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An Image of Itself

Start Date 19 September 2009
End Date 28 August 2010
Venue Chertsey Museum
Location Chertsey, Surrey, UK

Although Vivienne Westwood said this in the late twentieth century, the desire to copy older styles of dress for contemporary fashions stretches back many centuries. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’ masques, sophisticated staged entertainment for royalty and aristocrats, required the participants to dress in costume all’antica; the dress of the ancient past. Elements from these fanciful masque costumes, loosely based on Roman dress, began to seep into contemporary dress.

The mantle, an embroidered shawl worn across the body and tied at the shoulder, was part of such a masque costume but became fashionable dress, as can be seen in many early seventeenth century portraits.

The eighteenth century was to see an increase in the adoption of historical dress elements into contemporary fashion. The influence of masquerades, popular and fashionable events attended by the elite in costume, on fashionable dress can be seen in the adoption of the Medici collar and masquerade caps. This blurring of the boundaries between fancy dress costume and fashion prompted social commentator Frederick Robinson to say on women’s fashions of the 1770s, ‘a few years ago they would have been thought fantastick [sic] for a Masquerade’.

If art hoped to create timeless images for posterity, dress was looking to evoke past times for renewed glories. Le style troubadour of the 1770s brought back late sixteenth century fashions of the French king Henry IV. It hoped, rather inauspiciously, to bestow Henry’s successes onto the newly crowned King Louis XVI. After the French Revolution a revival of dress from the ancient democracies based on classical art swept Europe, reflecting Napoleon’s new republic. The ever increasing pace of fashion in the nineteenth century demanded the rapid adoption of ‘new’ styles. Historical styles provided abundant inspiration with Victorian dress reflecting costume from ancient Greece to the eighteenth century.

Women’s fashions of the twentieth century would reflect their growing emancipation. Dress broke away from the conventions of the past with corsets falling out of fashion and clothing becoming less fussy in design and decoration. Twentieth-century dress was nevertheless still influenced by the clothing of the past. Poiret’s ‘Directoire’ designs of 1906 to 1911 took their inspiration from the 1790s and Dior’s 1947 collection, although known as the ‘New Look’, harked back to the mid-Victorian period. One of the twenty-first century’s greatest couturiers, John Galliano, based his first collection ‘Les Incroyables’ (1984) on the clothing of the French Revolution. This began a career defined by the obsessive plundering of the dress of the past for new design ideas.