The Art of Dress and the Reluctant Rejects
Verity Wilson, guest curator. The Art of Dress is on view in the Proscholium, Bodleian Library, until April 27 2015
Everyone wears clothes and so everyone has an opinion about them. Not everyone, of course, sets down their sartorial thoughts in writing but considerable numbers do as I found out when I curated The Art of Dress ( 26 February to 26 April 2015). The exhibits in this Proscholium display represent just a few of the many western printed books about dress from the Bodleian’s rich collection. Over 400 years of publications about clothes, their different manifestations and many meanings, made the selection process woefully thorny so, as a way to make amends for leaving so much out, here are just four books that would have been included had there been space.
John Evelyn’s Tyrannus or The Mode, published in London in 1661 is a small volume reprehending the English craving for French fashions. Penned by the diarist and garden writer, it maintains that a nation should have confidence in its own individual style of dressing and not copy others. Full of witticisms and erudite quotations, the Bodleian copy belonged to Evelyn himself. It is signed by him and there are corrections in his hand throughout the text.
My second ‘waiting in the wings’ book is the exquisitely illustrated Costumes of the Russia Empire, published in 1803 as the fourth in William Miller’s costume series. It attests to the growing interest in scientific ethnographic scholarship and the full-page coloured engravings include A female Baschkirian, A Barabintzian girl, A Kirghis on horseback, A Yakut in his hunting dress, A woman of Esthonia, and A Circassian Prince.
On Cellular Cloth for the Clothing of the Body: The Theory and Practice produced by the Cellular Clothing Company Ltd in 1888 is another reluctantly discarded publication. The seeming contradiction between holes and heat was reconciled when Lewis Haslam (1856-1922), an industrialist and Member of Parliament, put Aertex into production at his Manchester mill in 1888. This lightweight cotton fabric, widely and expensively advertised, very quickly became the established fabric for sports shirts and service uniforms, and generations of school children have worn the three-button, short-sleeve, collared shirt made from this material.
‘Why do people tie their ties in only one of four ways?’ ask two Cambridge University physicists, Thomas Fink and Yong Mao, in The 85 Ways To Tie a Tie: The Science and Aesthetics of Tie Knots. In 1999, when the book was written, this male dress accessory was already becoming obsolete and today the tie is not an essential part of correct dressing. For many years, however, all men wore ties in business and formal situations; Fink and Mao’s strategies might have added a dash of brio to the knotting process. The book combines mathematics with stylish creativity and it was disappointing to exclude it from the display.