During the past weekend, I visited one of the temporary exhibitions at the The Hague Gemeente Museum. This interesting museum, which was the temporary home of part of the Mauritshuis collection till that reopened (see review Mauritshuis), regularly hosts fashion exhibitions. A previous one focussed on Coco Chanel. The current exhibition is even more impressive and is called “Romantic fashions: Mr Darcy meets Eline Vere”.
Who is Eline Vere? Like Mr Darcy, she is a character from a novel. The novel bearing her name was written by the The Hague author Louis Couperus. Some Dutch literary critics call Eline the “Madame Bovary” of Dutch literature. It’s not that good, but while Mr Darcy and Jane Austen lived around 1800, Eline Vere and Mr Couperus lived around 1900. The exhibition roughly covers this period.
It starts with the thin, practically see-through gowns which were post-French-Revolution fashion statements worn by the likes of Madame Recamier, Empress Josephine, Queen Hortense, Jane Austen – and characters from her novels. Quite a few women abolished corsets. Some scandalized contemporaries claimed a few women wore nothing under their gowns – oh la-la!
A room further and things change. Skirts are worn over petticoats, sleeves become longer. Sleeves ultimately become so large, they need to be pinned up to prevent them wiping food off dishes during meals. Later they will change into the so-called leg o’mutton ones. Corsets were also firmly back in fashion. A few exhibited dresses further, the first crinolines appear: female fashion goes “Gone with the Wind”.
After Scarlet O’Hara’s crinolines reach a kind of max size, fashion changes yet again. Think of dresses worn in films based on novels by Henry James, which draw the eye to the female back.
At least one of James’ heroines mentions she cannot possibly return to New York without a dress created by Worth. What a contrast with the sporty “Bloomer” girl who – horror of horrors – dumped petticoats, crinolines, what not, to cycle in an early female trouser-suit!
Of course, the exhibition also covers male fashion. The French revolution abolished elaborately embroidered, colourful suits. Male fashion became a dull and sober affair. Changes were not as spectacular as in female fashion and by the end of the 19th century, the male suit already looks a lot like our bland affair. Though modern dandies no longer wear corsets, which 19th century men used to create the manly shape so “en-vogue” during the Victorian era.
Most of the preserved clothes in museums once belonged to wealthy people. The poor would have altered, repaired, handed down and patched-up their clothes till these were only fit to be cut up and used for patchwork and quilts. However, the dress in the middle of the Tartan section did belong to a servant girl. Many women married in a best dress, which usually was not our “wear only once, white affair”. The exhibition shows a few best dresses, altered so they could be worn during pregnancies.
The exhibition starts with costumes from the BBC tv-series “Pride and Prejudice”, including a suit and the famous shirt worn by Colin Firth. It ends with costumes from another extremely popular BBC tv-series “Downtown Abbey”. Curator ms Hohé and others thought it more logical to not terminate the exhibition at exactly 1900. The Great War not only cost an appalling number of lives. It changed society for ever and also forms a watershed in fashion. One might say: Worth went out; Chanel arrived.”
“Romantic Fashions: Mr Darcy meets Eline Vere” can be seen at the Haags Gemeente Museum till March 2015.
Louis Couperus’ novel “Eline Vere” is available in an English translation.