18th century, 19th century, Museum/Exhibition Review

Déboutonner La Mode at Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs – A Mini Review

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“Although small in size, the priceless materials and skills involved in making these pieces dating from the 18th to the 20th century can make them fully-fledged objects d’art. Produced by artisans ranging from embroiderers, soft furnishers, glass makers and ceramicists to jewellers and silversmiths, they crystallise the history and evolution of these skills. The button has also fascinated famous painters, sculptors and creators of jewellery, inspiring them to produce unique miniature creations for the great couture houses.”

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You’ve probably never thought much about buttons before. I’ll admit I hadn’t. Besides their practicality there is little to consider for most people. However, buttons have held an important place in garment manufacture and personal presentation for many centuries. Take for example the picture above. This coat, a typical example of menswear à la mode français from the late eighteenth century, is beautiful in it’s own right and made from a stunning brown patterned silk. But looking closer you can see that there is more to this coat than just it’s fabric. The very pronounced buttons at front, containing miniature portraits and pastoral scenes, were not only practical but also extremely decorative and evocative of the original wearer. Who were the people in these portraits? A wife? A lover? Family members? Possibly even the wearer himself? And why did the wearer choose such decoration usually reserved for more intimate accessories such as lockets, and to display it so prominently?

These sorts of questions sprang to my mind as I walked through Musée des Arts Décoratifs viewing their newest exhibition –  Déboutonner la mode. Curated by Véronique Belloir from the 20th century collections department at Palais Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris.

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Firstly I must say that I love the overall design of the exhibition space. Spread over two levels, when you first walk into the space it is quite dark. For much of the exhibition you are essentially walking around in darkness except for the soft yellow lighting illuminating the exhibition pieces and their labels, which really does achieve the desired effect of drawing your focus to them. Too many times I’ve been in a bland, white walled exhibition space where my attention has wandered to corners of the room that do not contain any of the exhibition pieces. In fact I didn’t even see the museum staff that monitored one section of the space until I saw a shadow moving around in a dark corner of the room! The only downside to this design is that if you’re quite tired when you enter the space you may be even more so by the time that you leave it.

It is interesting that the museum website lists the exhibition designer is Éric Benqué. A quick view of his portfolio tells me that he was not involved with the previous 2013 exhibition La Mécanique des Dessous: Une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette, which I was lucky enough to view in New York at the Bard Graduate Centre under the name, Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette. Yet the design of the exhibition – particuarly the use of low lighting, as well as the overall mood – is strikingly similar. I’d be interested to know then how much of this is dictated by Les Arts Décoratifs and how much by the actual exhibition designer. However, if this is keeping with the museum’s general textile and fashion exhibition style then I thoroughly approve of sticking to a good concept.IMG_8410

The exhibition begins with an emphasis on materials – what have buttons been fashioned from over the years? Multiple buttons from a variety of centuries are used to demonstrate this – from carved wooden faces to ceramic asparagus bunches. The history of the manufacture of buttons in France from the seventeenth century onward is explored, discussing the often complex guild system that determined what artisans were allowed to manufacture what types of buttons and with what types of materials. New innovations that impacted the manufacture and use of buttons are discussed, and the exhibition charts their use as functional objects through to decorative and delicate accessories. Most of the labels are in both French and English, which actually surprised me as the labels in the Louvre are just in French, which is great for those non-French speaking visitors.

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Overall, the exhibition follows a chronological timeline – starting in the mid-eighteenth century and finishing with modern day collections. Buttons and fashion post-1950 are shown through the lens of the big French fashion houses that emerged in mid-twentieth century, such as Christian Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier. That is not to say that iconic fashion houses pre-1950 are not discussed though. Special emphasis is placed on famous French designer Paul Poiret during the 1910-20s, and the Italian Elsa Schiaparelli who was at her peak in the 1930s.

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One of the highlights is a collection of 900 different buttons from the workshop of artist and decorator Henri Hamm who was popular among stylish Paristian women in the early twentieth century. As the label to the collection states, “His buttons illustrate his taste for a wide range of materials” and their “decoration is uncluttered but technically skillful, with significant sculptural and chisel work.” The buttons are really very intricate and range from those that are highly stylised to those that depict flora and fauna.

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Personally my favourite part of the exhibition was the museum’s collection of French Revolution and World War Two Liberation buttons. The French Revolution buttons date to 1789 and depict principle events from the revolution such as the storming of the Bastille or revolutionary slogans such as “VIVRE LIBRE OU MOURIR.” Buttons relating to the French liberation from the Nazi controlled Vichy Regime (so c. 1944) depict the tricolours of France, the British and U.S. flags, as well as portraits of soldiers and resistance fighters. These collections reveal the stylish methods in which buttons, and personal adornments in general, were a means in which to show political allegiance or patriotism during France’s turbulent history.

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Finally, the exhibition catalogue is beautifully presented and photographed. I also own the catalogue to La Mécanique des Dessous: Une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette, and it is beautifully done as well. Both would make lovely additions to anyone’s collection – whether you’re interested in the articles inside or just the pictures.

Déboutonner la Mode

The exhibition runs from 10 February to 19 July 2015.

For more information on the exhibition and the Museum, go to the exhibition page on Les Arts Décoratifs website click here.

17th century

Looking at 1630s English Fashions through Wenceslaus Hollar’s Ornatvs Mvluebris Anglicanus

In order to understand early modern undergarments, it’s also vital to understand the outergarments that were worn. In order to better educate myself I’ve recently been going through some of the engravings done by seventeenth-century artists, particularly the Bohemian Wenceslaus Hollar who worked extensively in England, and Abraham Bosse, a French engraver. I love, love, love the engraving styles of the early seventeenth century, and particularly the styles of both the artists that I’ve mentioned.

As a historian working on dress these types of engravings are also particularly useful to understand what types of clothing people wore and how they wore it. Although, keep in mind, that as an artistic medium these drawings can be prone to exaggeration or artistic licence. However, for the most part Hollar seems to have liked to draw people from all walks of life and in various social situations, so you can assume that they must have been somewhat realistic representations.

The prints below come from a particular work Ornatvs Mvluebris Anglicanus or The Severall Habits of English Women, from the Nobilitie to the contry Woman, as they are in these times, 1640. Although the British Library also dates some of the pictures to 1638. In all probability, many of these engravings were first sketched in the late 1630s and not published until 1640. There are no captions that accompany the pictures, but they appear to progress from elite dress to common dress and that’s how I’ve ordered the ones below. All of the pictures and more, are available via the University of Toronto’s Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection.

 Fashionable Gowns 

These fashionable elite women both wear the gowns of the 1630s that consisted of bodices with high waistlines and elbow-length full voluminous sleeves, a stomacher, a petticoat skirt and a falling lace collar.  The bodices were often boned, as the extant example from the V&A is below with whalebone, buckram and canvas, and the stomacher would also have been stiffened with heavy fabrics, whalebone or a busk.

  

Bodice. 1630-1639. England.  Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Although it seems that the bodice of the gown could also be incorporated into the skirts as the picture of the woman on the bottom depicts. A tailoring bill for Queen Henrietta Maria from 1634 mentioned “one Gowne of black satin, The Sleeves, Stomacher and forepart with a lace throughout.”

Women also wore foundational garments underneath such as the bodies and rolls.

Hungerline

A curious case is the ‘hungerline’ or French ‘hongreline’. When I was examining the household bills of Henrietta Maria of England, I came across numerous references to a “hungerline”, for example in a bill from 1632 it states that the Queen’s tailor made a “Satten hungerline imbrodered with gold and Silver sticht and garnished with whalebone and lyned with taffaty.” The bill also makes references to an un-boned “carnacion satten hungerline imbroidered and stitched and lyned with white taffetie…”

So it left me wondering – what is a hungerline?

According to French sources, a ‘hongreline” was a short French-style waistcoat that was derived in style from the justaucorps which was a coat worn by men (by 1690 it was described in Antoine Furetière’s dictionary as a short-sleeved shirt with large tabs). Alfred Franklin in Corporations ouvrières de Paris Du Douzième Au Dix-Huitième Siècle (1884) noted that it was common among rural women and servants in France. However, considering there is ample evidence of it in Henrietta Maria’s wardrobe  and it is depicted on bourgeois women (see below), it seems that it was popular even among the upper classes. The style was probably brought to England by the French Henrietta Maria when she married Charles I in 1625. The only visual image I’ve been able to find that depicts a hungerline is this French one, from 1629, which unfortunately only gives us a side view.

Translation: “The clothing of a bourgeoise lady of Paris in a simple skirt and a modern style of hongreline when she wants to leave her neighbourhood.” 

Isaac Briot, 1629. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

Some French sources state that the main features of the hongreline was it’s “basques grandes/flottantes”, ie. the large and flowing lower part of the bodice. Another difference between a hungerline and a normal gown bodice or waistcoat, and the reason I have chosen Hollar’s picture above, is the sleeve detail. The drawing above depicts a sleeve that contains two parts – the bigger embroidered upper sleeve that stops at the elbow, and a lower sleeve that comes out from underneath and finishes at the wrist. The sleeves also seem to have been heavily embroidered as description in Henrietta Maria’s bills describe, and maybe even had decorative button detail that mimicked a man’s coat sleeves, as is very obvious on the next picture below. It may well be though that this style is one that will never be completely recovered from history.

Pomanders

Pomanders (from the French pomme d’ambre) were items of jewellery that contained fragrant aromatic substances such as ambergris, musk, clove or civet, and commonly hung from the neck or the waist. Popular since medieval times they were believed to ward off infection during times of plague (as it was thought that disease was transmitted through foul air). However, by the eighteenth century they were used mostly to cover up bad smells, particularly in cities such as London were the streets were often filled with household waste and excrement. They also took part in the social etiquette practices of the day.

Pomander. 1600-50. European. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

 Purses

This woman wears a gown, falling lace band and also holds onto a fan. More interestingly though she appears to have a purse dangling from her waist. In the seventeenth century purses such as this were rarely used to actually carry money, as women such as the one depicted in this engraving rarely engaged in commercial exchanges that required cash. These purses could also contain mirrors (which is probably indicates what it was most commonly used for). They could also be used to carry around sewing materials or sweets, and other bits and pieces.

Purse, 1600-1630. England.  Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Muffs

Muffs in the seventeenth century, as they are now, were design to keep the wearer’s hands warm when outside. They are believed to have first come about in the sixteenth century, possibly originating from the fur trim that was common on the cuffs of a gown. Most muffs during this period appear to have been made from fur, although there are fabric muffs such as this one from the eighteenth century, so it is totally plausible that they were also made from fabric too. In my archival research on English royal wardrobes I’ve actually never come across a muff, well, in tailoring bills anyway. So I’m not sure exactly where they were sourced. Nor have I been able to find any extant seventeenth-century examples in museum collections. The best we have from the period is other drawings from artists like Hollar, such as:

In fact that there are SO many engravings of muffs by Hollar. It would seem that really really liked women’s muffs (double entendre intended)!

Masks

 

The woman on the left wears an over cape, a muff and has a purse dangling from her waist. Whilst the woman on the left wears a fashionable gown with a falling lace collar and holds a muff. What both women have in common is that they are wearing masks.

Masks were, believe it or not, worn frequently in the streets of England during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Full faced masks were used primarily to shade the wearer’s face from the sun’s rays, as the wearers were usually aristocratic women whose pale skin reflected their position in life. They were held in place on the face by holding a glass bead that was attached to the mask between the teeth, which would have made it quite difficult to talk! Some of these masks have survived and were made from black velvet and silk/leather, such as this one found in the wall of a sixteenth-century building in England. Or the one below which comes from a fashion doll and dates to the 1690s.


Dolls Mask, 1690-1700. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The masks in these picture though are not fulled faced, and so were probably not used for sun protection. Instead they could have been used by women to disguise themselves. Samuel Pepys, in a diary entry from 18th February 1667, describes such a woman at a playhouse he attended:

“And one of the ladies would, and did sit with her mask on, all the play, and, being exceeding witty as ever I heard woman, did talk most pleasantly with him; but was, I believe, a virtuous woman, and of quality. He would fain know who she was, but she would not tell; yet did give him many pleasant hints of her knowledge of him, by that means setting his brains at work to find, out who she was, and did give him leave to use all means to find out who she was, but pulling off her mask. He was mighty witty, and she also making sport with him very inoffensively, that a more pleasant ‘rencontre’ I never heard.”

Hats

Hats like this were worn by both men and women during the seventeenth century. Hats could be made from felted beaver or rabbit fur, such as the one from the Victoria and Albert Museum below, or from leather such as this example also from the V&A. They could also have really tall, narrow “steeple” crowns such as this one which were favoured by the Puritans who wished to distinguish themselves from the ostentatious cavaliers. Over the course of the seventeenth century vast amounts of beaver fur used in hat making in Britain was imported from their colonies in North America, making them more affordable as the previous European Beaver was scarce as it had been nearly hunted to extinction. According to the V&A the felting process involved the fur being removed from the animal pelt and then heated to fuse it together. It was then moulded into shape around a wooden form, dyed, trimmed and smoothed.

Felted Hat, 1590-1670. England. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The woman in this picture is most likely a middling class city woman. Felt hats were common among all classes of people in the seventeenth century. They were used as riding headwear for elite women and as everyday wear for the gentry and middling classes. Hats were also particularly common in rural areas of Britain, understandably as rural people usually spent more time outdoors in fields. However, as felt hats were still expensive they would probably have had similar styles made from leather.

The 1629 probate inventory of Arthur Coke, listed in part of his late wife’s clothing “j [1] black beaver hatt with a bond of gold smythes – worke of starrs and half moones & iij [3] other bands of silver & gold”, indicating that the bands on these hats could be incredibly decorative as well. Hats could also be pointed, looking like what we now think of at witches hats, such as the one worn in the painting Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren from 1675-6.

Portrait of Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren Edward and Elizabeth Bagot 1675-6 by John Michael Wright 1617-1694

Portrait of Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren Edward and Elizabeth Bagot, by John Michael Wright. 1675-6. Tate Gallery, London

Ruffs & Collars

It is interesting that this particular lady is wearing a ruff as by the 1640s falling collars were more the norm. I’ve certainly found no evidence of ruffs in all the probate inventories and household bills that I’ve looked at from the 1630s/40s. Maybe this is an anomaly?

A more common “ruff” from this period. Ruff, 1620-29. England. Victorian and Albert Museum, London

Ruffs were particularly expensive to produce and to maintain: firstly they required a lot of fabric, they constantly had to be re-starched and bleached, and setting them back into shape was also time consuming and costly in terms of labour. Yet looking closely at this picture and comparing it to the ones above, from her dress this woman doesn’t appear to be particularly elite. Possibly she is middling class which could explain why she is still wearing a ruff – fashionable tastes changed a lot more in the courts and among the wealthy than they did in the lower classes and if she was the wife of a merchant for example she could afford the upkeep of the ruff. Very intriguing indeed…

Waistcoats

This woman wears a coif, a falling collar, waistcoat and petticoat. She appears to also be wearing an apron, which indicates that she was most likely a middling or common class woman. In her right hand she also holds a pair of gloves. Interestingly if you enlarge the picture and look really closely at the embroidered detail on the waistcoat it looks just like this one in the V&A which is made from fustian and embroidered with silver thread and spangles:

Waistcoat, English, 1630-40. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

During the early seventeenth century a waistcoat was one of the most basic items in a woman’s wardrobe. Both elite and common women owned waistcoats. A tailoring bill for the wardrobe of Queen Henrietta Maria from 1634 noted that she had ordered “one Petticoate & wastcoate of black Taby with twoe Silke & Silver Laces throughout.” The probate inventory of Agnes Hilling, a Widow from Clifton England in 1634 records that when she died she possessed “wearing apparell” that consisted of “three gownes, three pettiocoatts, 3 Wascoats, one Aperne, a bond and diveres other things of her Wearinge apparell…”

 Pattens

On the University of Toronto’s website this picture is listed as “The Kitchen Maid”. She wears a coif, waistcoat, and a couple of petticoats. She is carrying what I assume is vegetables and other foods for the kitchen that she works in. The most interesting detail of this engraving is her shoes, or really what I should say is attached to them. These under-shoes were called ‘pattens’ and were designed to lift the wearer out of the mud and waste of early modern streets. They were usually made from wood or metal and slipped over the shoes on the wearer’s foot. Although primarily worn by common or country women, this pair from the early eighteenth century have pointed toes to fit a fashionable woman’s shoe and a spot at the back for the heel to sit. The latchets are also covered in velvet which suggest that they would have been worn by a woman with wealth.

Pair of pattens, Great Britain, 1720s-30s. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

For all their benefits in keeping shoes out of the city street muck, it seems that pattens must have been terribly difficult to walk in. The Burlesque “Scarronnides, or, Virgile travestie a mock poem” a modern retelling of the fourth book of Virgils Aeneid by Charles Cotton published in 1665 proclaimed that,  “But to the Church (forsooth) anon/ …They must, and slipping on their Pattens / They went, as who should say to Mattens.” On 24 January 1660 Samuel Pepys similarly wrote in his diary that, “I called on my wife and took her to Mrs Pierce’s, she in the way being exceedingly troubled with a pair of new pattens, and I vexed to go so slow.”