Friday, January 30, 2009

A li'l bit of culture

So, yes, I've been a bit absent this week, but Tuesday and Wednesday were spent in London with my mum. We went to see the Lion King, got a fantastic deal on an overnight stay, and decided to spend the rest of Tuesday and Wednesday doing cultural-type stuff. This, for me, means an excuse to visit the costume collection at the V&A, where I could happily spend hours just gazing at stuff. If only there weren't so many pesky students in the way.

I'm still amazed they let you take photos (and yes, I did check!) with all the delicate fabrics around. But they do, so here are some of my highlights.

The late Victorian and early Edwardian period, say late 1880s to late 1900s, is one of my favourites for elegance of shape in women's clothes. Sometimes the sleeves could get a bit mad--these are relatively mild--but the neat waist, the lines of the bodice and the moderate A-line skirts are quite elegant. This dress is from about 1890.

Okay, this isn't one of my favourites. It's an example of fashion gone horribly wrong, really. I didn't catch the notes in the picture, but I think it's from 1818. I'm always astonished at how many authors set their books in the Regency period, apparently unaware of just how hideous their heroines would have looked in their mad bubble-infested frocks. It's not all Keira Knightley in flat-chested muslin, you know.

The sack-back gown, or sometimes just the sack gown. This one is from 1774-5, and it illustrats quite well how the back of the dress was cut. Both flowing and fitted. Go back about fifty years and the sack gown consisted of a dress cut without fitted bodice, front or back, but lots of pleats that fell from the shoulders over a tightly corseted waist and full hip paniers. The effect was a sort of walking fabric bell. Not sexy.

I made a dress in this style when I was about 17. Except that when it came to the back pleats, I cheated and made a fully fitted bodice, then sewed the shoulder pleats in place afterwards. Well, stage costumes and all: no time for all this tiresome lacing!

A Charles Worth dress from 1881. Bustles got a bit silly in this period, but a designer like Worth could still manage to create something very elegant and beautiful. Every line of the drapery and embroidery is so lovely. Worth, incidentally, couldn't draw for toffee: he used to get lithographs of heads and sketch his dresses under them. Or so I heard...

A 1954 cocktail dress (being admired by my mum). Generally speaking, I lose interest in fashion in the 20th century, but there are a few exceptions. The clean lines and elegance of the 1930s, both for men and women, and the prettiness of the New Look (which was officially the creation of Dior in 1947, but didn't filter into popular usage, especially in Europe, until rationing had come to an end). This dress is over 50 years old, but you could still wear it to a party now. If, of course, you had the cash to spend on 1954 Paris originals...

A modern dress: Lagerfeld for Chanel, 1995. I just like the wittiness of this 'Piano Dress'.

More fashion gone horribly wrong. Some poor woman actually got married in this frock in about 1830. Perhaps she was already short and wide, and this was the most flattering outfit she could find; but I fear that this wasn't an isolated case, which means the collective fashion consciousness had gone completely mad, and they actually considered this to be a good look for women. You wouldn't catch me walking down the aisle in it.

I actually really want these tan boots. Unfortunately I forgot to note what year they were from; all I can guess is Victorian, or possibly Edwardian. Any advances on that?

"Device for rotating the Fashion Machine." Say no more.

A riding coat from the 1750s. This would have gone over a riding habit with a full skirt; but still, doesn't it look good on its own? I could wear this with jeans...

On Wednesday, I dragged my footsore mother to the British Museum, to see the Babylon exhibition. This contains artefacts and reconstructions of the ancient city of Babylon, and it's a damn good job someone excavated them when they did, because the site is now a US military base. Nice one, guys. Sadly, here we weren't allowed to take pictures, but I did buy some postcards.

Then we went to the Egyptian gallery, where I went and worshipped the Rosetta Stone for a little bit. Pictures are tricky, what with a) the flash, b) reflective glass, and c) hundreds of schoolchildren failing to appreciate why the stone is remotely important.

There's a new collection of Egyptian exhibits upstairs in the Brit Museum, some paintings and artefacts from the tomb of Nebamun, who apparently was an accountant. What's amazing (apart from the depth of elaboration over the tomb of a bead-counter) is just how bright and vivid these pictures are.

Then, of course, there's the famous Egyptian love of cats. Nebamun is pictured in a large painting hunting with his cat (who's scored three birds, look!).

This is known as the Gayer-Anderson cat. Being that I have two elegantly proportioned black cats, I could have called them Gayer and Anderson, but, you know, I don't actually hate them. I have, sitting on top of my history bookshelf, a tiny bronze replica of this cat, which Mum bought for me when she came with my class on a school trip, probably about 20 years ago now. We were only allowed about 50p pocket money, so she cheated and said it was for herself. Since the whole class, including the teachers, knew about me and cats, no one believed her, but I got my little bronze cat.

And here are some of the mummified cats and their cases. I feel a bit uneasy looking at mummies, especially human ones, and I could have done without reading that the cat in one of these mummies had had its neck snapped. Still, the fact that someone revered the cat enough to mummify it in the first place is quite touching.

Hmm. All those pretty costumes have left me wondering where I put my pattern books...


  1. Excuse me, but my Regency heroines wouldn't have been seen dead in mad bubbles. There's a reason that dress survived to go into the V&A, you know - it was a student piece and no one ever actually wore it!

    However, I do love the V&A. And I can SO see you in that natty bronze number from the 50s. Could you tell them you'd like to try it on? Just for research purposes, obviously.

  2. That can be the only answer, Jan! It's hideous, isn't it?

    And I'd love to try the bronze number. Sadly, I think it has a waist of about four inches.

    (Yeah, 'cos that's the only thing stopping me)