Call me a costume junkie. While I am certainly not a fashionista, I do love to look at clothing, and especially that of the past and how it played such an important role in the past. Fashion has been used to determine status, flaunt power and general dazzle the lower classes -- even in our modern world with its guise of equality still hankers after snob appeal when it comes to clothing.
Philip Mansel's book, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II takes a sweeping look at how clothing was used by monarchs to determine who was in, and who was out. In, of course, meant that you had access to the monarch, a neccesity for those who wanted to have power -- and out, was just that -- outside of court culture and power.
Introduction: the Power of Clothes
A very brief essay on how clothing served as both a message of style and education but also of power.
In the past, clothing at a royal court was a clear signal of who you were, and more importantly, how much money and wealth did you have. This chapter was fairly interesting, especially as it showed the links between native industry -- in France it was the silk industry in Lyon -- and a court that was voracious in needing a constant supply of fine fabrics, and how changing tastes in clothing could enhance or ruin the national economy.
Here the emphasis is more on where are you from than anything else. It starts with George IV of England -- otherwise known as the Prince Regent -- and how he made the Scottish kilt and tartan so popular. Then in an about face, the author abruptly switches to national dress in Poland, and how it tried to succeed in the face of upcoming division by its neighboring, stronger empires around it. Interesting, but confusing.
Namely, this chapter goes into uniforms, and how in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century the wearing of military clothing for royalty -- both men and women -- helped to establish authority.
You can't really mention royal fashion and not talk about Marie Antoinette, who has come down through history as a spendthrift nitwit. What I did find interesting about this was that the revolutionaries with their adoption of a more simplistic dress that sought to equalise everyone did more to distress the economy -- with no one to buy luxury goods, entire cities and regions sank into economic ruin.
The Age of Gold
The French textile industry improved once Napoleon staged his coup and declared himself emperor. This time the point was to appease vanity and spectacle with the lavish use of gold embroidery, which depending on your point of view, could be splendid, or hopelessly parvenu.
Prussia, England, Russia and Austria during the nineteenth and early twentieth century get mention here, but where it gets really interesting is when it starts talking about the mideastern kingdoms of Iran and Afghanistan, with a mention of Osama bin Laden towards the end.
While I certainly enjoyed reading about the topic of the historical role of clothing, I had a hard time actually following Mansel's style of writing; it's clunky at best, chopping up ideas and trying to serve them neatly, but he leaps about from subject to subject with little continuity to really link it all together. He also pitches in foreign phrases and terms, assuming that his reader can read French right off the bat, and so doesn't bother to provide a translation. That's annoying. Within each chapter he leaps about wildly from place to place, shifting time as well; but when the next chapter opens, he'll start off back a century or two. That makes cohesion very difficult to follow.
I would be hesitant to recommend this book. I found it to be difficult reading without any real theme or new ideas to keep it all pulled together. Sure, it's packed with plenty of little snippets and details -- why red heels on shoes were so important in monarchial France, to give an example -- but unless the reader is involved in historical writing or costume design, it's not much more than a curiosity.
Which is a pity. The book is filled with photos and black and white illustrations, along with an insert of colour photographs. The notes, bibliography and index are extensive, and give plenty of ideas for further research. To sum up, it gets a three star rating for the general reader, and maybe a four for those who are particularly interested in this topic.