Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned: Dressing Down, Seventeenth Century Style

The fantastically titled, The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned exhibition opened at Hampton Court Palace on the 5th April this year. Running until the 30th September, it tells the story of "beauty, debauchery and decadent art in the late Stuart court." In the sumptuous setting of Hampton Court Palace, visitors will be guided through the royal apartments of Queen Mary II, have a chance to view portraits of leading royal and court figures (including King Charles II's infamous mistresses, Barbara Palmer and Nell Gwyn), and learn about the fashionable (and often turbulent) lives of the glitterati who surrounded the monarchs of the late Stuart dynasty, from Charles II to Queen Anne. 

With such a wealth of late seventeenth century glamour on display from artists like Sir Peter Lely, what immediately sprung to my mind were the seductive portraits of court beauties in variations of an informal kind of gown. Sleepy eyed and loosely attired, the women in these images give us an excellent insight into a popular style of aristocratic dress in that period...or rather undress.
Sir Peter Lely, Elizabeth, Countess of Kildare, c. 1679, Tate Gallery
Known as a 'nightgown', this was a more informal type of dress used by aristocratic wives and royal mistresses alike for entertaining friends and (perhaps more importantly) lovers, in the more relaxed setting of one's boudoir. This wasn't the seventeenth century equivalent of answering the front door in your pyjamas and slippers - definitely not. This kind of gown was not a nightdress in the real sense of the word. Made of silk and constructed along the same lines as a more formal gown, it could be laced tightly or loosely, depending on personal preference and occasion. With a low-cut neckline, they could also be worn without a corset, too. It isn't difficult to see why the royal court beauties (and in particular, Charles II's mistresses) favoured this style so much.
After Sir Peter Lely, Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, c.1666, National Portrait Gallery
In her latest TV series for BBC 4, Harlots, Heroines & Housewives: A Seventeenth Century History for Girls, the brilliant historian (and Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces - including Hampton Court) Lucy Worsley gives viewers an illuminating and practical demonstration of the nightgown, dressed by fellow historian, Joanna Marschner. (See the video at the foot of this post). In her own words, she describes the gown as feeling " it could quite easily just, sort of, fall off," thus giving your lover, as the two historians discuss, exactly the view you would "...both wish for." It's also worth pointing out that this was definitely not an egalitarian fashion. It was not the kind of gown worn every day by those women whose work was physically demanding, and for a maid-servant to appear before her own mistress in such a way would have been socially unthinkable. As unfair as this seems to modern sensibilities, the nightgown was a trend for royalty and aristocracy only, and in the title words of the exhibition at Hampton Court, the 'wild' and 'beautiful' ladies and courtesans who inhabited the gilded cage of Charles II's court. 

1 comment:

  1. What a delightfully wicked and wonderful post Laura. I adore Lucy Worsley. Did you know I interviewed her for my blog a few years back? She is one of the most accessible curators I've ever met. She makes history fun!