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Myths of Charles I and Marie Antoinette: Histories of Fashion

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Table of contents

  1. Discussion
  2. Conclusion
  3. References

Under the floors of the huge museum, under the daylight, unexposed to everyday life and everyday words being exchanged and being echoed in circles through the museum hall and disappearing out in the smock and daylight, that surrounds the city. Even guests allowed in the archives in the basement are not allowed to see it. Maybe it is not even there, maybe it is just a myth being whispered through the walls of the old museum. A myth from the past shedding its dusty light on all the other stories exposed and materialized all around in the glass cases. It is locked away in a dark room, as the slightest exposure of light would be absorbed by the fragile silk fibers with such a power that would make them turn to dust. This is the shirt that Charles I (1600-1649) wore at his execution. Or at least that is how the story goes.

This is the thing about history. No witness can prove whether Charles I was actually wearing it, and the stories, the drawings, the paintings from that cold January day are all just fragments, small bricks of testimony. Some things are simply holding on to because we want to keep the story alive through our imaginations. Its validity of it is secondary. That is how myths are. History tends to shape itself after what approach or interpretation must be used, and when it comes to fashion it is especially hard because the objects are usually not fixed in a glass case but used and re-interpreted through materialization into the present. That confrontation is central to Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Especially shown in his Convolute B ‘Fashion’ where he writes: “The confrontation with the fashions of previous generations is a matter of far greater importance than we ordinarily suppose. And one of the most significant aspects of historical costuming is that … it undertakes such a confrontation … The question of costume reaches deep into the life of art and poetry, where fashion is at once preserved and overcome.”

The aim for this essay is to explore how we encounter fashion histories in contemporary fashion and dress and consider whether or not to agree that the constant reinterpretation of fashion’s past signals both preservation and an overcoming of those original styles. To find out I will examine how the myths of Charles I and Marie Antoinette are still being kept alive through contemporary fashion and media and how contemporary fashion’s interpretation of the past is connected to myths and death. To find an answer to how the reinterpretation of fashion past signals both preservation and an overcoming of those original styles and to explore fashion histories in contemporary fashion, I will discuss this with Benjamin’s thoughts about fashion and death with Jean Baudrillard’s concept of The Symbolic Value: The Myth of the Origin.

On January 30th, 1649, Charles I of England was beheaded with the public’s witness in front of the Banqueting House in London. His shirt, is according to the curator of fashion and decorative art, Hilary Davidson, a knitted blue silk shirt waistcoat, probably used as an undershirt, which would have been expensive at that time. It is likely that it was worn by a royal person, but it is nearly impossible to prove that it actually belonged to Charles I. With the advanced DNA technology usually used in forensics, it has been possible for scientists to find body liquids. It is locked away because of its sensitive condition, but as we can tell from photos it is almost two-dimensional as it is lying there, flat and stiff as if it was made of parchment. Had it not been for the body liquids it would be hard to imagine that there had ever been a body inside. It is with clothing-like muscles that are old and not being used, they will be stiff, non-flexible, and non-performative to the present.

Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), queen of France and known for her financial wastefulness and frivolous lifestyle, that made her unpopular to the public was beheaded along with the rest of the royal family as part of the French Revolution. She has especially been known for her consuming lifestyle, which included excessive amounts of sumptuous dresses, shoes, and cakes – a lifestyle that was judged and condemned by the public, who was suffering under the crisis of the country.

What also did not please the public was Antoinette’s rebellious and frivolous way of dressing compared to the previous French queens, who had dressed more modestly. In the article “Let Them Wear Manolos: Fashion, Walter Benjamin, and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Heidi Brevik-Zender draws parallels to Benjamin in her analysis of Coppola’s movie about the queen. Coppola’s movie is a historical movie made with a contemporary twist that connects it to Benjamin’s conceptions the transhistorical in fashion and questions what is actually modern.

There are some similarities between Charles I and Marie Antoinette. None of them were liked by the public, which led to the beheading of both of them, but they both live on by the material testimonies that keep the myths around them alive. Mostly Marie Antoinette has been used in the aftermath in connection to fashion, and designers (e.g. Balenciaga, Chanel, Dior), as well as film directors (e.g. Copolla, Delannoy, Jacquot), have sought to perpetuate her seducing and the lavish universe.

And that is not without reason, as she appears as this pastel-colored personification of what Benjamin calls the ‘femme fatale’ – a figure that the fashion world has always been enthralled by. I will suggest, that this figure/persona is central to understanding Benjamin’s idea of fashion’s connection to death.

Charles I has not been romanticized in the aftermath like Marie Antoinette. Maybe because his life as a living person was not as mesmerizing as Marie Antoinette’s, but probably most likely because he was not a woman. Benjamin suggests that there is something seductive about women and this is linked to fashion. In Antoinette’s time, the expectations of a woman were easier to break than for a man, and as the queen, she was expected to be docile and stand behind her husband. Therefore, it was easier for her to be seen as rebellious and frivolous than it was for Charles I. What they do have in common are their material testimonies, their brutal deaths, and their clothing, that link them and leave traces of blood that connect to the present and the myths that still surround them.

Benjamin understands fashion as participating in ceremonies of death. He claims that “fashionable beauty must die to make way for what comes next”. To Benjamin, fashion, death, and the feminine are deeply connected. This is exemplified in his description of the courtesan. The courtesan is a high-class prostitute. To Benjamin, she represents pleasure and decay. Also, she was a passage of death with all her sexual activities, that would pass around deadly 19th century diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis from the body to body. At the same time, the courtesan was connected to high fashion, as she was wealthy and could afford to dress up in the latest Parisian gowns. Benjamin describes the courtesan as a fashionable and seductive femme fatale, who teases death, just like fashion. Seductive and lethal.

Discussion

In The System of Objects French philosopher and sociologist, Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) talks about The Symbolic Value of Objects and of The Myth of the Origin. He argues that antiques refer to the past in a way that gives them an exclusively mythological character. Its role is merely to signify. These antiques, Baudrillard argues, are instead of functionality enriched by memory, nostalgia, witness or escapism.

Baudrillard is interested in illuminating what lies behind the search for old things. His answer to this is, that antiques fulfill people’s demand for a “definitive or fully realized being”. According to Baudrillard, the characteristics of the antiques is what is lacking in the functional objects; they exist only in the present and they do not connect to a former being, as antiques do. “The functional object is efficient; the mythological object is fully realized”. The antique object is a myth of origins, and are like myths used to make sense of the things happening in the present world.

There is something magical about an object, that belongs somewhere else, somewhere unknown, somewhere beyond our reality. And then on the other side not at all, because the connection to this world is the actual object. But is this shown and how can it help us understand how we encounter fashion histories in contemporary fashion and dress?

Baudrillard talks about the signifier as being the only role for the antique object. When we see the contemporary fashion stealing from the past (e.g. inspiration from Marie Antoinette), it steals therefore the signifier and makes it into a functional object again. And so, it goes on.

But can this concept be understood beyond objects in fashion? How does it drive fashion? I will suggest that this signifier can be understood in the same way as Benjamin uses the courtesan as a metaphor for the seductive and the deadly of fashion. A myth, a veil, something that makes people chase it.

Throughout history, we have seen different types of myths being as the courtesan or the signifier to fashion. A non-objectified way we see the myth is in advertising being used as ‘emotional’ and ‘fantasy appeal’, which plays with the feelings of the consumer by creating a myth of something bigger, as – like Baudrillard described it – driven by feelings such as escapism and nostalgia and a former being and appeals to the need of identifying with something bigger than oneself.

Other types of signifiers that lie beyond objects could be the way that fashion has always romanticized illness. An example of this could be tuberculosis (at its time known as consumption), which ravaged the world throughout the 19th century. It had a reputation as a disease for the creatives and it was – mainly because people who were infected with it would get the ‘consumptive look’ appearing pale and gaunt with dark circles around the eyes – surrounded by so much fascination that it became a beauty ideal, making women drink only lemon water and eat sand in order to starve themselves. The disease was connected to artists and poets who lived a low-moral, frivolous lifestyle with sex and alcohol. The disease was celebrated and romanticized.

A recent example of this is the look of the ‘heroin chic’ that permeated the fashion and beauty industry in the 90s. Partly inspired by photographer Nan Golding’s photos of her friend group of drug addicts and personified by model Kate Moss, the anorexic and unhealthy look was romanticized and glamorized by designers and magazines. I will argue, that the signifier in this case manifests itself by the unobtainable. The unobtainable person with tuberculosis is partly dead and therefore possesses escapism and belonging to another place. The same for both the junkie and the anorexic. They have both committed themselves to other worlds and distanced themselves from the real world. Just like old garments that still exist in the present but are unobtainable in the way that they have already been molded and shaped by bodies, words, and voices. The link between freedom and death, that both fit the diseased, the addict, and the anorexic could also be linked to Marie Antoinette to whom the excessive consumption of dresses and cakes was escapism, freedom, which in the end led to her death. Like seduction of something we rationally know is deadly, as the courtesan who teases death.

In ‘Adorned in Dreams’ Elizabeth Wilson (1936-) writes “There are dangers in seeing what should have been sealed up in the past”. Even though there is no danger connected to the shirt with Charles I’s body liquids on it, there is still a certain kind of what Michael Jennings calls the “uncomfortable proximity”, which he describes as; “the things that seem to be plucked from their context in the period and forced into an often uncomfortable proximity to other, seemingly unrelated objects and images hold an explosive charge in that they contain within themselves not only a diagram of their previous and projected development but also an image of an experience untrained by historical life”. In a way fascinating but at the same time repulsive, like the body liquids on Charles I’s shirt. There is a recognition that is so familiar that it almost gets uncomfortable. It is as if it becomes too much a part of our present to be able to distance oneself from it. This is interesting in connection to what we render as valuable historic clothing – what we, for example, would like to wear and what we see as ‘too old’. As Susan Vincent mentions, people through all times have been born with the same anatomical legacy. The same blood runs in our veins. Almost the same shapes of body parts are molded into the fibers of our clothes, but still, there is something else connected to it that makes it appropriate and appealing to us in the present. It is like this dialectical image that Benjamin describes, where something from the past, like a tiger’s leap, quotes from the past even as it anticipates the future while representing the present moment.

According to Benjamin, the past and the present are inseparable, and it can therefore be difficult to say whether the past is being preserved because the past masks itself in the present as it appears. It is living through a new thing and partly dead and partly new. But at the same time, according to Benjamin, it will die for a new one to come. The question is then if it will ever return.

Conclusion

“The confrontation with the fashions of previous generations is a matter of far greater importance than we ordinarily suppose. And one of the most significant aspects of historical costuming is that … it undertakes such a confrontation … The question of costume reaches deep into the life of art and poetry, where fashion is at once preserved and overcome.”

As we have seen by looking at Baudrillard’s Symbolic Value of Objects and of The Myth of the Origin, fashion histories in contemporary fashion and dress are being encountered through our desire and longing for myths. Fashion histories are reproduced through fashion through media like advertising, cinema, and magazines like seen in the different movies about Marie Antoinette and in the romanticized idealizing of illness and addiction, both in history and contemporary times. We have also seen how the Myth of the Origin has been personified through Marie Antoinette and the courtesan, who both tease death, and how Benjamin’s concept of Fashion and Death draws parallels to this mythical renewal of fashion.

We have learned that Benjamin’s concept of dialectics can create an “uncomfortable proximity” and that therefore, maybe not all things from the past can be re-interpreted and overcome. We have seen an example on this in the body liquids on the shirt of Charles I. I will suggest, that if something belongs too much to one side, either too much in the past or too much in the present, it will either be an “uncomfortable proximity” or what Baudrillard describes as an object that only consists of function, and only belongs to the present.

When the tiger’s leap occurs, and every part of the past and the present are interpenetrating each other with equalized proximity, that is when clothes are at once preserved and overcome and that is the moment when a new fashion is born.

References

  1. Allwood, E. (2015). ‘Revisiting the 90s Moral Panic Over Heroin Chic’ in Dazed & Confused. Dazed Media.
  2. Baudrillard, J. (1996 [1968]). ‘The Non-functional System’ The System of Objects. London: Verso.
  3. Brevik-Zender, H. (2011). Camera Obscura 78, Volume 26, Number 3. Duke University Press.
  4. Church-Gibson, P. (2014). ‘Let Them Go Shopping’ in Fashionable Queens. Peter Lang.
  5. Cockcroft, L. (2010). ‘DNA Tests Will Conclude if Stains on Charles I’s Execution Waistcoat Are Blood’ in The Telegraph.
  6. Jenss, H. (2015). Fashioning Memory: Vintage Style and Youth Culture, Bloomsbury Publishing
  7. Pack, S. (2017). ‘Types of Advertising Appeals and Execution Styles – What Sells’. Skywest Media.
  8. Berndl, K., Hattstein, M., Knebel, A. and Udelhoven, H. (2005). National Geographic – Visual History of
  9. the World. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society.
  10. Geczy, A. and Karamina, V. (2016) ‘Walter Benjamin – Fashion, Modernity and the City Street’ in
  11. Thinking Through Fashion. London: I. B. Tauris & Co.
  12. Vincent, S. (2009). The Anatomy of Fashion – Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today. Oxford: Berg.
  13. Wilson, E. (2003 [1985]). Adorned in Dreams – Fashion and Modernity. London: I. B. Tauris.
  14. Benjamin, W. ()‘Convolute B Fashion’ in The Arcades Project.
  15. Updyke, E. and Welsh, E. (2018). ‘Turberculosis: A Slow Burn’ in This Podcast Will Kill You. Exactly

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