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
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.