BOOKS: Fashion Stuart-Style; Fashion and Fiction, Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England by Aileen Ribeiro, Yale, Pounds 40. Reviewed by Richard Edmonds
Byline: by Richard Edmonds.
In the mid-17th century poet Robert Herrick combined poetry and sexuality in a strangely compelling way in a poem he called Julia's Clothes, and if you can't remember it from your school days it went like this:
"Whenas in silks my Julia goes, / Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows / That liquefaction of her clothes. / Next, when I cast mine eyes and see / That brave vibration each way free, / O how that glittering taketh me."
But Herrick's "Julia" (in a similar way to Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" who he set into his sonnets) probably never really existed, being nearly an amalgam of a dozen beautiful and sexually desirable women Herrick would have met at court or in the great houses he would have frequented as an honoured poet.
But the main thing is Julia's clothes. She must have been a very sexy woman and in the Stuart period a lot was revealed. Cleavage had been the "in" thing since Elizabeth I's time and probably before that. Women were given to painting their breasts white before tracing blue veins on them, in lead paint no less, to increase their allure.
Add to this the fine lace, the silks, satins and Italian brocades fashionable in the 17th century and you can see why Cavaliers (not Roundheads - who were viewed as 17th century chavs) went down like ninepins when a Julia sailed past them with her hair - not to mention other parts of her body bobbing around and all her jewels twinkling.
Herrick, on a more sombre note, had pointed out that a woman's rubies would last when her world of physical beauty would eventually perish. We can remember Marilyn Monroe had the same idea in the movie Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend when she told us that "Men grow cold when girls grow old and we all lose our charms in the end."
But diamonds stay exactly the same which is no comfort to a woman piling on the years. Therefore Herrick's message was certainly not new but it still had a little sting to it.
But Aileen Ribeiro in this wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated book which has been long awaited, examines Stuart England through fashion's looking glass underlining the fact that in the 17th century (and, of course, centuries before that) clothing in its richness and sartorial complexity could be viewed in two ways, both as a social metaphor identifying class status and as a style statement implying wealth.
Fashion and fiction continually overlap as Ribeiro points out. The clothes Herrick wrote about are in the book in the fine Van Dyck portraits of the time with their exquisite jewels and gleaming fabrics, but these things take on an added resonance when you set them beside contemporary poetry which underlines their attraction, "for sport, my Julia through a lace of silk and silver at my face".
The idea that clothes underlined your position and your bank balance was more dominant in earlier centuries than it is today. We live in a period when the Queen frequently looks impossibly dowdy in clothes that are nicely made but dull. …