I was fortunate to be in Amsterdam this week and see Catwalk, a glorious exhibit of clothing from the 17th through mid-19th centuries at the Rijksmuseum. Oh my goodness! It was the most impressive display of clothing of any sort, let alone historical pieces, I have ever seen. Take away the clothes and the display and mannequins are themselves works of art. Add the clothing … I have no words. I cried. Yes, beautiful clothing apparently has the power to turn me into a watering pot.
I cannot do a comprehensive review of the entire exhibit, but I want to share a few gowns of interest from Jane Austen’s era. Keep in mind, these are from The Netherlands and France, not England. Forgive my photography. I did as best I could while being overwhelmed and teary eyed. Descriptions are copied from the exhibit.
Dress (Mantua) with Train, c. 1759
“On her wedding day in 1759 Helena Slicher wore this gown with a skirt no less than two-meters wide! The skirt is supported by large panniers, side hoops around the hips. Unusually, this dress combines two different types of court dress. The bodice with a ‘tail’ follows the English court dress. a mantua, while the loose train was popular primarily on the Continent.”
Note that the wallpaper in the room where this gown is displayed mimics the embroidery pattern of the gown.
Redingote or Great-Coat Dress, c. 1786-1789
“The origin of the redingote lies in long men’s coats with a cutaway front, the riding coat.It is a striking example of the influence men’s fashion exerted on women’s fashion. A redingote for ladies consisted of an overcoat or gown, and a loose skirt in a contrasting colour, which enhanced the coat-like effect. Olive green and pale pink were a popular combination at the end of the 18th century.”
Gown, c. 1790-1810
“At the end of the 18th century the wide skirts became narrower, and the waistline was raised to under the bosom. The narrow sleeved were so long that they extended to the middle of the hand. They were set in far at the back to a typical lozenge-shaped panel, the shape of which is emphasized by ornamental stitching in a colour that contrasts with the red silk of the dress.”
Full Evening Dress with Train, c. 1808-1812
“Cornelia Johanna van Nellesteyn-Steengracht may have worn this evening dress to a reception given by King Louis Napoleon at the Palace on Amsterdam Square. The embroidery pattern of the skirt makes on think of gowns worn at the court of Napoleon I. This dress, however, is not embroidered with gold, but rather gilt-brass thread – which would have been looked down upon in France.”
Wedding Gown with Train and Rosettes, 1812
“Margaretha Johanna Weddik Wendel wore this gown when she married Baron Hieronymus Nicolaas van Slingelandt on 25 November 1812. It follows the early 19th-century fashion of full evening and court gowns, which usually had a tulle ruffle at the neckline and sleeves, and a decorated hem. The decoration consists of a satin border, pleated ribbon, roses, and loose petals.”
Ball Dress of Blonde Lace, c. 1815-1820
“Lace had been out of fashion since the French revolution. However, it regained its popularity when Napoleon decreed it should be worn at court in 1804. This dress is made of hand-made silk bobbin lace known as ‘blonde’. The name is derived from the often light colour of the silk from which it was often made. The material is very fragile, and dresses made of it are exceedingly rare.”
Wadded Coat (douillette), c. 1820
“In French douillette means soft, smooth, and comfortable. These wadded coats became fashionable in the Netherlands from the 1820s. This one had a matching ornamented belt at the back. The origins of the puffed sleeves, filled and gathered by means of vertical bands, is found in the 16th century.”
Riding Habit, c. 1826
“The tailoring of the wide skirt of this riding habit takes account of the fact that women rode side-saddle. The skirt was extra long because the legs, naturally, had to stay covered while riding. Sewn along the inside hem are fabric loops, with which the skirt could be pulled up to facilitate walking. The tight-fitting jacket offered little freedom of movement.”
There is so much more to see! If you can get to Amsterdam before May 15th, this is an exhibit not to be missed. You can also see details on several of the costumes at the exhibition website: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/catwalk. How I wish they had published a book for the exhibit! Then I could study all the pieces at my leisure.
Whenever you might make it to the Rijksmuseum, be sure not to miss the Waterloo room, dominated by a massive painting of the battle scene with Wellington at it’s focus. The room also houses a lot of Napoleon memorabilia. And then there are the Rembrandts and Vermeers. Mustn’t neglect the Old Masters. Oh! Or the library! It’s amazing! I have been to the museum twice and have yet to see a fraction of the collection housed in this magnificent building. It would take two or three days to tour it thoroughly. Someday …