Magazine article The Spectator

The Emperor's Real Clothes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Emperor's Real Clothes

Article excerpt

The Emperor's real clothes DRESSED TO RULE: ROYAL AND COURT COSTUME FROM LOUIS XIV TO ELIZABETH II by Philip Mansel Yale, £19.95, pp. 237, ISBN 0300106971

Like Philip Mansel I am a passionate believer in the importance of trivia in history, or rather what most academic historians would regard as such. Years ago, at the close of the Sixties, I was the first chair of the newly formed Costume Society, in the main because I could keep the warring women gathered around the table from tearing each other's hair out. That society has just celebrated its 40th anniversary and both it and the course on the subject at the Courtauld Institute signal that the topic at last has gained status. It is the one which first drew me to history when I was a child and thence to the study of Elizabeth I, history's greatest monument to power dressing.

And the complex relationship of dress to power is the topic of Philip Mansel's quite marvellous book, one which should, perhaps, be read in tandem with David Cannadine's foray into the importance of bling, Ornamentalism. Both explore the almost manic hold which court dress, uniform, robes and insignia have had on people for centuries. Let me add that it is not extinct. It is an urge which can work in contrary directions. One is, as I've said, to dress up, and the other is to dress down, and both are accurate reflections of society's aspirations and power structure.

Mansel's survey runs from the court of the Sun King down to the dissolution of that world by 1918. I wish that he had poked back a century or so more to lay down some roots in the court of the dukes of Burgundy and then perhaps in those of its successors, the courts of Charles V and Philip II. But no matter, for he has a compulsive tale to tell, one which embraces the whole of western Europe and beyond to the Russian and Turkish empires.

He cleverly themes his sartorial topic in a series of chapters provocatively entitled such things as 'Splendour', 'Identity' and 'Revolution'. The story is not a straight-forward one that power equals diamonds are a court's best friend. It is more subtle than that. It is a pendulum which swings from splendour to simplicity. It opens with Louis XIV's Versailles and a cult of extravagance which was crippling for those caught up in it. What Mansel brings out so well is not only the use made by successive kings of France of this prescribed opulence but its relationship to the French luxury industries. …

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