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Make it Work

Queen-Elizabeth-1-Ditchley-portrait“Everything old is new again.” We’ve all heard variations of this famous line, usually applied to fashion. We’re supposed to change our wardrobes seasonally, and seasonal staples change from year to year. All fans of Project Runway know that the fashion world moves quickly; as Heidi Klum says, “In fashion, one day you’re in, the next day – you’re out.”

Well, yes. But, in all deference to Heidi, in fashion you may be out one day, but you’ll eventually be back in again. I’m not referring to ultra-hip vintage-hunter fashionistas, or to hipsters ironically wearing an old outfit dug out of their aunt’s attic. I’m taking a long view of fashion history, and believe me, everything comes around again. You never know when a fad from Renaissance Europe or ancient Egypt might pop up again.

Think I’m barmy? Let’s look at a few examples. Picture King Henry VIII of England. Are you imagining a full-body portrait of Henry striking an aggressive pose, hands on hips and glowering? Go ahead and do a Google image search for Henry VIII – almost every portrait of his looks like this. See those puffy upper sleeves, and slightly less puffy lower sleeves? And the shirt fabric covering his chest? You’ll probably notice lots of little bits of white fabric poking out of the shirt and sleeves. These white bits are a voluminous white undershirt sticking through slashes intentionally cut in the outer layer of clothing. In Tudor England, these artful slashes in one’s clothing were the height of fashion. Hmm, intentionally slashed clothing? The most expensive clothing in the kingdom coming pre-ripped? Sounds familiar – think 80s’ hair metal bands, or the jeans purchased by today’s teenagers. See parents, your teens are just emulating British royalty!

Speaking of the 80s: shoulder pads. We can trace this interesting moment in recent fashion history back to Renaissance Europe. While variations existed from country to country, the general silhouette for women was characterized by wide shoulders, an extremely narrow waist, and very broad hips. The look was achieved with architectural undergarments like the corset and the farthingale, which was an early precursor to the hoop skirt, or crinoline, of the Victorian 1800s. For a prime example of the silhouette achieved with a corset and farthingale, look up a painting of Queen Elizabeth I. The corsets of the era made a woman’s upper body look quite conical, almost like an inverted triangle. Queen Elizabeth’s shoulders are even further accentuated by big puffy sleeves, wider at the shoulder and narrower at the wrist. These were called leg-o-mutton sleeves, and I do not look forward to the day when they come back into vogue. Anyway, the accentuated shoulder look for women was popular again in the 1980s, though to a much less dramatic degree, vis a vis shoulder pads. If Lady Gaga has any influence on modern fashion, we may see a resurgence of the shoulder pad.

I, like many people, use a staple of ancient Egyptian fashion in my daily routine: eyeliner. Men and women alike used kohl to outline and enhance their eyes. In fact, many modern grooming routines can be traced back to ancient Egypt: shaving, moisturizing, pedicures, deodorant, and many varieties of makeup, just to name a few.

Tracking fashion fads through history tends to be easier for women’s fashion than men’s because, at least in Western cultures, men’s basic fashion hasn’t evolved much since Beau Brummell. I’m speaking of course, of suits. Men’s suits owe absolutely everything to this fashionable gentleman from the Regency Period. Streamlined fitted pants, linen shirt, trim waistcoat or suit jacket – minimal, simple, and a classic look that has defined business wear for about 200 years.

Tim Gunn knows what I’m talking about. For a fun, quirky, witty, and practical look at fashion history and its influences on your own closet and fashion choices, check out “Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet.” We have a copy in the Norwood Library up in the fashion history section, which you can peruse by visiting the 391 call number section on the mezzanine level. For a slightly more academic perspective with great color photographs, try “The Complete History of Costume & Fashion” by Bronwyn Cosgrave. If you own more pairs of shoes than you can count off the top of your head, you need to flip through “Shoes, an Illustrated History,” by Rebecca Shawcross; the large color photos are amazing, and you won’t believe some of the historic shoes.

We define so much of our personal identities with our clothing and fashion, yet pretty much everything in fashion has already been done somewhere, sometime. There’s something comforting in the thought that even something as mundane as deciding what to wear today has indelible ties to the past and our predecessors. Remember, just be yourself – but you can also be Cleopatra, Twiggy, Madonna, and King Henry VIII at the same time. And they said I’d never use that Costume History class…

Liz Reed is an Adult Services and Information Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts.  Read Liz’s column in the March 30th issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.


Liz Reed

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