Wednesday 12 July 2023

Visit: Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians at The Queen's Gallery

 Saturday, the day after my birthday and my initial plan to spend it all in the park reading children’s books has hit a couple of snags. The first is some confusion about my shift at Dr Johnson’s House, which meant that I found myself going in (no bother, there were lots of people to natter about Johnson to). The second is that there are frequent and very heavy rain showers. So I make alternative arrangements.

I hop on the tube and wiggle my way to Green Park, across the front of Buckingham Palace and past all the tourists, to The Queen’s Gallery. I went a few years back for a retrospective of the Georgian era and it was very good. This one, Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians, is all about clothes. Though I’m no clothes horse myself, I am interested in what people wore because clothes are literally part of the texture of life. 

The exhibition opens with a painting that featured in The First Georgians, a picture of people milling around St James’s Park. There’s Frederick, Prince of Wales, there are soldiers and fashionable women, there’s even a milk bar. It’s a reminder of how much different classes rubbed up against each other in London and, in the the context of the exhibition, how clothes distinguished people. 

There are a few items which popped up in both exhibitions; the picture of Garrick and his Wife, Reynolds, some Hogarths and, of course, portraits of royals. Catherine, wife of George III was most represented by picture. Probably because her portraits show the changes in fashion, especially the heightening of hair - but I’m sure the latest Bridgerton take on her life has increased name recognition.

It was interesting seeing these pictures in a different context though. The focus on the Garrick picture was not the twinkly-eyed man himself but Eva-Maria Veigel’ and her outfit. The yellow (as well as being a nice contrast with his blue) was a particularly fashionable shade, possibly inspired by Chinoiserie and the yellows of mandarins. The lace on her cuffs would have taken a skilled lace-worker a years worth of 15 hour days for one. Clothes were expensive, even when they weren’t threading actual silver into the material and represented a higher drain on income than rent or food.

Even the royals made do and mended, with one of Catherine’s lace gowns repurposed into covering for books and an example of the earliest royal wedding dress which was altered for other occasions. The exhibition included examples of royal underwear - one of George III’s plain, white undershirts, which would be gathered under instead of pants or boxers. There was a pair of stays, structured with baleen, not bone and apparently as comfortable as a bra. 

The exhibition was in different sections. One showed the development of trousers and included a cartoon of a fat man struggling to get into some new-fangled elasticated breeches - the skinny jean of their day. There was a (presumably small) selection of George IV’s bills, including one for a bar of striped lilac pantaloons. Though he wasn’t outright mocked, my impression of Prinny as a bit of a tit was not lessened. As well as his stocked dressing-up box including a skeleton outfit, there was a book of regimental uniforms he pored over, a hussar uniform he used to swan about in and a huge portrait of him in a completely made up uniform. He often invented uniforms for himself.

To be expected from a royal exhibition, the darker/less majestic sides of the family were played down. It wasn’t mentioned that George III’s shirt was one worn by him as he swanned around bearded and blind in Windsor Castle. In the section on children’s clothes, there was a painting of Prince Octavius in a ‘skeleton suit’, a sort of proto-romper. It was not mentioned that Prince Octavius died and his father, George III took to treating a pillow like his son.

For £18, the trip was certainly on the pricey side, a couple more than a British Library exhibition, but the tickets can be converted to yearly passes just as they can at the Royal Pavilion. This means I can go again if I fancy and, if I’ve timed it right, maybe see the next exhibition there. The audio guide was free and had some really informative extra information about selected items. My only gripe would be that the exhibition didn’t seem to tell a full story. There wasn’t a thesis put forward about how the clothes reflected new changes in modes of life, or reflected separation between court and town or mingling of the classes. It was more like a Dorling Kindersley picture book on Georgian fashion brought to life, and that was interesting enough for me. Especially in a country which rather neglects its eighteenth century history, it was nice to go to something specifically about the era that most fascinates me. I read a children’s book later.

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