The mean­ing of clothes An­drew Wil­ton

An­drew Wil­ton, the for­mer keeper of the Bri­tish col­lec­tion at the Tate, was al­ways fas­ci­nated by clothes: a child­hood pas­sion that proved vi­tal in his ca­reer as a cu­ra­tor of paint­ings

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

As well as be­ing in­ter­ested in paint­ings al­most from birth, I was ob­sessed as a young­ster with his­tor­i­cal cos­tume and ar­chi­tec­ture. I drew end­less line-ups of crino­lined or pan­niered ladies, or gen­tle­men in slashed dou­blets, tri­cornes or top hats, and I stood them in front of cor­rectly re­searched rows of houses – half-tim­bered and jet­tied if they were El­iz­a­bethan, Nash-ter­raced if Re­gency or Vic­to­rian. It was a fuddy-duddy pas­time for a small boy, so no won­der that one old lady proph­e­sied that I’d end up in a mu­seum.

But my good­ness, how use­ful those ju­ve­nile re­searches proved to be. For if you know to a decade what peo­ple wore all over Europe across sev­eral cen­turies, you can date any pic­ture with fig­ures in it – un­less they’re wear­ing to­gas for the sake of im­press­ing an au­di­ence. Build­ings, by the same to­ken, tell you where in the world you are. Pago­das in China, ob­vi­ously; but also low-pitch pan­tile roofs in Italy, mansards in Paris, tur­reted cas­tles along the Rhine, blackand-white gables in the western coun­ties of Eng­land.

A hero of mine at that ten­der age was an­other cu­ra­tor, a long-last­ing mem­ber of staff at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum who be­came a pi­o­neer­ing author­ity on the his­tory of dress: James Laver. He wasn’t the first per­son to write the story of clothes, but he thought long and bril­liantly about their mean­ing in terms of so­cial changes and mores. He recog­nised that what peo­ple wear re­flects not sim­ply pass­ing fash­ions but the whole so­cial and eco­nomic con­text of their times. He noted that women wear rich colours, wide skirts and elab­o­rate dec­o­ra­tion in times of peace and af­flu­ence – look at the mid-vic­to­ri­ans – and slim, boy­ish out­fits in pale colours when life is more chal­leng­ing. He gave as ex­am­ples the cos­tumes of the Direc­toire and the Re­gency, dur­ing the pe­riod of the French Rev­o­lu­tion and the Napoleonic Wars. And again in the 20th cen­tury, the beige, short-skirted dresses of the post-war, trau­ma­tised 1920s.

He also pointed out that in these pe­ri­ods, the waist-line was not in its nor­mal place: very high in the Re­gency, very low in the Twen­ties. While the con­fi­dent Vic­to­ri­ans bred large fam­i­lies un­der the pro­tec­tion of their crino­lines, the more un­set­tled gen­er­a­tions were re­luc­tant to bring fam­i­lies into the world and their clothes sig­nalled a re­treat from reg­u­lar and happy mar­i­tal sex. An­other great cos­tume his­to­rian, C Wil­lett Cun­ning­ton, epit­o­mised the post- rev­o­lu­tion­ary styles of the Em­pire (when it was fash­ion­able to walk around in skimpy fab­rics soaked in wa­ter to make them cling to the form) with a con­tem­po­rary rhyme:

When dressed for the evening the girls nowa­days Scarce an atom of dress on them leave; Nor blame them, for what is an evening dress But a dress that is suited for Eve?’

One of Laver’s most chal­leng­ing ideas was his ob­ser­va­tion that large hats ap­pear at times of im­pend­ing so­cial up­heaval. He claimed not to un­der­stand this, but one can point to sev­eral ex­am­ples: the ab­surd ‘Bo­hemian’ head­dresses be­fore the Wars of the Roses (Ten­niel’s Duchess in Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land is the best-known wearer

of such a con­coc­tion); the wide-brimmed Cav­a­lier hats that pre­ceded the English Civil War, and which were worn again by English ladies in the 1780s (think Gains­bor­ough’s ‘Mrs Sid­dons’) just as the French Rev­o­lu­tion broke out. There were wide brims again in 1912 – my grand­par­ents’ wed­ding was pho­tographed through a ver­i­ta­ble screen of big hats in that year, on the brink of the Great War.

James Laver could make his pen­e­trat­ing com­ments from a wide and deep knowl­edge of his sub­ject; his con­clu­sions were usu­ally ten­ta­tive, amused rather than stern or ad­mon­i­tory. Af­ter all, what can we do about any of it? Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion will con­trive to shock the pre­ced­ing one, whether with hair­cuts, tat­toos or ridicu­lous heels. But it’s worth not­ing as a safe bet for the fu­ture: clothes per­sist in be­com­ing more and more in­for­mal. And that is not sim­ply be­cause life has be­come more in­for­mal in the past 100 years. Even in the 18th cen­tury, and through­out the 19th, sports­wear was steadily be­ing adopted as main­stream fash­ion: the cut-away hunt­ing coat be­came the tail coat of evening wear, just as the beach py­ja­mas of the 1930s have mor­phed into the trouser suit sported by ev­ery go-ahead busi­ness­woman. The fem­i­nists sup­pose that they achieved this by sheer force of ide­ol­ogy, but – like the re­in­forced shoul­der pads of the Eight­ies – the de­vel­op­ment is more prob­a­bly at­trib­ut­able to sport: base­ball en­gen­dered the shoul­der pads, per­haps.

Ei­ther way, of course, the trend re­flects the new gen­der re­la­tions of our time. Laver had a typ­i­cally witty the­ory about shoul­ders: ‘I have often amused my­self by think­ing of the shapes of women’s shoul­ders in terms of bot­tles: hock bot­tles in 1840, claret bot­tles in 1890, and in 1946 [the year he was writ­ing] – well! Gin bot­tles! What did you ex­pect?’

And what about hats? Laver pointed out the pro­ces­sion, cen­tury by cen­tury, of beret, tri­corne, top hat and trilby. He died aged 76 in 1975, too soon to wit­ness the com­plete tri­umph in our own time of the base­ball cap over the trilby and all other forms of head­gear, worn in­dis­crim­i­nately by males and fe­males of ev­ery age. It looks as if my cu­ra­to­rial suc­ces­sors will be in no po­si­tion to date the pic­tures of the fu­ture by the clothes peo­ple wear in them. But I sin­cerely hope painters will go on want­ing to de­pict the world they live in. And surely there will al­ways be some new and quirky sar­to­rial man­i­fes­ta­tion of our hu­man­ity for them to record, so maybe there’s no need to worry.

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