History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

03 December 2012

Costumes so hideous

This probably doesn't come as a surprise to anyone, but I love historical clothing. I'll admit to a soft spot for Georgian fashion (powder and patch!), but I really, really adore Regency-era stuff too.

Guess who hated Regency fashion? Thackeray. His novel Vanity Fair takes place over about ten or fifteen years (not sure exactly) surrounding the Battle of Waterloo. The 2004 movie with Reese Witherspoon had FABULOUS costumes--Jonathan Rhys Meyers' haircut in that movie is one of the most adorable things I've ever seen.

I can't vouch for their 100% historical accuracy (Isobel, what did you think?) but they had the right look, at least. But when Thackeray drew his illustrations, he used contemporary (late 1840s) clothing.

Image scanned by Gerald Ajam for the Victorian Web.

Not to mention all his completely anachronistic references to Becky Sharp's beautiful bare shoulders in the text! Here's his explanation:

"It was the author's intention, faithful to history, to depict all the characters of this tale in their proper costume, as they wore them at the commencement of this century. But when I remember the appearance of people in those days, and that an officer and lady were actually habited like this--

I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous; and have, on the contrary, engaged a model of rank dressed according to the present fashion."

I have always found this absolutely hilarious, because to me, 1840s clothes are SO much less attractive.  Susanna Fraser brought this painting to my attention, as well:

Henry Nelson O'Neil, "Before Waterloo," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Wikipedia summary of the above painting suggests a reason for the change that isn't merely aesthetic:

This is an "anti-Regency" picture, since the artist seems to be intentionally avoiding depicting women's fashion styles that would be accurate to the year 1815. Instead, the women's clothing shown seems to be based on elements of 1830's and early 1860's fashions, and shows no particular resemblance to the actual styles of 1815 (except perhaps in having a slightly highish waistline). In those mid-Victorian days, before the rise of Kate Greenaway and the "Artistic Dress movement," it seems likely that some sober-minded people would have felt slightly uncomfortable to be reminded that their mothers or grandmothers had once promenaded about in Directoire/Empire/Regency fashions (which could be considered indecent according to Victorian norms).
But remember how, until a few years ago, everyone was so hideously embarrassed by the eighties? It was impossible to look at eighties fashion and find it even remotely attractive. And now you see modernized, sexy depictions of eighties fashion all the time, and the nineties seem hideously embarrasing (oh dear God, the shoulderpads! the HAIR! Why?????).

Scully and Mulder promo shot, embarrassing 90s fashion

(They're still megababes, though.) And in fact, the Wikipedia article then links to a cartoon that seems to support this simpler analysis:

Two women in exaggeratedly enormous hoopskirts make fun of a Regency portrait

[The cartoon is captioned, "ARABELLA MARIA: 'Only to think, Julia dear, that our Mothers wore such ridiculous fashions as these!' BOTH: 'Ha! ha! ha! ha!"]

When I was in elementary school in the early 1990s, there was NOTHING more horrifying than bellbottoms. I remember watching some kind of educational film made in the seventies when I was about ten, and every time a pair of bellbottoms came on screen the entire class would start laughing. Then flared jeans and peasant blouses came back in style, and "That 70s Show" took 70s fashion and made it look pretty adorable, and by now pictures of the 70s don't seem particularly appalling.

Is there a ten-to-twenty-year rotation on this stuff? Was Regency fashion Thackeray's equivalent of the eighties? Or was he just a prude?

And how can the same outfit seem so great at the time, so awful a few years later, and kind of cute and nostalgic after a couple of decades?

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Blogger Laura's Reviews said...

Great post! I love costumes in period movies as well and I am also puzzled by the cyclical nature of fashion.

Today I am wearing some of my Great-Grandma's vintage jewelry to work. When she passed away six years ago, I thought it was all rather hideous. But bulkly jewelry has come back in style and suddenly it looks beautiful.

I also remember laughing at bell bottoms in the early 90's and my history teacher telling us they would be back. Who knew he would be right?

11:24 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Laura--it's amazing how our perceptions change so drastically, isn't it? Of course it's no surprise that taste is subjective, but it IS always a little shocking that it's so mutable and easily influenced. It freaks me out if I think about it too hard.

Two things I want to come back around sooner rather than later: with waistlines as low as they are right now, I have a whole array of shirts I can no longer wear because they don't quite reach the top of my jeans! And I can't wait for every actor to stop shaving/waxing his chest. I miss chest hair!

12:17 PM  
Blogger Vonnie said...

Also very interesting to note that someone as noteworthy as Thackeray did not do accurate depictions.

9:24 PM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Vonnie--so true! My understanding is that historical accuracy as we conceptualize it today was still being developed as an idea/accepted standard. (Possibly because historical research was still fairly difficult for the average writer?) Shakespeare was still almost universally performed in modern dress throughout the Regency, for example...I don't know if the same was true in the 1840s but I'd be surprised if the shift was complete.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I'm with you on the waistline of jeans. Up please!!! It's especially bad if you're tall or have a long torso.

As for Vanity Fair, I'm with you on the men's hair being wonderful, and I mostly liked the men's clothing, but the women's clothes were "off" for me (though beautiful). The heavy jewel tones seemed more 18thC and/or Victorian and the strange feather ruffs and such were just odd.

7:15 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Isobel--Yes! I also have the problem that my hips don't flare enough for jeans to always stay up on their own if they're only designed to come to a couple inches above my hipbones. I guess having to wear a belt with half my pants isn't the end of the world, but it's annoying...

I knew you would know about Vanity Fair! I haven't seen it since it came out and totally don't remember the feather ruffs. That does sound odd! Now that you mention it, I do remember Becky Sharp wearing her hair down in circumstances that seemed weird, and also a veil with gold stars in it...

10:21 AM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

Thirding the jeans! I'm another tallish, long-torsoed woman with non-flarey hips, and unless my shirt is tunic-length or stolen from my husband, it's this continual battle to avoid giving the world an unwanted flash of pasty white belly.

As for fashions of my youth, I wince now when I see my high school pictures with full-on permed, hair-spray-lacquered 80's hair. I hated my hair back then, because it's naturally straight and sleek and took so much labor to make it look fashionable. I don't think I realized I actually had kinda nice hair until I was almost 30, it was so branded in my impressionable adolescent mind that straight hair was the Worst. Thing. Ever.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Rose! I really feel old when clothes I wore come back into fashion i.e., 80s clothes :-). I always found it amusing growing up that I had a much more defined idea of what "1940s" or "1950s" clothes looked like than my mother who had lived through the eras, I think you don't notice the characteristics that define fashion in an era so much when you're in the midst of it.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Susanna--Wow, I was exactly the opposite...used to get up every day before high school, shower, and comb my hair while it was wet so it wouldn't "frizz," i.e. curl. It hung lifelessly and frizzed anyway.

Tracy--So true! I remember in the 90s thinking "What is 90s fashion, anyway?" And yet now when I watch the X-Files or Lois and Clark, it's pretty glaring.

2:04 PM  

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