Fashion History Talks! In conversation with historical novelist Susan Holloway Scott

“Fashion history continues to be perhaps our most tangible link to people from the past.”  –Susan Holloway Scott

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Image selection taken from Scott’s Instagram account @susan_holloway_scott_author

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Portrait of the author.

Susan Holloway Scott is not your typical costume designer. Her designs do not appear on the theater stage nor on a movie or television screen. In fact, her creations do not even require fabric, thread or a sewing machine. To truly see and experience Scott’s designs, all that is required is your imagination. Scott is an internationally celebrated author of over fifty books of historical fiction. Like any historical novelist, her well-researched books are based on real historical figures and events but she sets herself apart by enriching her books with incredibly detailed, historically-based descriptions of her character’s clothing, making her books that much more enticing for the historically inclined. Who doesn’t love a little romance and adventure with their fashion history?

Years of research and a genuine passion for history and, of course fashion history, inform Scott’s work making it a delightful and insightful read. It is a passion that informs her novels but also her Instagram page where she has a devoted following to whom she shares the beautiful historical portraiture that undoubtedly inspires her work. She is also the other half of the blog Two Nerdy History Girls, co-founded with historical romance author Loretta Chase. There you can find the research behind many of Scott’s books including her latest novel I, Eliza Hamilton, about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. So much more than the wife of Alexander Hamilton, she was a powerful, enigmatic heroine in her own right–and stylishly dressed at that! The book was just published in September by Kensington Books (available now on Amazon & Barnes & Noble).

It has been exactly two years since I started @the_art_of_dress Instagram and exactly two years that I have been following and inspired by @susan_holloway_scott_author. I am thrilled to feature her now on The Art of Dress!

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 7.05.41 AMTell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress. Like many of the people that Cassidy has profiled here, my fascination with historical fashion began early. I pored over fashion books, and went to museums to draw the clothes I saw in portraits. I sewed my own clothes, and they always had historical influences (with weirdly mixed results when I look back on the photos!) I went to design school, determined to become a costume designer, but after a year I‘ll freely admit that I chickened out. I transferred to a liberal arts university, and studied art history instead.

But my obsession with historical clothing and fashion hadn’t gone away; it had simply morphed in another direction. I continued to study and read on my own, learning whatever and wherever I could, and I still do. I find inspiration not only in books and journals, but also in portraits as well as in actual garments in museums and other collections. When I began to write and publish fiction, I always use dress as a way to make my characters and their actions more real, and more sympathetic to readers. So in a way, I did end up in costume design, but I use words instead of textiles.

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 8.22.40 AMWhy is the study of fashion history important to you? There is nothing more personal and more unifying than clothing. It’s one of the few things that is truly universal: everyone wears clothing, and any deliberate choice that’s made in dressing becomes a personal fashion statement. Fashion isn’t limited to Parisian couture. The 19thc farmer’s wife in Kansas tying the bow on her calico sunbonnet a certain way was making as valid a fashion statement as the French heiress in a Worth gown. Because of this, fashion history continues to be perhaps our most tangible link to people from the past.

As a writer, what a character wears and how s/he wears those clothes can reveal so much. I don’t mean a head-to-toe laundry-list, like a red-carpet description, but the more subtle things. Clothing can reveal an individual’s personal status, social rank, morality, nationality, ambitions, sexuality, taste, age, health, self-confidence, patriotism, and a thousand other things besides.

And, of course, so many of the clothes of the past were just so beautiful that they’re irresistible.

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 7.13.41 AMIn your opinion, is fashion art? I believe it is. That question is probably tied in to the larger one – What is art? – which can be endlessly debated, and has no right or wrong answers, either. It’s so completely subjective. But to me, fashion is art because it represents the same degree of thoughtfulness, of self-expression, and of conscious choices, that characterizes more traditional and accepted types of art like painting, drawing, and sculpture. I know that there are critics who believe that fashion exhibitions have no place in fine art museums, but to me their sheer popularity proves how much people admire and respond to clothes and fashion. That’s proof enough to me that fashion and art should be seen not as rivals, but as sisters from the same family.

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Ensemble, Alexander McQueen, autumn/winter 2008-9, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: 

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Scott used this painted silk Robe à la Polonaise, c1780 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art as inspiration for Hamilton’s wedding dress.

Since my favorite period of both history and historical fashion is the 18th century, and there are no known “designers” (except, perhaps, Rose Bertin) from that era, I’ll give the crown to all those now-anonymous mantua-makers who created such memorable garments with phenomenal skill, dedication, and creativity. As for a contemporary designer, for me it’s McQueen – both the sorrowfully missed genius of Alexander McQueen, and the house that continues with his name under his brilliant successor Kate Burton. No other fashion house combines the past with the present so imaginatively and so provocatively, and with such dedication to sheer craftsmanship. I can always be seduced by beautiful hand-stitching, beading, and embroidery.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? One? Only one? ::sigh:: Then let me make that one a book that’s out-of-print, but easy to find second-hand: Ingres in Fashion: Representations of Dress & Appearances in Ingres’s Images of Women by Aileen Ribeiro. Any fashion history by Ms. Riberio is going to be a winner, but this one (primarily featuring early 19thc French dress) is just gorgeous, with some of the most ravishing and detailed images of clothes, accessories, and jewelry to be found in any book.

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Mia Malkowski in Jane Eyre with Costume Design by Michael O’Connor.

If you had to recommend one film for the costumes alone, what would it be   The 2011 Jane Eyre, with costumes by the incomparable Michael O’Connor. Not only did the costumes perfectly reflect each character, but they were also exquisitely accurate to the period, with a lived-in quality achieved by flawless accessories.

This costume from Jane Eyre perfectly shows Jane transformation into a wealthy heiress and independent woman at the end of the film.

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“Portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Mrs. Alexander Hamilton)” by Ralph Earl, c1787, Museum of the City of New York.

Can you share an excerpt from one of your books that shows how you “dress” your characters? Sure! Here’s a short excerpt from I, ELIZA HAMILTON.

It’s January, 1780, and twenty-one-year-old Eliza Schuyler has come to visit her aunt at the Continental Army’s winter encampment in Morristown, NJ. Today she’ll be presented to Martha Washington, wife of the army’s commander-in-chief – and if Eliza is lucky, her paths will also cross with Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton.

I’d dressed with great care for this presentation. I wore a blue silk Brunswick jacket, close-fitting and edged with dark fur, and a matching petticoat, quilted with a pattern of diamonds and swirling flowers. My gloves were bright green kidskin, and on my head was the one extravagant hat I’d brought with me, its sweeping brim covered in black velvet and crowned with a profusion of scarlet ribbons. I had a weakness for tall hats, for I felt they added height to my small stature, and kept me from being overlooked in a crowd. Lady Washington was said to be a lady of fashion, and before the war, she’d ordered the finest of everything from London. I hoped she would appreciate the effort I’d made in her honor to dress with fashion and taste, even in the middle of a military encampment.

But I’d other reasons, too. The general’s aides-de-camp were quartered in the same house, and followed the general’s orders from his office. There was an excellent possibility that I might encounter Colonel Hamilton, and I wanted to be sure he took note of me. . . .

As we arrived, the bustle of activity around the house was like a beeskep surrounded by swarms of the busiest of bees coming and going. Soldiers and horses, wagons and sleds and sleighs, and all of them moving briskly on the army’s business. The cold air was filled with the sounds of orders given, of barked conversations, and the jingle of harnesses and the creak of wooden wheels over the packed snow. There were several small fires with men clustered about them for warmth, and bright flags on staffs that proclaimed that this was in fact the army’s headquarters.

My aunt and I climbed down from our sleigh before the house, and I followed her up the steps to the sentry. Among so many men in dark cloaks and uniforms, I felt like a gaudy parrot in my bright clothes. I also felt acutely female in the midst of so many men, and though I held my head high and pretended to take no notice, I sensed every eye upon me as I stood there on the whitewashed steps, my skirts swaying in the breeze and the bright ribbons of my hat dancing around my face. I might be short, but no one was overlooking me now….

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An earlier example of a Brunswick jacket Portrait of Lady Mary Fox by Pompeo Batoni, 1767. According to Colonial Williamsburg’s glossary of colonial lady’s clothing the Brunswick is, “A three-quarter length jacket worn with a petticoat, the Brunswick was an informal gown or a traveling gown. It had a high neck, unstiffened bodice that buttoned, long sleeves, and frequently had a sack back (loose pleats) and a hood.”

More of Scott’s books can be found for purchase here. You can also find out more about her on her website, and  author blog, as well as her history blog. She is also on Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

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Fashion History Talks! In conversation with fashion historian Lydia Edwards

“Since I was four years old and wanted to be a ‘knight in shining armour’ (definitely not a damsel in distress), dress history has been present in my life.” –Lydia Edwards

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The main varying shades of ‘yellowness’ that appear in Edwards book How to Read a Dress. From left: silk twill evening dress, c.1810, @museemccord, silk & wool wedding dress, 1882, Powerhouse, evening dress 1902-03 (amazingly recreated by @cathy.hay!), Fashion Museum Bath, and crepe dress, 1960-70, @shippensburguniv.

I have said it before and I will say it again: clothing speaks, or as haute couturier Paul Poiret pointed out, they sing: “A garment is like a good portrait–the expression of a spiritual state,” he told Vogue in 1909, “and there are robes [dresses] that sing the joy of living as others that herald tragic ends.” Thus, is the power of clothing: to speak volumes without having to say a word. A person just needs to know how to “listen,” or as fashion historian Lydia Edwards points out in her new book, how to read. In How to Read a Dress: a Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th CenturyEdwards takes readers on a four hundred year “sartorial journey through women’s fashion.” Covering an impressive time span, 1550-1970, Edwards’ image-driven commentary and analysis teaches her audience quiet literally, how to read a dress. She seamlessly incorporates quotes and images from contemporary sources to underscore her analysis of each dress, emphasizing the important structural and decorative shifts that contributed to its evolution over hundreds of years. Especially exciting: many of the dresses featured in the book are being photographed and published for the first time! Edwards book is not only informative and beautiful, it is inexpensive!!, and can be found on Amazon here. I am thrilled to feature Edwards as the latest participant in Fashion History Talks!

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This c. 1708 mantua is one of the many stunning dresses analyzed by Edwards in her new book How to Read a Dress. The dress is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, NY.

Tell us about yourself and what you do as it relates to the history of fashion and dress. My current teaching is not fashion history-based, although I have taught art history and broader humanities programs in the past which did feature dress and material culture. I was also fortunate enough to develop and teach a continuing education class at the University of Dundee, Scotland, which focused entirely on the evolution of fashion and defining moments in men and women’s dress.

My art, fashion and theatre history PhD focused on the ‘historical escapism’ of late nineteenth-century theatrical costumes, and this transdisciplinary approach has remained with me: just as well, since I feel that knowledge across disciplines is vital when it comes to dress history. My fashion-related work at the moment sits within my own personal research, so in that sense I am an independent researcher in dress history, specializing in women’s fashion. I have been invited to contribute several public talks in connection with fashion exhibitions and collections in Australia, something which enabled me to gauge the interest of the public and assess the need for a publication which became How to Read a Dress.

Programme Name: Pride & Prejudice.

BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) with Costume Design by Dinah Collin.

Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? Since I was four years old and wanted to be a ‘knight in shining armour’ (definitely not a damsel in distress), dress history has been present in my life. At that age I would draw hundreds of pictures of pieces of armour, sort of like a flat lay, and knew all about the different kinds of breastplates and helmets (information I have subsequently forgotten!). My next interest was ballet – almost exclusively for the clothes and shoes—and then the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice came out in 1995, when I was 11. Something clicked and all I wanted to do was wear empire-line dresses and bonnets. From then on it became an all-encompassing passion and I went from wanting to be a costume designer (particularly after meeting the late, great costume and set designer John Elvery) to becoming – by way of art and theatre history— what I am today, a fashion historian. The history of dress has therefore been with me in one way or another my whole life, and my interest has only grown as I’ve got older. I’m never bored when researching, talking about, looking at historic dress and enjoying the fact that there is always something new to learn. My passion is now to make dress history accessible and enjoyable for everyone, no matter their level of knowledge or expertise. This is how How to Read a Dress came about.

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A clip from Edwards’ book.

In your opinion, is fashion art? I’ve thought about this and talked about it with students so much, and to be honest I’m still on the fence. Philosophically, I suppose it comes down to the raw question of what ‘art’ is at all…and I won’t even attempt to answer that here. To me, fashion is beauty; and I seem to be able to find beauty even in the most unconventional and outrageous of fashions. As with architecture, fashion has a utilitarian root, but beyond its most basic functional premise it can still be driven aesthetically. So in essence, fashion needn’t be art: but it can be.

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House of Worth evening dress owned by Lady Curzon, 1902-1903, in the collection the Fashion Museum, Bath and featured in Edwards’ new book. 

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Past – Charles Frederick Worth. I’m fascinated by historicism within fashion, and his pieces are full to the brim with historical influences. These are integrated subtly within fiercely modern foundations, but they’re unmistakable. When I come across a Worth I haven’t seen before, it’s enough to take my breath away on first viewing. On that basis my favourite present fashion designer would probably have to be Vivienne Westwood, and – just for the sheer unabashed outrageousness of some of his creations – the wedding dress designer Ian Stuart. Wedding dresses are a particular interest of mine, having worked in a bridal shop as a student and made historically-themed or inspired bridal gowns for clients (and for myself!). They allow a touch of theatre, luxury, and opulence and historical styles can be appropriated in so many ways to allow that.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? Looking over my bookshelves, I could have given you such a long list! But if I were forced to choose just one, it would have to be Nancy Bradfield’s Costume in Detail, 1730 – 1930. Beautiful draughtsmanship is combined with impeccable scholarship to create a stunning insight to the construction of women’s clothes across three centuries. Anyone with even a passing interest in fashion can appreciate the gorgeousness of this volume, and it’s invaluable to anyone wanting to learn about the intricacies of dress.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 9.27.43 AMIf you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be? Without a doubt, the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. There were flaws, certainly, but they were small! The designer Dinah Collin worked from original fashion plates and written sources, and her meticulous research into Regency life and style really showed in the resulting costumes. She wanted actors to view their clothes as just that – clothes, not costumes – and I think this mindset is evident in the way they wear them with ownership: they wear the clothes, not the other way around. If you watch the series alongside something less successful, I feel this achievement is particularly noticeable and admirable.

It’s cheating but I also have to mention the incredible Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1970), starring Keith Michell, and Elizabeth R (1971), starring Glenda Jackson. The costumes were designed by Elizabeth Waller (assisted by Jean Hunnisett) and were based jaw-droppingly closely on original portraits and written accounts. Quite simply, perfection.

Find more from Edwards on her fascinating Instagram @howtoreadadress

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