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Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II [Hardcover]

Philip Mansel

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Book Description

24 May 2005
Throughout history rulers have used clothes as a form of legitimisation and propaganda. While palaces, pictures and jewels might reflect the choice of a monarch's predecessors or advisers, clothes reflected the preferences of the monarch himself. Being both personal and visible, the right costume at the right time could transform and define a monarch's reputation. Many royal leaders have known this, from Louis XIV to Catherine the Great, and Napoleon I to Princess Diana. This intriguing book explores how rulers have sought to control their image through their appearance. Mansel shows how individual styles of dress throw light on the personalities of particular monarchs, on their court system, and on their ambitions. It looks also at the economics of the costume industry, at patronage, at the etiquette involved in mourning dress, and at the act of dressing itself. Fascinating glimpses into the lives of European monarchs and contemporary potentates reveal the intimate connection between power and the way it is packaged.

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'...a magnificent treasure trove of suggestive detail and telling comparisons...His elegantly tailored prose glitters with anecdotal gems...' -- The Sunday Telegraph

'This is a hugely readable and important book charting new territory which is only just begininng to be explored' -- The Spectator

'Witty, scholarly and highly readable, this is a book to relish, and one only wishes it was longer.' -- Country Life, 15th September 2005

'[Mansel] has written a most enjoyable book.' -- Literary Review, November 2005

About the Author

Philip Mansel was educated at Oxford and is the author several highly praised works of history including Constantinople: City of the World's Desire 1453-1924 (1995). He is a frequent reviewer and writer for newspapers and magazines, and is editor of the journal The Court Historian.

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First Sentence
On 9 June 1660, at Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the Franco-Spanish frontier, Louis XIV married the Infanta Maria Teresa, daughter of Philip IV of Spain. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scattered, not that inspiring, more's the pity. 17 Feb 2007
By Rebecca Huston - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.

Somewhat recommended.
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