Fashion and Fiction by Aileen Ribeiro

The Stuarts unlaced the stiff corsets of Jacobean fashion and let it all hang out. Vera Rule salivates over the stitching in a new study of lush libertine fashions
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The Independent Culture

A pair of portraits take pride of place in Aileen Ribeiro's book: not on the same page, not of the same era or subject, or by the same artist, yet a perfect match. Exhibit A, Sir Anthony Van Dyke's 1638 painting of Anne Killigrew, Mrs Kirke. Her low neckline is framed by a silk sash and huge pearls; her forearms are nude to the elbow where lingerie lawn spumes from beneath a dress of orange-tawney - amber - satin, which is sans embroidery, braid, slashes, pinking, all the interest that had threshed on the surfaces of fabric in the reigns of James I and Queen Bess. In its radical simplicity, this is undress; not the bareness we mean by undress, but informality: casual wear. Intended to impress of course, since hardly anybody in this book is a nobody, but also to imply the elite at ease.

Exhibit B is Anne's stepdaughter, Diana Kirke, mistress and, after, wife to the Earl of Oxford, in Sir Peter Lely's portrait of some 30 years later, also in amber satin. But now the slight suggestion of sweet disorder in Anne's dress has kindled to full wantonness. Dishy Diana with her gone-to-bed eyes is way beyond undress; she is en déshabille, or rather, in the brisk Anglicisation of the time, dishabill. (I shall revive the term forthwith.) Her seamless satin looks as though she had artfully draped the bedspread over her smock on rising. Her only jewels are a pearl earring and an exposed nipple - as a contemporary drooled, a "Raspberry fountain".

These generations of noble nubility demonstrate the most absorbing of Ribeiro's multifold themes of fashion and fiction in the Stuart century, 1603-1714: the manner in which its painters, poets and playwrights defined the tone of the moment through personal appearances. Anne in her real robe, which had been scissored and boned into the fashionable shape, highwaisted with big volume but low bulk, was transmuted by Van Dyke's imagination beyond modishness. He painted her as the spirit of the era, just as he had rebranded Charles I by limning the pinkish lining of his cloak as if it were an aura of dignity. Interestingly, Van Dyke never portrayed the king in a wardrobe or stance that could be defined as "cavalier"; he reserved the bucket-top boots brimming over with a froth of hose for aristo boyos about to join the royalist cavalry. Ribeiro wickedly reproduces the illustration of the civil war contenders from the comic history, 1066 And All That (the cavaliers' "wrong but wromantic [sic]... gay attire" versus the Roundheads' "right but repulsive... sombre garments"), but points out that the opposition was somewhat less sartorially obvious, as many an ostrich-plume had nodded above the pates of the parliamentary party.

Anyway, a novel minimalism evicted frivol from the garments of all camps before ever a cannon boomed; while upon war's declaration, the uniform garb for the job was the sturdy buff jerkin (a flak-jacket of ox-hide that could with luck deflect small shot), albeit blinged-up with tinselled scarves by court supporters.

Quite how the moods of the moment actually made the modes, and sometimes predicted them, is outside Ribeiro's remit. Her book is a linked sequence of digressions: some are on literary costume, including those Caroline poems in which Robert Herrick and Sir John Suckling get hard as their mistresses lengthily unlace stays in a slow striptease; many more are on what the elite wore for their performance in a portrait, or anyway what the artist chose to depict them as wearing. Not a lot about the cultural forces that compelled the choices, and no wider consideration of the unwearable arts or of architecture: it helps if you already know that Anne of Denmark, James I's farthingaled consort, was a mannequin modelling board-stiff late Mannerism; or that, post-Restoration, bumptious Baroque bulked out full-bottomed periwigs and the after-drapery of mantuas. Ribeiro sketches in a political-religious background, with regular updates on the evolution of silhouette and cut, sometimes illustrated with surviving get-ups of supreme covetability. A night-gown (dressing gown) of violet damask from Shakespeare's time, lined with grey shagg (in effect, silk towelling), plus en suite cap and slippers, all gold-braided, remains so glamorous that everybody who looked over my shoulder reacted as if it were in next month's Vogue: "I want that now." In Twelfth Night, Malvolio's ambition was to be head of the household where he was merely steward, lounging about in just such a robe, a potent combo of comfort and power.

Shakespeare usually avoided dateable dress details. He did describe overall style: Ophelia worries that Hamlet is melancholic - depressed - because he doesn't do anything up properly; formal male costume was then tied and laced into a solid sculptural form, and the prince was coming apart, his socks ruckled down to the ankles.

However Will's contemporaries and close successors, especially Ben Jonson, used precise clothing references to nail a character in age, class and aspiration; they knew it was hopeless wanting a branched damask nightgown on an income that couldn't afford buffin or mockado. Ribeiro's segment on Jacobean playhouse gulls and gallants, that world of London wannabes with red-carpet fantasies, is one of the few in the book set below the highest level and therefore a relief: there's only so much three-piled velvet the appetite can take. (I began to sigh for russet kirtles, but the sole picture of a rustic is a drawing of a shepherdess, which is merely present for purposes of pastoral comparison with the Countess of Kildare, languid in fringed brocade, pretending to feed a dim lamb.) And soon enough Ribeiro is back on the subject of court masques, which were less plays than couture shows with scripts, with countesses parading in for-the-catwalk-only outfits. The devices that Inigo Jones and co successfully employed to promote enviable luxury are still standard in Paris: the exaggerated cleavage; the encrustations of "oes" or "spangles", meaning sequins, to glitter as the girls sashay in the lights; the supermodels' purposeful strut towards and into the celebrity audience at the finale; and the self-applause all round.

When the theatres re-opened after Cromwell's interregnum of austerity, Restoration dramatists were far enough into the in-crowd to write in its voice about the mode, and to use the projection of visual persona as part of the action. Ribeiro is as fond as I am of William Etheridge's Sir Fopling Flutter, who "went to Paris a plain bashful English blockhead and is returned a fine undertaking French fop", and of Sir Novelty Fashion, whom Sir John Vanbrugh elevated to the peerage as Lord Foppington in The Relapse: his original creator, Colley Cibber, acted him in an immense heap of a wig, "nothing should be seen but his Eyes". The endearing duo were fops, not dandies. Fops are not cool. They do not dump the carrier bags in the hall on arrival home from the shops, and scarce look at the purchases after. On with it all forthwith, and out to enjoy being seen. Samuel Pepys took a similar delight in the transformation of identity that was dressing up. But then, he was the son of tailor, and could console himself after his mother's death by wearing handsome mourning to church, where his "new periwig made a great show".

I did begin a list of niggles about the book - as, Ribeiro gives low priority to the origin of fibres and the design and manufacture of textiles, but without them there can be no fashion. But eventually I surrendered. Yale University Press is profligate with colour reproductions of complete portraits and their details done enormous, which allow you almost to lift the accessories off the shelf - and, with Wenceslas Hollar's sensuous gloves, fur muffs and feather fan, try them on. The book also grants access to unfamiliar images, the most surprising a 1618 study of a lady melancholic with perky parrots and peapods stitched on her petticoat, and Godfrey Kneller's 1700 snap of the poet and diplomat Matthew Prior. The sexy fellow is wigless, his cropped head above an open-neck shirt, coat slung round. He might be about to enter the 21st century rather than the 18th.

In the end I also appreciated Ribeiro's picaresque construction, which leads her to research at tangents, yet in great depth. She rediscovers The Spectator's Will Honeycombe, "an aged man of fashion", who knew "the History of every Mode, and can inform you... whose Vanity to shew her Foot made that Part of the Dress so short". Censorious as a dowager, she appraises a 1695 fashion plate of Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, once the ripest of Charles II's raspberry nipple girls: "Somewhat over-patched for a woman in her forties". As an embroiderer, I'm charmed that she included in her entry on needlework the puritan maidservant from a 1639 play whose stitchery sanctifies her employer's cushionets and smocksleeves with holy embroideries; and even more that she cited the professional craftsman mentioned in a 1606 play who is "working on a whole bed embroidered with nothing but glow worms... so you may go to bed without a candle". Would I could borrow the pattern.