Noblesse oblige, and all that jazz
Liesl Schillinger reports on New York's mania for the 1700s
Sunday 11 January 1998
At first glance, such behaviour might seem undemocratic, but it would be premature to rip Rockingham's quill out of his hand just yet. In actuality, the Upper Crust is simply one example of a culture-wide craze for the enlightened, personal-growth-focused, brocade, silk and moleskin-crammed eighteenth century. For so long, the fashion of the year you're in has been the year you're in minus twenty. But, aided by an increasing number of lush costume dramas on film, abetted by Christian Dior and other corset, decollete, and Terreur-inspired designers, a growing number of Americans seem eager to embrace the trends of 200 years ago.
In New York apartments and bars, attempts are being made to revive salons in the Talleyrandish tradition, necessitating the hiring of cooks and other eighteenth-century feudal hangers-on, and in bookstores, guides instruct would-be hostesses on how to foster conversation and build their own salons in which to give the conversations a test-drive. On Broadway, scores of bewigged knee-breeched types bring down the house with the historical musical 1776, (about the Declaration of the Independence), while the Marivaux bonbon Triumph of Love romps through the eighteenth-century, European- style. Off-off Broadway, downtown, precious five-hour long productions of Congreve's The Way of the World are performed, and off-off-off Broadway, in Hollywood, directors have cast their prettiest leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, to play Louis XIV in Dumas's Man in the Iron Mask, to satisfy American curiosity about how we would have managed at Versailles. Lord Rockingham has his own idea about that: "Come on to Versailles/Come and get high./Come on down to the Orangerie/We'll make history." Quite so.
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