10 November 2009

What happened to fashion? Part 1 - beginnings of fashion culture

Right. Back on track, and back to that tricky fashion culture question.

The culture of fashion, as historians of dress define it, started in the Renaissance. Well, not really. There are indications that fashion culture began earlier: signs of the individuality that fashion necessitates begin to arise in the latter Medieval period, if not earlier.

Wait, what? We just defined fashion as the prevailing mode in dress, and we're constantly referring to the fashion-obsessed as slaves, mindless cultists, blind devotees. How does individuality play into that?

Fashion cannot survive without the concept of individuality, despite the metaphors of bondage and dogma we use to describe it. Costume - the first definition in the prior post, and a bit of the second, which is to say the formulaic and codified dress of a non-fashion culture - does, perhaps. But in order to have fashion, a prevailing mode as opposed to the only available option, the concept of the self-determined individual, who chooses (or not) to follow it, must exist.

Back to the Renaissance. It was an interesting time, sartorially. The concepts of individuality that had bloomed with the rediscovery of Classical texts in the later Medieval period were burgeoning into secular humanism. Improvements in transportation technology meant increased access to the high-quality textiles produced in the Middle East and Asia. New religious doctrines were allowing people to question the doctrines that governed every aspect of life in ways they hadn't in about a millennium. A variety of social and economic forces were combining to create, for the first time, a middle class.

That secular humanism bit is quite important. It's a philosophy that places primacy on humans, rather than God, in daily life. Ethics and morality aren't handed down from on high, and lives are lived with the goal of being good and enjoyable now, rather than in the afterlife. This doesn't sound too revelatory now, but it was a drastic departure from Medieval religious philosophy. The focus on the human, and on the physical world, allowed one of the great developments of the time - art in its modern context (different from modern art - very, very different). Instead of endless retreads of Biblical scenes, painters were able to explore genre scenes and portraiture - images of the world around them. Freed from the Church's stifling morality (ask me about the medieval safe sex flowchart sometime!), artists could work from live, nude models, better studying the mechanics and proportion of the human form.

Portraiture meant that real, live people were getting their images recorded in their contemporary clothes - not in ostensibly-Biblical draperies (which, admittedly, are in many cases considered by art historians to be clothes contemporaneous to the artwork's era, with extra drapey bits to make them look 'historic'). People are also being recorded as themselves, not cast as an allegorical or historic figure.

Just like today, that means they wanted to look their best. Needless to say, that meant their best clothes, and in the latest mode. The comparative value of clothing and the slower speed of communication meant, of course, that styles changed much more slowly: a particular 'look' could remain in vogue for a decade or two, rather than a season. Dramatic exceptions exist: one is the headdresses worn by English court ladies during the reign of Henry VIII.

Henry, if you'll recall, was one of history's most famed serial matrialmonists. He banished his first wife, Catherine of Aragon:

from his court in 1531, then married Anne Boleyn in 1532:

and had her executed in 1536. He then married Jane Seymour:

ten days later. (all images from Wikipedia)

Without going too deep into the amazingly complex socio-religious politics of the time, let's take a look at the hats.

Catherine and Jane both wear a headdress called the gable hood (for its resemblance to the architectural feature) now and the English hood back then. Anne, though, wears the less-concealing and considerably more flattering to modern eyes French hood.

All of which becomes interesting when you go digging into the Lisle Letters, a volume of correspondence of a family related to Henry. Arthur Lisle (who I believe was a cousin of Henry's?) was the steward of Calais, now a French port city, then under English control. He had fostered one of his daughters with a friendly French family, and she had several items of clothing made, including some of the French hoods popular on the Continent - and, for a time, in England, thanks to Anne. However, when young Miss Lisle was sent to the English court to be a lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Jane, she was forbidden from wearing the French style and required to wear the older, less-flattering one (not just to modern eyes, apparently: a family retainer said the more severe English style did not become her).

Just like that, because of its association with Anne, the French hood was out of style in England, and wouldn't come back for another decade at least. Was this a conscious choice on Jane Seymour's part? Was she trying to assert the difference between her and Anne, her homey, reliable Englishness, her lack of threat to the status quo? Quite possibly. From what I've read of her, Anne's adaption of the French hood was, unquestionably, a fashion choice: not only did it emphasize her youthful good looks in contrast to Catherine (who was Henry's elder by a few years), but it also identified her as a progressive, modern woman who had the sophistication of exposure to foreign courts and ideas.

So there we have it: the beginnings of fashion culture. Styles change, rise, and fall, influenced by the most visible and influential in society. However, at this point in history, the focus is on the wearer, not the clothing worn. Sure, there are well-known, prestigious tailors, but the concept of a fashion designer as the auteur of a style, rather than his (almost exclusively his) patrons, hasn't emerged yet. The first time the designer - or, rather, stylist - becomes well-known as the 'author' of a look isn't until much later, and amusingly enough, it's one of the few women to show up in the early annals of fashion history who does it.

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