As mentioned in an earlier post, visitors to The Hague are treated to two exhibitions shedding some light on poverty and town-life. At the The Hague Historical Museum, near the Mauritshuis, an exhibition compares the lives of the rich and poor of the town. The exhibition at the The Hague Gemeentemuseum focuses on Dutch Impressionists.
The Gemeente Museum in The Hague has done it again. Another fabulous fashion exhibition to drool over by fashionistas, film lovers, fans young and old. This time, fashion created by Mr Hubert de Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn – and others – can be admired. The exhibition was created with the assistance of Mr de Givenchy himself.
Before visiting the costume exhibition at the The Hague Gemeente Museum (see “Mr Darcy”), I attended a symposium organised by the Dutch Costume Society. Of course, their symposium focussed on the exhibition.
Introduction to the exhibition
After registration and coffee at the wonderful Gember café, the first series of lectures started at the Gemeente Museum. Curator ms Hohé, gave an overview of the exhibition and changes in fashion during the era it covers. The contrast between fashion just before and after the French Revolution is already striking. But watching how fashion changed from Jane Austen’s time till the early 20th century, is dazzling.
Some problems faced when preserving and restoring costumes
In the second lecture, Mr Rodiguez Salinas talked about restoration problems museums face, when preserving costumes, cloth, accessories, for posterity.
Cloth is cut and stitched, accessories used, costumes worn, altered and show signs of wear and tear. Some fibres are stronger than others.
Until recently, cleaning was a problem. There were no washing machines, no dryers, no dry-cleaning. So dirt, fungi, insects can cause damage.
Chemical dyes were a fairly new invention. Dying can damage materials. Some chemical components are quite aggressive, even poisonous.
Then there is the combination of various materials, with one for instance not lasting as long as the other one. All in all, it was clear that many clothes simply cannot be preserved for posterity.
Nineteenth century inconveniences
Ms Montijn talked about the dreadful business of etiquette, customs, social obligations, and similar inconveniences which were part of 19th century everyday life. Some stories were hilarious, others heart-breaking.
People did not earn much money and did not own many clothes. Ever asked an elderly family member about hand-me-downs? If not, try nineteen century literature. As shown in this exhibition, bridal wear had to be practical so not white. This dress would not be worn once to church but many times. Or it was altered to serve as a maternity dress. Which reader remembers that during Dickens’ time, it were not just women who wore corsets.
During this lecture, stories from novels, biographies, and other writings were read out. One author wrote about his father, a poor shoe-maker, making a pair of hand-made boots to small. Another pair had to be made, but the faulty pair was too expensive to throw away. When they proved unsellable, the boy wore them. Fortunately, he had not yet started primary school: they were girl’s boots
Arsenic and old lace
After lunch, there followed a lecture on the “new” chemical dyes used in nineteenth century cloth. Quite a few of these new dyes are so brilliant, one is still tempted to put on sunglasses to look at costumes in which the cloth is used.
The lecture did not focus on brilliance though. It was about the use of dyes containing arsenic to colour tarlatan. One of the dresses shown in the exhibition will never be restored. The amount of arsenic used in its green dye is too high!
In the nineteenth century, people were not oblivious to this. There were plenty documented cases from the early nineteenth century onwards and in various countries throughout Europe. Such cases were reported in newspapers. But the substance was sold under a variety of names. The list shown by mr Mertens was impressive.
Even when the first sewing machines started to be used, much was still done by hand. One of the cases cited concerned the wearer of a ball gown becoming ill during a ball. On investigation, it turned out needle women who had worked on the dress also showed signs of arsenic poisoning. But as with similar twentieth century chemical and pharmaceutical cases, it took decades for this dangerous colour to be banned.
Costumes: inside – out
The most fascinating part of this symposium was the “look behind the scene”. Museum staff and volunteers showed over 20 depot pieces, from cover to bottom as well as inside.
Each nineteenth century costume – ranging from underwear, children’s clothes, day and evening wear for men and women – lay on a table. Each table was numbered. Guests were split in groups of about ten people. Each group had 10 minutes at each table, before moving on to the next costume.
Enthusiastic volunteers and staff told groups about the costume, allowing close-up views. Alterations were shown, damage was pointed out, inside stitching techniques were discussed, changes from day to evening wear revealed.
This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime “behind the scene” event. It was a real privilege to be shown these depot pieces in such a manner.
Of course this symposium finished with a visit to the wonderful exhibition. This temporary exhibition can be visited in the The Hague Gemeentemuseum till March 2015. For more information about ticket prices, check the museum website.
Just after lunch, one of the guests asked for information about series of special guild “quilts”. Mrs Beukers, former magazine editor, was looking for information about knitted Guild samplers from Poland and the Alsace region. Apparently, there are only about 20 of these left worldwide. Three seem to be in American museums and a few have been located in other museums.
Nobody in the audience could help, so feel free to contact me if you have any information which might help locate these special Polish and Alsace knitted Guild works, or can provide information related to these.
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.