Seeing the fashions of 1810 featured in Loretta's blog yesterday reminded me of how fashion influences more than just silk and ribbons: it can also determine the stylish ideal of the body beneath those clothes.
Too often, however, the modern perception of what was hot in the late 18th-early 19th c is more a reflection of 21st ideals, especially as influenced by contemporary film versions of Jane Austen's novels. Our sylphs would not have been theirs. Keira Knightley, right, and Gwyneth Paltrow would have been pitied as sad, scrawny creatures, even perhaps consumptive. The ladies that everyone was ogling in a real Regency ballroom would have looked much more like this caricature of the notorious Emma, Lady Hamilton, left, by Thomas Rowlandson.
While later in her career, Emma would be cruelly depicted as blowsy and obese, here she is shown as an eminently desirable and fashionable beauty, with high breasts and well-rounded thighs and bottom. The same kind of lush figure tumbles through countless other drawings by Rowlandson and James Gillray; Google either artist, and you'll see these women over and over. It's easy to look at this body-type and imagine it wearing the clothes in the 1810 fashion plate, or in this one from 1808
The more flattering portrait of Emma, below, also shows exactly how robust a stylish lower half must have been. With fashion dictating a temporary respite from boned corseting, narrow waists lost their importance as an erogenous zone. Instead the interest shifted to the lush, voluptuous curves below the waist, revealed by the drifting drapery of light silks and linens. For men who had been raised in an era when these mysterious body-parts had been hidden by hoops and heavily draped skirts, the sudden change must have been...exciting.
Where did this different kind of body ideal come from? Just as ancient Roman and Greek art and architecture was influencing nearly every aspect of the decorative arts in the late 18th-early 19th c, fashion, too, took a classical turn. High-waisted gowns and draping shawls were designed to emulate ancient fashions, embroidery patterns featured classical motifs, and looped and knotted hairstyles showed a classical influence as well.
But the undressed bodies of ancient nude statuary also set new standards of physical beauty. While Georgian aristocrats on their Grand Tours were busily checking out naked marble goddesses all across the Continent, one of the must-see statutes was the Aphrodite Kallipygos,right, on display in Naples. This much-admired statue is thought to be a 1st c BC Roman copy of an earlier Greek bronze, and her provocative pose must have left a definite impression of classical booty on countless young Englishmen.
The statue may also have influenced Lady Hamilton, living with her husband Sir William in Naples. For special guests to their villa, Emma performed her "Attitudes," a series of graceful poses inspired by classical art – the same "Attitudes" satirized by Rowlandson in the caricature at the top of this page. While Emma performed in a quasi-classical costume, not in the buff as Rowlandson shows her, there is a similarity between the pose – and the voluptuous figure.
Top left: Lady Hamilton's Attitudes by Thomas Rowlandson, 1790 Lower left: Detail, Emma, Lady Hamilton as Ariadne by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1790 Lower right: Aphrodite Kallipygos, artist unknown, 1st c BC, National Archaeological Museum, Naples
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.