Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Dagobert and Marie Antoinette

As I walked through the halls of Versailles with my dad, I couldn’t stop thinking “wow, someone lived here.” And the cool thing about being at Versailles was that you could look around at the walls and the figureheads and the statues and see exactly who had lived here, or at least who had visited. I remember standing for the longest time in front of a portrait and just trying to figure out her skirt. The artist had really done it justice. It was blue and silky in nature, covered with ribbons and curls and puffs of fabric. It took up almost the entire lower half of the painting. I think that historians focus too often on the architects of buildings, the painters of masterpieces, the sculptors of marble. I found myself wondering, as I walked through room after room of portraits, who had designed and brought to life these gowns. Not only was the ever-present French attention to detail plainly obvious, but I was awed by the mere structure of the garment. How had they managed to support all of the ribbons and accoutrements? How had they achieved such girth and still allow for basic movement? I suppose that the women who wore dresses like that were simply not expected to move around much, which is quite understandable. A dress that size must have been dreadfully heavy considering the fabric alone, without any structural support.

The size of the skirt also invites the mind to wander beneath it. Not necessarily in a dirty way. But, for example, could you fit your children under your skirts? I imagine a rich noblewoman at Versailles attending an official dinner where there were no kids allowed, but sneaking her 5 year old daughter in under her skirt. It wouldn’t be too difficult to do, after all she wouldn’t be expected to move around much so the girl could just watch the party through one of the ribbon-holes. I wonder if spies were ever smuggled in underneath someone’s skirts. Now that would create all kinds of problems involving skirt searches before official events. But in all honesty the potential for creativity with these outfits is nearly limitless.

I was also struck by the clothes worn by kings throughout the ages. And in this case I’m not talking about Louis XIV, although he was famous for his sense of fashion. I’m talking about back when kings were kings and kings were named Dagobert. Yes, Dagobert was King of the Francs back when dates had three numbers. There’s a hall in Versailles that is nondescript except for the line of marble statues and figureheads placed at regular intervals. Each statue is a king of France and each figurehead is a famous philosopher, writer, etc. But as you walk down the hall and father back into French history, you watch the shirts become longer, the armor more evident, the details slowly disappear. By the time we walked all the way to Dagobert, he was wearing a long floor-length robe and cape with a gilded belt at the waist. He wore a simple crown and held a staff and looked ready to face anything that might threaten his people. When you compare that to the ridiculousness that was Louis XIV in the center of the hall, Louis just looks like a dandy with too much time on his hands. I think that back in the time of Dagobert, people probably did not say that the clothes make the man. That was probably something Louis himself invented to vindicate his personal preferences when it came to vêtements.

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