Noblesse oblige, and all that jazz

Liesl Schillinger reports on New York's mania for the 1700s

ONLY A WEEK into the New Year, Washington has been rocked by a new scandal in old clothes. President Clinton has been caught spending significant time with a person who favours big hair, pancake make-up and, worse, questionable politics. The fact that the person is a man, not an eyelash-batting Arkansas secretary, only makes the affair all the more unfortunate. He is one of Clinton's new crew of foreign speechwriters, a bright young Harvard PhD named Ted Widmer, aka "Lord Rockingham", and he spends his off-hours mincing across stages in Boston and New York, belting snooty faux-aristocratic rock songs with his campy cult band The Upper Crust. When he is not penning cautious policy declarations about the Middle East and Russia, Lord Rockingham might be found writing such decadent lyrics as "I put my beauty spot upon my face... I need another drop of French perfume," or, "Let Them Eat Rock," or "I'm a Friend of a Friend of the Working Class."

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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