I’m always astonished and disturbed by the fact that so much beautiful beautiful fashion is tied to terrible terrible social practices. Throughout western history, modes of dress have been leveraged to oppress and repress all kinds of people. Take corsets, for example. In the 19th century, women who could afford corsets were in a constant state of medical risk from their side effects and women who couldn’t were made to feel ashamed.
Or Imperialism: Empire and fashion were literally woven together, in the tight threads of fabrics sourced and crafted in the colonies and worn by the ladies of high society.
But have you ever seen a well-made corset? The care and work it takes to make a 16-panel boned corset fastend with a million tiny hook & eyes covered in lace appliques and trimmed with hand-turned piping is nothing short of Artistry. Capital A. Spinal damage and shallow breathing aside.
Nowhere is this kind of brain-fuck more apparent than in Court Fashion. I do not mean what Lindsay Lohan or Naomi Campell wears to court. That is Defendant Fashion. I am talking about the masterpieces of couture worn by ladies of rank for the occasion of being presented to the Royal Court of England.
Ladies like Almina, Countess of Carnavon. Did you hear that? Her name is Almina, Countess of Carnavon!!
c.1900. This photo and all following are from the Lafayette Collection at the V&A museum (UK). She looks so REGAL. She is gazing out over the horizon and dreaming of adventure! Those hand sewn pailettes on silk chiffon look like stars burning in a snowbank. Oh… but she can’t breath. And her spine is deformed. Men died mining the diamonds in her tiara and women went blind whip-stitching the gazillion feet of hem on all her underskirts. And her imperialist husband is out raiding Egyptian tombs. Not. Cool.
Behold, Lady Waring c.1898. Good God! Hand appliqued orchids on duchesse satin – inappropriate fabric choice for a mere lady? The notes on this dress from the V&A museum say the satin is white and the orchids are mauve. I can only imagine the contrast was stunning in person… Almost as stunning as finding a pasty white man trampling through your jungle collecting orchid specimens to send home for highly-skilled under-class seamstresses to spend hundreds of hours emulating on gowns for the gentry.
The Lady Henriette MacDonnell and Miss MacDonnell, c.1898. Check out the look on that kid’s face. And the awkward fondling of the Newel post. The flowers in this picture look dead. And yet Henriette is sporting a peaceful countenance and a subdued smile. Maybe it’s because her dress was made of custom woven gold thread satin brocade. In Lahssa, Tibet. Not far from where her husband was helping keep the sun up on the British Empire as Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Provinces ann Oudh (In India, bordering Tibet and Nepal). Miss MacDonnell looks like she knows how fucked up that is.
OMG GAY WEDDING!!!! Ok, not really but this picture is gay. And by gay I definitely mean homo, not happy, because The Lady Francis Ousbourne and Mrs Bouchier do not look happy here. Both their expressions and the abundance of stiff yet wilty looking floral arrangements are funeral. Maybe it’s because their love is verbötten. Do you think that could be Ozzie’s Grandmother?
OMG even GAYER wedding!!! That is lust in Miss M Alves’ (left, in white) eyes. The Honorable Mrs. Robert Deveraux (right, in black chantilly) is frightened but excited. The detail at Miss Alves’ hem is embossed velvet on soie de Chine (Chinese silk). How do you even do that? All the ways I can think of to emboss velvet onto silk involve technology not yet invented in 1900 when this photograph was taken. Like modge podge and a blow dryer. Or something.
In the end, like Fitzgerald used to say, it takes one smart bitch to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to fashion. That is, I can know that these gowns came about by fucked up methods for fucked up reasons and also know they are beautiful. And I can know that their beauty is eclipsed in scale many times over by the horrors of the colonialism that made them possible.
In the end, I’m comforted by the fact that Oppression and Luxury don’t have to be bound up the way they have been historically. People make really beautiful things without exploiting anyone all the time. No really — they do. The time and skill it took to make an Edwardian Court Dress is very similar to the time and skill it took to make the quilts of Gee’s Bend, for example. And those ladies were broke and worked all day doing other stuff.
Why don’t you go out and make something beautiful today?