Sunday, 11 May 2014

Theorizing Sartorial Fantasy in the Long Nineteenth Century

One day, I was walking past my local Oxfam Bookshop and I saw a beautifully illustrated cover in the window. The title was even more entrancing: English Costume (1906), by Dion Clayton Calthrop. Ever since I volunteered during high school as an educational interpreter at Westfield Heritage Village Museum in Rockton, Ontario, Canada, I have been fascinated by fashion history: we interpreters chose our costumes from a wardrobe of entrancing outfits spanning the entire nineteenth century. So, naturally, I bought this book. I was delighted to discover that Calthrop’s book is not simply a history of English Costume, but a history of the English imagined through fashion. He travels from William the Conquerer to the beginning of the nineteenth century, ending on the evocative figure of Beau Brummell. His watercolour plates dramatize the cumulative effect of each era’s styles and his smaller line drawings provide the tiny sartorial details which create this effect. But Calthrop also provides more than this: his book enacts a ‘gossip across the centuries’ theory of history and the role of fashion within history. Calthrop uses fashion to explore lived experience from history:
A knowledge of history is essential to the study of mankind, and a knowledge of history is never perfect without a knowledge of the clothes with which to dress it. A man, in a sense, belongs to his clothes; they are so much a part of him that, to take him seriously, one must know how he walked about, in what habit, with what air. (vii)

‘Her very full cloak is kept in place by the cord which passes through loops. A large buckle holds the neck of the gown well together. The gown is ornamented with a simple diaper pattern; the hem and neck are deeply embroidered.’ (Calthrop, p.60)

His sartorial investigations are supported by an energetic imagination. He invites the reader to fantasize him or herself within each era, contrasting his fantasist approach (‘I pluck the lady from the old print, hold her by the Dutch waist, and twirl her round until the Catherine-wheel fardingale is a blurred circle, and the pickadell a mist of white linen’ ) with those of academic historians (‘There are many excellent people with the true historical mind who would pick up my lady and strip her in so passionless a way as to leave her but a mass of Latin names—so many bones, tissues, and nerves’). (334) (He is careful to provide various bibliographical lists to ‘appease the appetites which are always hungry for skeletons’.) Calthrop creates fashion scenes as peopled stories, and so gives us Queen Elizabeth I ‘strut[ting] down to posterity, a wonderful woman in ridiculous clothes’. But his fashion stories have a wide cast and an eye for interesting historical anecdote. Queen Elizabeth struts because her maid has presented her with a brand new lace ruff ‘shaped like a Catherine wheel’, informing her that it is a picadillie and sold by ‘Mr Higgins, the tailor near to St. James’s’. Mr. Higgins, of course, instituted Piccadilly Circus by selling these picadillie lace ruffs to the Queen, who popularized them and through them, his shop and its location. (313-317)

Calthrop’s sartorial journey ends in 1830, but this does not prevent him from commenting on life in the long nineteenth century (intriguingly, Calthrop also illustrated a 1906 edition of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ ). He positions his book as complementing nineteenth-century texts, particularly on the subject of female headdresses in the time of Henry VI (1422-1461):
One is almost disappointed to find nothing upon the curious subject of horns in ‘Sartor Resartus.’ Such a flaunting, Jovian spirit, and poetry of abuse as might have been expected from the illustrious and iconoclastic author would have suited me, at this present date, most admirably. I feel the need of [ . . .] some fantastic and wholly arresting piece of sensationalism by which to convey to you that you have now stepped into the same world as the Duchess out of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ (188-189)

‘Her very full cloak is kept in place by the cord which passes through loops. A large buckle holds the neck of the gown well together. The gown is ornamented with a simple diaper pattern; the hem and neck are deeply embroidered.’ (Calthrop, p. 192)

Calthrop proceeds to bear the reader into an sartorial enchantment with a character of fashion:
Look out of your window and see upon the flower-enamelled turf a hundred bundles of vanity taking the air [ . . .] a dream of delicious faces surmounted by minarets, towers, horns, excrescences of every shape [ . . .] Oh, my lady, my lady! how did you ever hear the soft speeches of gallantry? How did the gentle whispers of love ever penetrate those bosses of millinery? (189)

This narrative enchantment serves a practical purpose, as Calthrop envisions his text as assisting theatrical and amateur costumers alike and reassures potential fashion consultants that, ‘the garments are perfectly easy to cut out and make. In order to prove this I have had them made from the bare outlines given here, without any trouble.’ By engaging with the spirit and personality of those who originally breathed life into these styles, Calthrop’s texts suggests, costumers will create new sartorial tales. And not a bit too soon -- Calthrop is distinctly unimpressed with the state of 1906 fashion:

The question of modern clothes is one of great perplexity. It seems that what is beauty one year may be the abomination of desolation the next, because the trick of that beauty has become common property [ . . .] To-day there is no more monotonous sight that the pavements of Piccadilly crowded with people in dingy, sad clothes, with silk tubes on their heads, their black and gray suits being splached by the mud from black hansoms, or by the scatterings of motor-cars driven by aristocratic-looking mechanics, in which mechanical-looking aristocrats lounge, darkly clad. (441-462)

Well, Calthrop’s sartorial fantasy has outlasted the long nineteenth century to find a home in the internet era; whether he would find our world of online fashion and celebrity fashion personality 'one of great perplexity'  is less easy to determine. Anyway, as well as reading the complete text here, you can find selections from Calthrop’s history at popular costume history website, where he has a fervent welcome.