The Fashion Museum in Bath: Blackout Curtains to Ball Gowns

Bath’s charming Fashion Museum is always worth a wander. And there’s a large central gallery where one and all are invited to try on new identities. How does that wig fit, Sir?

In this town where Jane Austen lived and wrote in the early 1800s, there are always Jane-esque muslin gowns on display. The placard explains that in the 1780s Marie Antoinette and her ladies at Versailles wore similar gowns in their private off-duty hours. In France, these refreshingly simple dresses were called chemises de la reine: dresses of the queen. They were inspired by archaeological discoveries of the ancient world in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

By 1900, fashions had gone fancy and formal again. To appear at court, a lady had to wear a dress with a train that trailed at least three yards from her ankles–nine feet. I’d be hopeless in a getup like that, I’m afraid. I’d trip myself and anyone in a nine-foot radius.

Sailor suits for little boys were popular in Victorian times. The fashion started when the five-year-old Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria, wore a miniature version of a sailor’s uniform from the HMS Victory. It was the flagship of Lord Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.

During and after World War II, blackout cloth was about the only fabric that was not rationed. Enterprising ladies used it creatively for dresses. The one above is from 1945.

In honor of the postwar accession of Queen Elizabeth II, a little girl’s mother treated her to a homemade dress printed with scenes from the coronation.

The smocked dress features a border and collar with the coronation procession.

I lived through the 1960s, but I have to say I would not have appeared in public in a “knickerbocker dress.” Was this really a thing? Mary Quant, the swinging 60s designer, thought so, and actually sold this little number in her boutique in 1961. Not for me, thanks. I do remember wearing geometric minidresses, though.

In 2018, the Fashion Museum features a special exhibit of clothes worn by several British royal women.

The exhibit starts with Princess Alexandra, subject of a previous post.

Next is Queen Consort Mary of Teck. She was married to King George V.

Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, wore this Norman Hartnell ball gown in 1954.

My favorites were the exquisite gowns worn by Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen.

The striped 1949 Dioresque gown above was designed to encourage postwar women to wear British textiles, including reasonably-priced cotton. It was the work of Norman Hartnell.

Best of show, in my opinion? Margaret’s ethereal ivory chiffon evening gown with tied bolero jacket, above.

The Fashion Museum is a bit off the beaten path in Bath, but worth the slight detour.

And did I mention that guests are invited to try on historic outfits for size?

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

A Royal Wedding Dress, Remodeled? How Princess Alexandra of Denmark Got It Right

When Princess Alexandra of Denmark married the Prince of Wales, in 1863, to judge from the photograph, she looked a bit like a wedding cake. The silk satin dress was festooned with tulle and specially made Honiton lace which featured English roses, Irish shamrocks and Scottish thistles. It was all very fitting for the 18-year-old who was marrying the son and heir of Queen Victoria. The dress’s train was 21 feet long and required eight bridesmaids to carry it. The photo above, Public Domain, was taken by John Jabez Edwin Mayall. Alexandra was the first royal bride to be photographed wearing her wedding dress.

I recently saw that very dress in a special exhibit at the Costume Museum in Bath, England. But wait, what happened? According to the placard, the original dress was designed by Mrs. James of London for the wedding, then remodeled that same year by Madame Elise, also of London. If I had rented the audioguide, I would probably know more about why and how this happened.

I assume that even a princess in those days might be practical and frugal enough to remake a fancy dress so as to get more use out of it. To a modern eye, the remodeled dress is much more elegant. The skirt must have been made more sleek, and some of the royal crinolines packed away for another time. (I’d cheerfully wear this dress if I were invited to a grand enough occasion. Go ahead, invite me!) This will definitely not happen with Meghan Markle’s dress after her marriage to Prince Harry. Royal wedding dresses these days cost several hundred thousand dollars, and they go straight to preservation and later display.

Princess Alexandra was known for her elegance and style. (In fact, she was so avidly followed that when an illness left her with a limp, all the stylish ladies hobbled around with the Alexandra Limp). She reportedly favored slimmer, simpler silhouettes than her new mother-in-law, Queen Victoria. That’s Alexandra above, in a portrait now in Fredericksburg Castle in Denmark. It’s by Edward Hughes, 1904. (This would be after her husband, Prince Albert Edward, became King Edward VII, and she became Queen and also Empress of the British Empire).

Here’s another of Alexandra’s dresses, elegant in its comparative simplicity.

This gown was most likely made and worn for a visit to Holyrood, the royal residence in Edinburgh.

Then as now, royals dressed carefully for visits. If I were invited to a formal dinner in Scotland, I’d cheerfully wear tartan taffeta.

After she became Queen, Alexandra added more sparkle to her gowns with elaborate beading. But the silhouette became even more sleek.

The arrival of Alexandra for her wedding was a grand occasion, painted by Henry Nelson O’Neil: “The Landing of H.R.H. the Princess Alexandra at Gravesend,” March 7 1863, Public Domain.

The marriage seemed to be a happy one, although even after he became King, Alexandra’s husband enjoyed the company of a string of mistresses. They had six children.

In her homeland of Denmark, Alexandra sponsored the building of a very English-looking church for British residents, 1885-7. It’s St. Alban’s Anglican in Copenhagen, pictured above. (Photo is by Blake Handley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0).

I was lucky enough to take in a Christmas concert at St. Alban’s last December, and admired a memorial plaque honoring Alexandra.

Alexandra’s wedding took place in St. George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle. It’s one of the most beautiful and evocative churches I’ve ever been in, but photos are not allowed inside. I’m sure the excitement ahead of the royal wedding is intense, but then again this is a real parish church with everyday business to attend to.

As on most evenings, Evensong is probably happening–a small, intimate service which I highly recommend. (Many Anglican churches have either Evensong or Evening Prayer–a restful end to a tourist’s day). The evening I attended at Windsor, I was disappointed that I missed the Boys’ Choir. But a choir of girls had been invited instead. No photos were allowed inside, but excited girls in blue dresses, and their parents, had a once-in-a-lifetime experience–and the girls sang beautifully.

Will I be watching the royal wedding on May 19? Oh, yes! I’m looking forward to seeing a bit of the pomp and pageantry. I’ll be with two of my granddaughters, explaining to them why Britain still has royalty and why this marriage is significant. To honor the occasion properly, I stopped at the local Dollar Store to get tiaras for us all to wear, plus crepe paper and such to decorate the living room. We’ll be wishing Harry and Meghan a long and happy life together. (And drinking tea and eating scones warm from the oven, of course–the wedding is at 6:00 am where I am in the USA).

Postscript, post-wedding: Meghan Markle was a breathtaking bride in a classically sleek wedding gown by Claire Waight Keller of Givenchy.

Here are some more of my excited screenshots. It sounds as though this royal bride will make social consciousness and public service her life’s work now. In my opinion, this is what makes all the pomp and pageantry of royalty worthwhile in today’s world. I wish her the best.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, culture and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

St. Hallvard of Oslo

How many cities have their own patron saint? Oslo does, and May 15 is his feast day. Since the Middle Ages, images of local boy St. Hallvard have appeared on the city seal of Oslo, and elsewhere in the city. Above is a carving of St. Hallvard from the City Hall.

The entire City Council Assembly Room is dedicated to St. Hallvard. It was designed by Magnus Poulsson, with a beautiful tapestry designed by Else Poulsson and woven by Else Halling.

But wait, who is that woman lying at Hallvard’s feet in the first carving? Legend has it that Hallvard was a farm boy, born around 1020, who gave sanctuary to a poor pregnant woman who was accused of being a thief. He believed in her innocence. He allowed her onto his boat to get away from her accusers, and offered them recompense for the supposed theft. But they killed both the woman and Hallvard with arrows–three arrows for Hallvard. The carving just above shows him shielding the woman while bad guys shoot him. But what’s that round object in the lower left-hand corner?

According to legend, the murderers buried the woman, then tied a millstone to Hallvard and tried to sink him. But he would not sink. So their crime was discovered. Hallvard is usually depicted holding a millstone in one hand and three arrows in the other.

The tapestry is front and center in the assembly room.

I can’t tell whether Hallvard was ever officially declared a saint by any authority. The people just admired him and wanted to remember him. Christians saw him as an example of righteous self-sacrifice. A cathedral was dedicated to him in 1130, and it was the most important church in Oslo for several centuries. Its ruins are still visible in a park.

Anyway, I think the City Hall is the best place for Hallvard. In egalitarian, practical Norway, common people and their common lives are celebrated. Like the other fine art in Oslo’s City Hall, Hallvard’s tapestry shows people building, caring for others and for animals, enjoying a peaceful life, and generally getting along.

I know that every city and town has its own undeclared secular saints: people who quietly work for good and give of themselves. We need to celebrate them all, as Oslo celebrates its native son, St. Hallvard.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

Some Danish Moms for Mother’s Day

It’s Mother’s Day in the USA, and I’m thinking of a portrait I admired last winter in Copenhagen’s National Gallery. It’s “At the French Windows, the Artist’s Wife.” Lauritz Anderson Ring painted it in 1897. This portrait must have given some people pause. Even in Denmark, this was the Victorian era.

Here’s the whole painting. Putting the belly of an obviously pregnant woman front and center was a bit daring. But the artist had just married Sigrid Kahler in 1896. He was in love! And he was a freethinker, moving away from sentimental and constraining views of women (paraphrasing the gallery’s caption, which, thankfully, is in English as well as Danish).

Even earlier, in 1884, Michael Ancher painted “Portrait of My Wife.” It’s just across the park in the small but perfect Hirschsprung Gallery.

His wife, Anna Ancher, was a renowned artist herself. She painted ordinary interior scenes with extraordinary subtle colors, like “The Girl in the Kitchen” above, 1881-1884. It’s also in the Hirschsprung Gallery. Anna refused to give up her painting after her marriage, but she clearly loved and valued the small humble tasks raising a family. I’m sure Anna spent plenty of time on housekeeping herself, but I’m glad she didn’t put away her paintbrush just because she had children.

And rounding out my Danish salute to motherhood, here’s “Mother and Child,” 1860, by the Danish painter Constantin Hansen, also in the Hirschsprung.

Here’s to mothers everywhere!

If It’s Friday, This Must be Fontainebleau

I’m continuing a brief rundown of my 9-day chateau blitz in France, with individual posts to come! Above is Chateau de Chambord, which I think of as The Really Big One With the Spiky Roof.

Francois I built Chambord starting in 1519 and naturally stuck his emblem, the flame-spouting salamander, all over the place. It’s a little short on charm but long on history and the Wow Factor.

Chateau de Langeais is a restored medieval chateau/fortress in a delightful town.

Langeais is most famous as the site of a secret wedding that changed French history: Anne of Brittany married King Charles III, uniting her coveted vast lands with the French crown. And she agreed in writing to marry his successor if Charles died (which he did). A dramatic tableau in the actual wedding hall (with narration every 15 minutes, in English once every hour) explains the characters and why this wedding was a very big deal.

Chateau de Villandry is most famous for its gardens, but the chateau has fine art, too. That’s a bust of Francois I in his armor above.

Chateau de Chaumont was the consolation prize given to Diane de Poitiers after Catherine de Medici kicked her out of the sublime Chenonceau. (See previous post, “Diane de Poitiers vs. Catherine de Medici). Diane hardly stayed at Chaumont, but shrewdly developed and farmed the estate to her great profit.

Later, Chaumont became a regular haunt of nobles and artists like Marcel Proust.

Today, Chaumont has fantastic gardens and art installations. When I visited, the chapel was filled with branches, flowers and beautiful found objects.

Chateau d’Amboise towers over the lively town of Amboise, right on the River Loire. Francois I brought Leonardo da Vinci here from Italy, to keep him company during the last 3 years of Leonardo’s life.

Leonardo died in 1519 at the mansion Francois I gave him, Clos Luce, just up the street from the chateau. He was buried on the chateau grounds.

Chateau de Gaillard, down a side street near Clos Luce, is really more of a mansion. But it was the home of the master gardener Charles III brought from Italy to do up his chateau grounds.

Dom Pacello was a monk with a serious green thumb. Among other great ideas, he brought orange trees to France. After Charles III died, Dom Pacello served his successors, Louis XII and Francois “The Builder” I. Today, the family renovating the estate is cultivating many of the 60 varieties of citruses grown by the gardener monk.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was the place that inspired Louis XIV, the Sun King, to go all out in building the Palace of Versailles.

Well, truth be told, it was more appropriation than inspiration. Louis was furious that his Lord High Treasurer, Nicolas Fouquet, had nicer digs than anything the King had at the time. So after a particularly grand blowout party in which Nicolas pulled out all the stops to amuse Louis, Louis turned around and had him arrested and imprisoned for life (overruling the court that failed to convict him). Then Louis made off with the great architect Louis le Vau, the painter and designer Charles le Brun, and the landscaper Andre le Notre, along with all the furniture. He even dug up the bushes.

Nearby Fontainebleau has been the home of French kings for centuries. There’s always renovation going on. But I really could not see the point of a short section of ugly fence right in front of the famous double staircase where Napoleon Bonaparte spoke to his troops after he was forced to abdicate. I think the fence was put there just to discourage selfies.

Napoleon especially liked Fontainebleau. There’s an absorbing series of rooms about him on display right now. Is that one of Napoleon’s outfits above? No. It’s just how he dressed one of his more important servants. The Emperor had style, for sure.

My very least favorite sight on this trip was the Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, where nobles and royalty once retreated to the monastic life. I saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least for me.

The whole site was a fearsome prison for 150 years, only closed in 1963. The cavernous spaces were filled with prison cells for all that time.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence and were subject to terrible abuse. Life expectancy was 8 months. A series of exhibits in the cloister claims all kinds of similarities between prison life and monastic life. I don’t see it. Monastic life was usually (of course not always) a free choice of nuns and monks, and it was based on prayer and contemplation, not subjugation and punishment. I found the exhibit offensive and felt like the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there.

It’s true that Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her last days at Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, when it was a very pleasant place, and died there in 1204. Her effigy lies with those of her husband, King Henry II of England, her son, Richard the Lionheart, and Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John of England. But the monastery was dismantled during the Revolution, and these may not be the actual resting places. Anyway, the space is cold, empty, and unconsecrated.

More serious fans of architecture could spend hours studying the Romanesque abbey, but I probably would not go back.

Kings, queens, nobles and assorted favorites acquired serious real estate over the centuries. Every chateau and abbey and church is one-of-a-kind, like the people who built and lived and worshipped in them. The ones I visited on this trip are just the most famous ones.

I’d like to take another whole trip going to lesser-known and farther-afield chateaux, and also to the churches I didn’t have time for. But I would always carve out a morning to gaze out the leaded-glass windows of beautiful, magical, sublime Chenonceau, draped like a necklace across the River Cher. The kitchens at Chenonceau are even beautiful, and they have that river view.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

If It’s Tuesday, That Must Be Talleyrand

Or, Why You Might Not Want to Travel With Me. I’m nearing the end of a 9-day trip to France, and for sure I know I married the right guy all those years ago. He cheerfully drives anywhere, this time from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the Loire Valley and back, with at least two or three stops at sights every day. If you don’t like a slightly hectic travel pace, you might not want to tag along with us.

We based ourselves in tiny Chenonceaux, pretty central for the Loire Valley. (The town’s name ends with an X but the chateau’s name is Chenonceau).

And Chenonceau is the most beautiful and fascinating chateau anywhere, if you ask me. Plus Chenonceau always smells wonderful. Every single room always has fresh flowers, as no doubt they did in the days that Diane de Poitiers and later Catherine de Medici gazed out the leaded-glass windows at the River Cher.

Thanks to the wonders of our Garmin GPS to find places, and my trusty iPhone cellular data to double-check opening times, we covered a lot of ground on this trip. Also, we were seeing some of these places for the second or even the third time. (For us, history never gets old. It just gets more interesting).

Here are a few of my other favorite things from this trip:

Claude Monet’s Gardens and Home in Giverny.

Chateau Azay-le-Rideau: a jewel of a Renaissance castle, recently renovated and sparkling on its own pretty little island.

Chateau de Cheverny: owned by the same family for hundreds of years, plus they have about one hundred happy hunting dogs.

Chartres Cathedral, one of the greatest medieval pilgrimage sites, always spectacular (even though I don’t understand why the interior was recently whitewashed. I have mixed feelings about the very controversial recent “renovation”). I really love the mismatched towers, pretty unique in cathedrals. What were the builders thinking, as the second tower went up? Who gave them permission? Well, it works for me.

Chateau de Blois, layers of history plus a generous serving of murder and mayhem.

And as for Talleyrand? He was the right-hand diplomat of Napoleon Bonaparte, among many other things in his gleefully scandalous life. He pretty much did as he pleased and had a wonderful time. His Chateau de Valencay is lovely in a faded-elegance way, and very entertaining.

Just above, the fairy-tale towers and turrets of Chateau d’Usse.

I have lots more just to list, but I still have a couple of days to see as much as possible. Time to plan what else to see. I’ll finish my trip list later. Naturally, I took a ton of photos and picked up a ton of guidebooks. I’ll post much more about each of these sights and all the rest after I catch my breath. To be continued!

Monet’s Garden in Giverny

Claude Monet was not always the rich and famous inventor of “Impressionism.” In fact, “Impressionism” was not always a revered art movement, or a way to sell countless silk scarves and coffee mugs. In 1872, the 32-year-old artist exhibited a painting titled “Impression, soleil levant” (Impression, rising sun”) which was ridiculed for being a mere Impression, not a real painting. But he persevered.

In 1876 Monet’s young wife Camille became ill with tuberculosis, common in those days. She was weakened further after giving birth to two children. She died at age 32 in 1879, apparently from uterine cancer on top of everything else. She never saw the gardens at Giverny; they did not exist in her lifetime.

In 1876, Monet and Camille had been invited to the chateau of businessman/collector Ernest Hoschedé, where they met Edouard Manet and other artists. His wife, Alice, became a good friend to the young couple. Then disaster struck. Hoschedé went bankrupt, abandoned his family, and fled to Belgium in 1877. Alice began caring for Monet’s two children, along with her own six children. She and Claude decided to join forces and bring up their children together. Neither of them had much money, and there were years of hardship.

They were finally able to marry in 1892, once Alice’s estranged husband died.

After all their troubles, it seems they happily raised their large family and grew old together. In their house, I loved this photo of the two of them feeding pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

But during their years of poverty and somewhat scandalous living arrangements, the couple lived in rented houses which Monet hated. In 1883, he caught a glimpse of Giverny from a train window. He rented the existing house and began cultivating a garden.

His painting career was taking off during these years. Soon he was able to buy the house. He and Alice entertained all the important artists and writers of their time. Today, reproductions of the paintings of Monet and his friends are informally displayed on shelves, as the originals were in his lifetime.

Monet added various rooms to the house. His own sunny corner bedroom featured some of his favorite paintings, now replaced by reproductions.

He especially liked Renoir’s serenely sunbathing lady. So do I.

I imagine there must have been a kitchen garden in Monet’s time. The blue-and-white-tiled kitchen was large and equipped to serve a big family and plenty of guests.

If I could choose one time and place to time-travel to dinner, it might be to the cheerful yellow dining room at Giverny.

As in Monet’s time, the house is full of the Japanese prints that he and so many other artists had begun to collect. Japanese art, which had only recently become widely available outside Japan, strongly influenced all the artists of the time.

As his garden grew and thrived, Monet always had something beautiful to paint close at hand.

Above is a detail from “The Garden at Giverny,” 1900, now in the Orsay Museum in Paris.

Eventually Monet was able to buy adjoining property with a stream. He created his famous lily pond with its Japanese bridge.

Alice died in 1911. Monet lived and painted his beloved garden right up until his death in 1926, at the age of 86.

Is Monet’s home crowded and touristy? Oh, yes. I’ve seen it several times over the years, and the crowds get worse every year. The gardens are large enough to absorb quite a few people, but the house must get unbearably packed. I think the house should have timed entries.

On a weekday morning in late April, I arrived early and there were plenty of people. By the time I left at noon, the line to get in stretched at least a full city block. If I encountered a line like this, I would leave for awhile and come back in late afternoon. The light would be better anyway, and the tour buses would have left.

Still, there’s magic to be found in Monet’s gardens, in any season. I’d cheerfully go again tomorrow–but I’d arrive even earlier.