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26 October 2008

Queen of Fashion

Sunday afternoon at the Walters Gallery in Baltimore I heard an excellent one hour biography of Marie Antoinette given my Dr. Caroline Weber of Columbia University. In conjunction with a mediocre exhibit on jewelry (Bedazzled – 5000 Years of Jewelry,)it was Dr. Weber’s talk that was the real gem.

Her most recent and, I think, most successful book: QUEEN OF FASHION: WHAT MARIE ANTIONETTE WORE TO THE REVOLUTION was the basis for the talk. Like the good titles we discussed in my last post on October 6, this title is about more than the chemise-like white dress the former Queen actually wore to the guillotine. It is all about the choices she made that led to that moment, about how she made most of her political statements through what she wore. More often than not, especially as the years wore on, those choices were reactive rather than showing an awareness of what was coming.

After this talk, I can date any painting of Marie Antoinette based on what style of clothing she wears. The picture at below: when she was trying, almost desperately, to convince the people that she was everything a queen should be.
This painting by Vallyer-Coster shows her dressed in classic queenly garb with a relatively simple coiffeur (see blog by Amanda on August 27 on the style eaerlier in her career as queen) and pearls, the traditional jewel of a French monarch.

In the question and answer period following, and in the nature of an, as yet unresearched, aside Weber expressed the opinion that the inclination to make judgments about what women who are in the public eye wear may come directly from Marie Antoinette.

Before Marie Antoinette came to Versailles it was the men who were the fashion focus. With deliberate effort she changed that and for the first time it was the Dauphine's and later the Queen's choices in fashion that made her a trend setter and eventually led to her fall. It helped that her husband, Louis XVI was shy, unimpressive and not at all interested in attracting public attention.

I mention this as Maureen Dowd of the NYT and Robin Givahn of the Washington Post have both written on the phenomenon during this election cycle. I would love to share lunch with the Givahn, Dowd and Weber and listen to their discussion.

In a related coincidence I have been looking through what can only be described as an adult picture book, A DRESS FOR DIANA by design team David and Elizabeth Emanuel. It is coffee table book of two hundred pages about the selection and production of Diana Spencer’s wedding gown.

“We were both aware as designers that Diana was young and inexperienced and that she was going into St. Paul’s as Lady Diana Spencer, but that she would come out as the Princess of Wales, the wife for the heir to the throne.”

Whatever you may think of that dress it did accomplish exactly that goal, that is suited the fairy tale AND the royal nature of it. Despite the fact that almost two hundred years separate the two ill-fated royals, there is an amazing echo of Marie Antoinette in Diana’s life and style. I would be willing to wager that anyone who pays close attention to clothes could date a photo of Diana by the style of dress she is wearing, It changed almost as much as she did.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am a very visual person. I love watching people but also respond emotionally and sometimes physically to clothes, fabric, jewelry, and architecture not to mention the more traditional works of art such as painting and sculpture.

So tell me how do you see fashion? Are clothes something you pretty much ignore? What do they tell you about a person or do they influence how you “see” that person?

How important is what your characters wear? To you as the author. To your hero and heroine and/or the people around them?

11 Comments:

Blogger Linda Banche said...

I'm one of the people who ignore fashion. I'm as one with Louis XVI since I don't like to stick out either.

But in a romance, I want detailed descriptions of clothes, as well as houses, house furnishings, the streets, the scenery and the weather. I see all these things as creating the atmosphere of the story. But I don't want a clothes horse. I just read a book where the heroine thought only about her clothes. No wonder she had no life.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks, Linda. You've made a valuable distinction between our real lives and what we need/want in a book. I am the opposite. I love fashion and what people wear in my real life but when I am reading I really do not care about anything but the characters themselves.

Now as a writer, I agree with you that all those elements you mentioned fill in the world I am detailing. So,I have a different reaction from each of those three perspectives

9:45 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Delicious post, Mary.

I love fashion, but am not really equipped to participate, a minor tragedy of my life being that couture is the business of the smallboned, narrow-torso-ed French instead of people built like me.

I love writing about clothes, though, and clothes fetishism too. And in The Edge of Impropriety (out next week), I figured out a way of putting my own frustrations into the mix. My bosomy heroine Marina Wyatt is 36 years old (72 in romance years) and it's 1829 -- so she's constantly having to deal with the advent of tighter-waisted clothing, what were called "imbecile sleeves," and heavier-duty corsets -- thanks to Kalen's counsel, I put Marina in one of the newest models, with grommeted holes for the laces. And I exploited all that fetishism with shameless glee in the erotic scenes.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lots of provocative stuff in here, Mary. I've always followed fashion (both historical and contemporary), studied it, wore it, designed it, but have never considered myseif a slave to it, although I have a highly personal fashion sense. When it comes to a snapshot of character, nothing works like that personal appearance (clothes/hair/accessories/makeup). It can give us a true picture or a false impression (deliberately or otherwise -- as we've even seen in the past week) of the person's psyche, emotional state, socio-economic background (or the dress-for-success aspirations of the wearer) Clothing is character; the facade we present to the world that says "look at me!" or "I'm a powerful person!" (a red suit) or "I wish I could disappear (baggy, dark clothes that disguise the lines of the body) or fatuous declaration such as "I am a true patriot!" (flag pin); "And you're not" (highlighting absence of flag pin on someone else).

When I read I want details of clothing as they apply to the story and scene and are in the service of the character and the action. I want to see the details seamlessly (pun intended) woven into the fabric of the scene, not a derailing description of sartorial arcana. Are the shoes old? Do they pinch? Is the character living beyond her means, or finding a way to make herself fashionable in constrained circumstances? Is she being judged (Bennet sisters) by what she wears, as it compare to her jury's wardrobe (Caroline Bingley)? Do her wardrobe or accessories send coded messages; i.e. does wearing an heirloom mean she has traditional values, or is it simply all she has left of her grandmother? Does that looped pink lapel pin mean she's a breast cancer survivor?

9:56 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Amanda, you should be at my (so far) imaginary lunch with Weber, Dowd and Givahn. Did you grow up with this awareness or is it a function of the New Yorker in you? I think NY is one of the greatest places in the world for watching people and how they dress and what that says.

I can see that I do not do enough with clothes as revealing the circumstances of my characters. But it is totally the truth. This can base on personal experience.

Pam, I am no where near the ideal body type for our fashion culture but I still have lots of fun with it, especially as a "personal shopper" with friends on all economic levels. Nothing better than finding a winner at Nordstrom Rack.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, my fashion radar is probably a function of several factors: certainly the people-watching opportunities of living in NYC is part of it, as is my fashion-awareness since I was a kid. I used to have a sketch pad when I was a girl that had the outlines of the female figures in light gray ink, so the designer could draw their own images over them.

Another key factor is my other career as an actress and how physical appearance informs the character, as the character perceives him/herself and how they are perceived by the other characters. Note: whenever you see a pinky ring on a male character in a film, he is invariably sleazy and/or untrustworthy. It's a never-fail telltale detail.

And thanks for the imaginary invite to your imaginary lunch -- sounds like a great crew! I adore Maureen Dowd's view of the world anyway. :)

11:58 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Ooooh -- forgot to add my two cents re: body type. Very little couture (even if I could afford it!) is designed with my body type in mind. Bernadette Peters's castoffs (though she's a bit hip-pier than I am) might fit my short, hourglass figure and that's about it. I always wanted to know where she shops!

12:02 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'm a historical clothing fetishist, LOL! I don’t like to dwell on the clothing in a book, but what a character wears says a lot about them, just as what we wear says a lot about us (my black wardrobe and tattoos seems to mislead people into assuming I write paranormal books *grin*).

8:16 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I have to agree, Amanda, that in the performance venues - theatre and opera - costumes are an integral part of the performance. They help to create a persona that is visible and indelible in the audience's minds IF done properly. I got to wear some gorgeous costumes on stage and they helped me to become the character. Some of the period pieces had an added advantage. They weighed so much I lost weight!

In real life I am a bit schizophrenic when it comes to clothes. At work and at home the clothes I wear are definitely not fashionable - they are more for comfort and ease of movement. However, as Louisa Cornell - the writer who attends meetings, conferences, etc. I am very clothes conscious. I want clothes that look professional with a certain romantic flair too them. My signature item would have to be my cameos. I have a collection of them and I match them to whichever outfit I choose. My other guilty pleasure? SHOES! I have an entire closet of nothing but shoes. Many of them date back to my opera days when we were expected to dress to the nines any time we were in public.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a wonderful imaginary lunch! I love clothes, both in life and in books. In life, shopping, fashion magazines, and outfit planning are a favorite pastime--I love planning outfits for different occasions. It's a grown-up version of dress-up, figuring out what role one's required to play on a given day and how clothes can help (today's challenge was three meetings with different groups of people, starting at 10:30 am, followed by dinner and the opera with no time to change more than my purse and swap a jacket for a shawl).

In books, I love to read about clothes, but I'm with Amanda on liking to use details of clothing to express character. (There's a line early on in "Secrets of a Lady" where the Bow Street Runner is meeting the hero and heroine and thinks Mélanie "looked like a woman who always wore earrings).

12:38 AM  
Anonymous lynna banning said...

I really learned the importance of clothing to an historical character when I was laced into a corset and then into a medieval gown for a music performance. The constricting combination changed everything--my posture, how I moved. I could no longer bend over. The gown even changed my speech! Sentences become more flowery when every breath counts.

10:26 AM  

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