Catching Flies

I just read an interesting article about beauty marks or patches (called ‘flies’ in French). This is a rough English translation of that article by Corinne Thépaut-Cabasset, international relations historian and project manager at the Cultural Development Department of the Palace of Versailles and president of the ICOM Costume international committee. The full article appears in issue #34 of the journal Château de Versailles (July-Sept. 2019):

Intended to camouflage a facial defect or to accentuate, by contrast, the whiteness of the skin, “flies” were part of the arsenal of seduction in the Great Century, (note: The Great Century refers to the period in France under the reigns of Louis XIV to Louis XVI, c. 1660 – 1790)

At all costs and for all kinds of people, there are ways: “to soften the eyes, to trim the face, to put on the forehead, to place on the breast and, provided that a skillful hand know how to put them to good use, you never put them in vain.” A 1661 poem spoke of the ‘good fly maker’ – The fly was compared to the bee and the face of a woman to a flower on which, like bees, the fly lands. The ‘good fly maker’ makes a point of making the lady irresistible, and the man is bitten.

Flies varied in size or shape and had specific names. “Those cut in length are called assassins”, explained Furetière in his Dictionary of the French language (1690)… Placed near the eye, it is the “passionate”; at the corner of the mouth, the “kisser”; on the lip, the “coquette”; on the nose, the “cheeky”; on the forehead, the “Majestic”; in the middle of the cheek, the “gallant”; in the fold of the cheek when one laughs is called “the playful”; there are also the “discreet”, the “virtuous”, etc.

Their dimensions vary. Long ones are called “ball flies” or “court flies”, because their large size could be seen from a distance and had a better effect in a room lit by candles. Small and “wonderfully flirtatious” flies were worn during the day for parties and were called “alley flies”.

The best flies were cut with sharp dies from a very black taffeta that was well gummed, so that it did not fray and get caught in wrinkles…

Fashion in Song – Yankee Doodle Dandy c. 1760

Yankee Doodle Dandy was originally sung by British soldiers during the French Indian wars (1754-1763) in mockery of unsophisticated colonials. There were many verses and different versions of lyrics over the next few decades, but the one that stuck was the one about the macaroni.

Yankee Doodle, Norman Rockwell

Yankee (American yokel), Doodle (foolish idiot), Dandy (this could be interpreted as anything from a fashion conscious fop to a derogatory reference akin to faggot) was an attack on someone’s sophistication, place of birth, intellect, looks, and even sexual orientation. It was the sort of thing that if hurled thoughtlessly in a pub could lead to fisticuffs.

The song is about one ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ who went to town on a pony (not a horse), and stuck a feather in his cap thinking it made him look très chic – like a ‘macaroni’. This pasta-inspired term was used to describe fashionable, sophisticated British gentleman who were cultured and eloquent with affected effete behaviour (aka manners). They became known for an exotic Italian pasta dish they brought back to England from their Grand Tours in Italy. This is funny considering how déclassé macaroni is considered to Italian foodies these days, however, the term was used to describe all forms of pasta not just elbows covered in yummy melted cheddar cheese (which ironically became a popular dish in 18th century America.)

Unfortunately, for the Yankee Doodle in the song, the feather in his cap only emphasized his bumpkin buffoonery. However, in a contemporary-like twist of re-appropriating slurs, Americans began singing the song themselves, reportedly after the battle of Yorktown in 1781 as a way of rubbing it in that the Yanks beat the Brits (aka Yo Mama…)

From a fashion point, what is interesting about this song is that it identifies a mistrust or dislike for overly-sophisticated and groomed males in American culture that continues to exist. Whether its feathered hats, or umbrellas, or sandals, or man-bags – many elements of men’s dress considered appropriate or fashionable on the other side of the Atlantic have been looked askance as affected and effete in the U.S.

1957 BBC series on fashion history by Doris Langley Moore

If you are interested in primarily 18th, 19th and early 20th century fashion then I highly recommend taking the time to view the following series of films. I never realized this series even existed until about a week ago when I found them on Youtube!

This was apparently the first series ever filmed in colour by the BBC even though they were unable to broadcast in colour for another decade.  The woman speaking is Doris Langley Moore, the founding curator of the Bath Fashion Museum collection in 1963. She uses live models for this 1957 presentation of her authentic clothing, which would make most curators cringe today, however, to see how the dresses move is a fantastic resource. If you watch carefully you may recognize some of the models, including a young Vanessa Redgrave.

I have saved them to a file, there are 6 presentations, shown in two parts each. Each part is about 7 minutes long. If you don’t want to see them all at once, you can go back in and start at a different spot.

BBC history of fashion

Film Costuming – Garrow’s Law

Lyndsey Marshal and Andrew Buchan as Lady Sarah and William Garrow

There are great films that have recreated 18th century dress extraordinarily well: The Lady and the Duke, Jefferson in Paris, The Affair of the Necklace, The Duchess, The Madness of King George, Dangerous Liasons, Marie Antoinette (if you exclude the wigs and shoes), even Barry Lyndon. However, the British television series Garrow’s Law is not among these. Although the costuming improves with each season, it is not consistent and appears to have been done on a limited budget. The clothes of the background actors especially confuse eras and appropriateness of occasion and time of day, and even the principals are not always well fitted out.

However, as a series, Garrow’s Law is mesmerizing. The series is based on the work of William Garrow (1760-1840), who began as a barrister at the Old Bailey in 1783 and eventually revolutionized the British legal system. It is Garrow who is credited with the phrase ‘Innocent until proven guilty.’  What I find particularly interesting is that the shows are based on original cases from the Old Bailey, and many are fashion related.

'Shoplifter Detected' 1787

One story recounts how Garrow saved the lives of two shoplifters for stealing lace valued in excess of 25 pounds but the sentence was transmuted to a year of hard labour because Garrow argued that although the retail value of the stolen goods was 25 pounds, the items were fenced for only 4 pounds, an amount that was not punishable by death.

The most fascinating of all stories was about an attempted murder that resulted in the slashing of the intended victim’s dress but no injury to its wearer. Attempted murder was considered only a misdemeanor then, so the prosecution devised a strategy to use a statute from 1721 which stated the malicious damage of clothes was a capital offense. Garrow saved the attacker’s life by proving he had intended to kill his victim, not damage her clothes! For these, and other weird 18th century clothing-related statutes, I highly recommend the series – just don’t look too closely at how everyone is dressed…

The first two seasons have been shown on PBS – and the third series just aired in the UK. If they show up again in your TV listings, take a look.

Book Review – The Art of the Shoemaker

From Roman times until 19th century industrialization, shoemaking was learned through the apprenticeship method, with the tricks of the trade being passed down from master to apprentice.

There had never been much interest for a ‘how-to’ manual of shoemaking until Diderot’s Encyclopedia was published in 1751. His illustrated guide documented a broad swath of everyday industrial life, from making wigs to cheese. His book, published at the apex of the Age of Enlightenment, spurred on more interest for detailed accounts of the art and science of industry. M. de Garsault’s book Art du Cordonnier (Art of the Shoemaker) went a step further than Diderot by creating a ‘how-to’ illustrated manual defining the practical construction of various styles of footwear, the tools used in their construction, as well as a brief history of footwear. This 1767 publication captured the tail end of the pre-industrialized world of shoemaking. 

D.A. Saguto is the master boot and shoemaker at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia and is recognized as a leading authority in historic footwear construction. Much of his knowledge comes from period publications such as Art of the Shoemaker. His annotated translation includes a facsimile of the original book with reproductions of the original copper plate engravings, as well as a section of photographs of 18th century shoemaking tools and footwear from Williamsburg and other collections that illustrate the terms and processes outlined in the book for today’s visually-driven audience. There is also the ultimate 18th century glossary of terms.

This may not be the most ‘coffee-table’ like book to curl up with, but what Saguto, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Texas Tech University Press have produced is a book that needs to be a fundamental part of every research library that collects books related to shoemaking, French culture, 18th century life, The Enlightenment, and fashion history.