard evidence. Luckily, this past weekend I picked up a copy of "The Servants Directory, Improved; or House-Keepers Companion," by H. Glass, published in 1762. Mr. Glass advises house maids to "be up very early in the morning, as indeed you are first wanted; lace on your stays, and pin your things tight about you, or you never can do work well." Well said, Mr. Glass.

3. Stays were made with whalebone. This is only partly true. The "boning" in stays was actually made from baleen, the plates in whale's mouths that they use to filter plankton out of the water for food, which are made of keratin (the same stuff that makes hair, fingernails, and horns). If you've ever handled dry bones before, or anything carved from bone, you'll know that bone is either very brittle, or very strong and inflexible, neither of which would make for good stays. Baleen, on the other hand, is quite flexible- in fact, many historical clothing makers swear that plastic is the next best thing to baleen for making stays. Steel boning didn't come into use until the 19th century, but it is less flexible than baleen and doesn't breathe as well, which is probably why all those Victorian ladies were fainting left and right. (I kid.)

4. Tight-lacing was widely practiced in the 18th century. What a joke! That's like saying everyone today wears a girdle, because it's fashionable to be skinny! Not to mention everything we went over in point #2- it's simply wouldn't be practical for most women to tight-lace. In fact, tight-lacing was widely looked down upon as being unhealthy (which evidence seems to support, although some modern women swear that it's not provided you properly train your body for it), not to mention vain. There are a number of very funny extent cartoons on the subject, including the one I put in my first post.

5. 18th century stays and 19th century corsets are the same. Not so! When most people think of corsets they think of the "hourglass" or "wasp-waist" figure. The hourglass ideal didn't come into being until the Victorian era, after the straight lines of the high-waisted era (think Jane Austen) went out of vogue. In the eighteenth century, the fashionable shape was more like an ice cream cone with a flat front. (For those of us with a narrow bust, like me, it may come out more like a cylinder. Sigh.)



In fact, stays so alter the shape of one's torso, that a gown that fits you when you're wearing stays probably won't fit if you're not wearing them. In my experience, this is because the stays compress the bust and push it upwards; without the stays, the bust sticks out too far to fit in the gown. Overall, 18th century stays tend to compress the body less than the 19th century corset, in that the former molds to your body and holds it in place, while the latter compresses the lower torso and waist to create the desired shape. Even so, I've worn corsets in the 19th century style, and I can honestly say that as long as you wear one that fits and you don't try to lace it too tightly, it can be quite comfortable.

In short, there are a lot of myths and notions out there about stays that simply aren't true. I personally love to wear stays, and I know I'm not alone in this sentiment. They're wonderfully supportive, surprisingly comfortable, and so flattering! But don't take my word for it- ask Glenn, Uma, and Kirsten. Just don't ask Keira.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Crewel Mistress: The Pretty Pocket

One of many things I love about the 18th century- or really any period dominated by handmade/ homemade items- is how much beauty was incorporated into everyday objects. Of course if you were wealthy, you wanted to show that off by having elaborate or lavish things, but even those of modest means took the time to embellish their everyday items by carving, painting, and other methods.

Even items that weren't normally meant to be seen in public were often very intricately decorated. No, I'm not talking about unmentionables- the only real "underwear" a woman had in the 18th century was her shift, and as far as I know those were not embellished, except maybe with ruffles at the neck or cuffs, which would have shown at the edges of the gown anyway. (The lack of decoration on a shift was probably a practical consideration. It was the closest thing to your skin and got dirtied by sweat/body soil sooner than anything else you wore, and so needed to be laundered relatively frequently. Laundry practices were harsh in those days, and a shift needed to be able to stand up to a considerable amount of abuse.) But there are many extant examples of gorgeously decorated pockets.

Women's pockets in the 18th century were not sewn into clothes as they were on men's garments; they were more like a bag that you tied around your waist. There may have been a number of reasons for this, which I won't go into here. Whatever the reasons, it is generally agreed upon that pockets were meant to be worn under the petticoat(s), and accessed via pocket slits in the petticoat (and sometimes the gown). Whenever you see a visible pocket in 18th century art, it's usually because the woman wearing it is in a state of undress. I've also heard of examples of merchant women wearing them on the outside, presumably for easy access, but I've never seen any.

Now, because the pocket was never seen except by the woman wearing it (and the man undressing her, but I'm sure he wasn't looking at her pockets), some find it puzzling that there are so many extant examples of finely decorated pockets in museums and private collections. There are even those that say that these fancy pockets prove that sometimes a woman would wear her pockets on the outside to show them off. I don't really agree with this viewpoint. First and most importantly because there isn't really any evidence to support it, but also because it doesn't make much sense from a practical standpoint. Pockets couldn't be closed like a purse, and wearing them on the outside would only increase the chances of having something fall out or get stolen. Plus, it would throw the whole silhouette off, having bulges at your hips outside of your skirts. I can't say for certain that it was NEVER done ("never" and "always" are dangerous words when discussing history) but I do think it was unlikely.

The prettiest pockets, in my opinion, are the ones that have been decorated with crewel work: designs worked in two-ply wool thread in various (usually bright) colors. The most common theme seems to have been the natural world- birds, leaves, flowers, anything that lent itself to a gracefully curving shape. Remember the Rococo love of natural curves! Crewel work was done on other items as well, but I really love to see it on pockets. It's like wearing a really cute pair of panties- it's your own adorable little secret. And there's something quaint and homey about it. It lacks the pomp and expense of silk, and instead looks like something your grandma would make for you, something special and personal.

I'm dying to learn how to do crewel work myself (one of many hobbies I plan to pick up eventually), and since I love it so much, you can imagine how thrilled I was to find it in- of all places- IKEA. I saw this lovely pillow and just about fainted from the excitement. "It looks just like an 18th century pocket!" I said, and the urge to buy a truckload of them was almost too strong to withstand. But, I told myself, I have plenty of throw pillows, and I certainly don't need to spend $25 on another one. But then, I came across this and I was determined to make it mine. Unfortunately they appeared to be out of the large ones, but I found one last little one on display and got a very nice employee to take it down for me and find its item number. Well, I needed a lamp for the new nightstand I was buying anyway. But I drew the line at the toile de jouy sheets (I can't find a link, but I assure you, they are divine), which shows that I have some restraint, afterall.

I can't tell you how much I adore IKEA, and after finding these little snatches of my favorite century there, I love it all the more. And I can't wait to build my new nightstand, so I can embellish it with my new, lovely lamp, and bring a little beauty into the everyday, 18th century-style.

Friday, September 11, 2009

An 18th Century Mood

Greetings, my little pink-cheeked cherubs! I've been away, but I have not forgotten our sweet moments together, here in my cozy little lair, tucked safely into my corner of the World Wide Web. And I have brought you gifts! Delicious tidbits and sweetmeats for the mind to savour!

Today, I wish to share with you the concept of the 18th century ambiance. Like all things romantic, ambiance is fickle and tricky, yet flows easily when the mood is right. In our fast-paced, electric world full of modern conveniences, we want to recreate a more natural, more hand-made world, that still has an opulent feel. How do we achieve this?

1. Lighting
Many a great film director knows of the power of good (or bad) lighting, and no one in my mind has used it to better effect than Stanley Kubrick in his film adaptation of The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray. Like many others, when I first saw "Barry Lyndon," I thought it was drawn out and a tad dull. But something kept bringing me back to it, enticing me to try again. Well, I am certainly glad I did.

The film as a visual work is breath-taking. Many (but not all, contrary to myth) of the scenes were shot without any use of artificial light- some indoor evening scenes were shot only by candlelight!

"Does this lighting make me look pale? Wonderful!"

Kubrick also used special lenses to make the picture flat, so that the entire film would resemble a moving painting. Arty!

The take home message here is-
natural lighting. Flickering candles, the warm glow of a crackling fire, the ghostly cast of a tin lamp. Nervous about fire? There are some truly wonderful electric candles out there that can give an effect that's almost as good (my grandmother used to keep some in the windows of the sun porch, and turn them on every night).
If you're feeling particularly lavish, go for a crystal chandelier.

2. Music

The most obvious choice is, of course, period music, and classical seems to be the most logical. Bach, Handel, Haydn, Vivaldi, and of course, Mozart.

Of course, this is hardly the only music that was available during the Age of Enlightenment. What about the popular ballads of the day? What about music for English country dance? If you're feeling bawdy, how about a drinking song? has a wonderful collection for your perusal:

Still, we're looking for a mood here, and not necessarily something that's strictly period. In that vein, I'd like to recommend the following albums:

a. The Decemberists - Hazards of Love
I'll admit it, I adore absolutely anything that Colin Meloy creates. The man has a way of capturing an antiquated feel in all his music. But the Decemberists' latest concept album, Hazards of Love has a particularly rococo feel to it (there's even a song all about a rake- A Rake's Progress, perhaps?) and yet, it's totally modern. A love story, a rock opera, and a very progressive bit of music in it's own right. And it's absolutely gorgeous!

b. Loreena McKennitt - The Book of Secrets
A beautiful album with a really mystical feel. It even contains a musical adaptation of Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman."

c. the Braid soundtrack
I just finished this game today (it's only $15- download it to your Mac or PC immediately, or play it on XBox Live!) and I was completely blown away by it. Apart from being a very challenging and unique puzzle game, it is visually STUNNING. But of course, we're here to talk about music. Creator Jonathan Blow used licensed music from Magmatune artists to cut down on production costs, and the results are remarkable. Each piece has a beautiful, timeless feel that fits the mood of the game perfectly, but also, of course, fits the 18th century just as well. The full soundtrack is available for download from Magmatune.

If you're feeling more upbeat and funky, why not follow Sophia Coppola's example in "Marie Antoinette" and bust out the '80s New Wave and post-punk? Anachronistic, certainly. But it captures the opulent feel of the Rococo period just the same.

3. Decor
What fabulous chateau would be complete without the correct decorations? The perfect chaise, the sumptuous drapes, the plush rug, the tasteful paintings? But how do we get this-

in a modern flat?

We start with color choices. The Rococo was a period of light, fluffy colors. Ditch the dark rugs and drapes (or save them for when you're feeling more Victorian). Think pastel- white, cream, pink, baby blue. And don't forget gold! A gilded mirror or picture frame can add the perfect touch.

Also, surround yourself with art. Paintings, engravings, statues, even a cute little miniature! Of course we can't all afford the originals, but that, my dears, is what is for! Don't forget the gilded frame!

But don't let yourself get too cluttered. Notice how open the room above looks? (Open, but not empty- a delicate balance.) Be smart with your space and keep a good amount of the floor open. You never know what you might need it for!

Of course you can't have a completely bare room full of artwork. What about furniture? As with everything else, think light-hearted. Curvy, winding shapes that put one in mind of twisting foliage, or waves on the sea. When it comes to upholstery, go for brocades or printed pastoral scenes. Get some fancy throw pillows or an elegant rug. And of course, a canopy bed. (Oh la la...)

Finally, if you're feeling really daring and DIY, check out Nama Rococo. They have the most beautiful Rococo-themed wallpaper you can imagine, with a modern twist of course. It's delightfully chic!

Well my darlings, that is all I have time for. Keep your eyes peeled (ew!) for my next post, where I shall delve into the dangerous world of fashion!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Why the 18th Century?

Good day, my little darlings! I see you've stumbled upon my humble little corner of the vast expanse that is the internet. Good for you! Your day is officially just a bit more glamourous.

Starting these things is always a bit awkward, isn't it? What to say? Well, I suppose I should explain why I felt compelled to make a "blog" all about the Age of Reason. But not before introductions! For our purposes here, you may refer to me as Marquise Elle- or "my lady," if you're feeling saucy.

Prince Regent
"I always feel saucy!"

But let's get down to brass tacks. I spend many of my weekends living in a tent, cooking over an open fire, and dressing up in clothes that went out of style over 200 years ago. In other words, I'm a Revolutionary War reenactor. I love being a living historian, but visiting the 18th century every couple of weekends simply isn't enough! Hence this blog was created. I hope to bring bits of the past into the present and into my everyday life, and hopefully into yours, the reader's, as well. And couldn't we all use a little more glamour? More powder, more fans, more courtly intrigue, more supportive undergarments?

"Tighter, Pierre!"

My weekends revolve around the American War for Independence, but I plan to cover all of the 18th century, and some European goings-on as well. To get us going, I give you a fantastic music video by the incomparable Annie Lennox, which I discovered on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's blog (and I recommend you all visit it). Here is Annie's video for "Walking on Broken Glass," full of 18th century courtly style, John Malkovich, and Hugh Laurie. What better way to begin?

Unfortunately I can't embed it here. You'll just have to go to YouTube to enjoy it!