Sunday, June 27, 2010

Frankenblogging Part 1: Some thoughts on the gown in The Accolade

Author's note: Welcome to Frankenblogging! This is a feature in which I comment on my own older web-published advice and reference, as a way to make myself feel better about subjecting folks to new posts of it while I am porting it over here.

I wrote this piece a decade or more ago, originally for a post to a discussion list, later re-written for my old website.  While it is an older opinion, most of what it has in it is still both valid and consistent with my current opinions on the subject of medieval costume in Victorian artworks.

Some thoughts on the gown in The Accolade

I get asked about this every once in awhile, since it's such an attractive painting, and the gown shown is so lovely to the modern eye. Unfortunately, it's also a Victorian fantasy of what a generalized 'medieval' gown would look like. While it would make a nice 19th century theatre costume, fancy dress outfit, or even a modern wedding gown, it isn't really a medieval gown at all. I'm going to go over its various features and analyze them for the reader, based on my background in studying and recreating medieval, rennaisance and Victorian dress.

Edmund blair leighton accolade
Image from Wikimedia Commons

What I see in this gown:
It looks to me as though the artist spent a bit of time looking at a couple of costume texts of the day in an effort to get the right feel. However, some of the details are a bit off for the probable intended period, while, at the same time, being right on target for later periods.

12th century elements:
It seems, at first glance, to be a sort of 'Victorianized' bliaut, which probably doesn't help much, if you are at all familiar with the contorversy about how these garments might have been made. Things that make me think it's a bliaut (or just generally intended to be a noble lady in 12th C. dress, which would fit nicely with the knighting motif, and the dress of the rest of the figures):
  • The 'V' neck on the overdress
  • The tight and wrinkly undersleeves
  • The neck of the undergown closed with a brooch
  • The bicep trimmings
  • The wide sleeves of the overdress,
  • The location of the belt.
'Victorianized' theatrical costume book elements:
  • The puffy sleeve cap on the overdress sleeves (regency/Victorian)
  • The plaque belt (which *is* medeival/rennaisance, but doesn't
    appear until about 100-200 years later than the intended period
    in its earliest form)
  • The fact that the belt has no upper loop around the torso
  • The overgown and undergown being of the same colors (although
    this is probably both a painterly and a theatrical convention)
  • That the torso's silhouette is that of a gently corseted woman
    of about 1880-1900 (which would make sense if he had a model pose
    in a theatre costume to get the light and shadow right - she would
    have worn her stays underneath it).
If you compare this to the Chartres statues, you'll see what I mean about the details: (Note: links are dead, I have to replace them - search for "Chartres West Portal" for good images) There are manuscript illustrations as well, but I have no links for those.

I like The Accolade. Really. It's a charming, romantic work, and was the stuff of my knights and princesses fantasies as a child. Plus, the dress is like every little girl's fantasy Medieval queen dress up outfit. It makes a fantastic wedding gown, and a number of custom wedding gown makers have a version in their catalogs. That said, it's a Really Really Bad Historical Reference, don't use it as one.

Also, I've been asked DOZENS of times about how to make this "bliaut" for historical reenactment wear. At the time I wrote this, I had been asked about seven times, and I was already getting kind of burnt out. I think I made up a form letter, actually, then thought better of it and put this on my site and just redirected folks to it.

Some other thoughts on Victorian ideas about Norman dress
Don't blame the painter too much for the dress being wrong, although the subject matter is romantic fantasy. The whole 19th century concept of how Norman court dress was made and worn was very wrongheaded. Much of this had to do with the idea that it had to be constructed in some manner similar to that of formal dress of the time (restrictive, separate bodice, either over or under the gown). Additionally, art and costume historians of the 1800's had little or no archaeological evidence to work from, and this, combined with the lack of clear photographs (most worked from others' redrawings of period artworks) contributed to their ideas about how things must have been made. Unfortunately for the beginning costumer interested in Norman court dress, most costuming books easily available today still use these ideas.

I think the current transmission of these ideas mostly comes through Braun & Schneider and Norris, but originally came from Voillet-Le-Duc (who WASN'T a tailor, and boy did it show - I'm not of the opinion that he was much of an artist, either) when he sketched the statues badly 200 years ago. Montfaucon's (earlier) sketches were much better but are less well known. Interestingly, Strutt wasn't as influenced by Voillet-Le-Duc's ideas, possibly because they were near-contemporaries. Strutt, however is more useful for later eras and leaves much out in his redrawings of clothing of the 12th century, though he does seem to have done them from direct observation of illuminated manuscripts.

This bit is more of an analysis of the whole 19th century take on Medieval dress in general. Still pretty opinionated. 

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