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Written by Diane Newland, Darwin and Vintage Bookseller
This faded beauty of a book is a Historical Costume Designer's dream. It has taken a bit of a battering being an ex-library book, but like the achingly elegant women between its pages, this is still an exceedingly beautiful book. It is bound in cloth and quarter leather and written in French, although the majority of the book is taken over by sixty-nine plates of hand-coloured illustrations depicting a parade of regal beauties, clothed in the finest silks and toiles. There should be seventy plates, but Anne de Boulen has unfortunately gone AWOL. Or, as the Parisians would say, "Mon Dieu, elle est partie sans permission!". The plates are printed in intaglio by Wittmann and hand-coloured by Nevret. Preceding each illustrated plate is a finer paper on which is outlined a brief history surrounding the lives of each of the women.
This book really reminds me of a beautiful limited print I have by Ian Hamilton Finlay, an artist who used visual puns and plays on words to comment on aspects of history, using a particular historical reference point, which was often specifically the French Revolution. The print is of different wild plants or flowers (commonly referred to as weeds by all who love to exert control and who hate even a whiff of the wild and free). Each plant is named after a famous (or infamous) French woman in history, and the piece is entitled Les Femmes de la Révolution. It is my favourite piece of artwork. I love the combination of the names of courageous, revolutionary women, with wild, rare and everyday plants that so many consider troublesome weeds, but which are just strong, hardy, extremely productive and tenacious species that grow freely to their own rules and are also very beautiful in their natural state. Wild flowers and wild women.
In Costumes des Femmes Francaises Celebres, the illustrated dresses of each period convey the regality and beauty of the women, but do not necessarily impart the strength, intelligence or courage of any of them. The costumes are arranged in historical order and first to walk the catwalk is Hermengarde of the twelfth century. Many of these earlier costumes are accessorised with the tall headgear and veils so familiar to the Middle Ages. I definitely prefer these simpler, more flowing costumes, to the later decorative, highly corseted and lace edged sartorial offerings of the seventeenth century.
The fourteenth century dresses feature heraldic emblems, with headgear or hairstyles that I swear must have been referenced by costume designers for Princess Leia from Star Wars.
An attendant of Isabeau de Baviére, in the year 1420, wears, as Hermengarde did, a fine translucent, white veil on a tall brocade hat. The colours are beautiful, a khaki-moss-gold green heavy brocade dress, with a red sash and wedgewood blue inset at the decollete. The next picture shows a similar costumer for her other attendant, with an equally unusual but delicious combination of colours; a rich magenta brocade dress, with heavier moss-gold fabric for the veil, over a jade green richly decorated tall hat, and a pale gold sash and inset. Rich pickings for all you budding Alexander McQueens out there.
Not all are famously linked. There is a young unnamed girl depicted, dressed in a deep purple dress with wide bell sleeves lined with pale blue, holding a mint green feather fan. After this the outfits get a lot more ornamental, opulent and fussy, with sashes, pearls, lace, bows, gold chains and ermine fur trimmings.
There are many purple, red and black dresses, all colours associated with power and royalty.
As we go into the eighteenth century however, these heavy colours give way to softer romantic pinks and blues. Hairstyles are also softer, with cascades of elaborate curls and ringlets, and dresses become wider and puffier, with Sophie Arnould on the last page, wearing what I can only describe as a very large wedding cake. Admittedly, she was starring in the opera of Pyramus and Thisbe, so this is hardly everyday wear.
Indeed, most of these illustrations are based on paintings, either of the royal courts of the time, or of significant occasions, so they are all togged up in their portraiture best. Even so, it is hard to imagine wearing the style of dress of those times in my twenty first century life. Lovely to look at, and maybe great to dress up and glide about in for a day, but I value moving, dancing, climbing, stretching and generally feeling unencumbered. Yet, I notice trainer corsets are a thing these days as everyday wear (and I'm not talking about boudoir fashion). Surely not. Do we really want to be corseted and trussed up and un-liberated all over again?
Fashion is a great subject to trace the course of history through, and a real signifier of the times and the culture we live in, and this unusual visual feast of a book is a fascinating insight into womenswear over a wide period of history. Since then however, so many women have fought for the liberty that many of us now have in dress, in choice, and in self-expression. We owe it to those determined women, as much as to ourselves, not to slip back into the gilded cage.
Vive les fleurs sauvages et les femmes sauvages!
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