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Good humour may be said to be one of the very best articles of dress one can wear in society” – said William Makepeace Thackeray, author of the social climbing satire and frock-fest Vanity Fair. This month marks the 150th anniversary of Thackeray’s death, and he might be amused to see that the fashions he described in his 1848 novel, set during the Napoleonic wars, are as influential as ever.
“I think the romance of that era stems from its vast difference from our modern, borrow-my-boyfriend’s-sweater age,” says Sophie Merchant, owner of Merchant Archive, a clothing and interiors boutique in Notting Hill, London. “19th-century silk velvet, handmade lace, chest-baring sleeved gowns, bejewelled slippers – what could be more romantic in a world of mass-produced [clothing]? We still love to dress up. One only has to look at the red carpet for modern versions of that era’s fashion. Looking back, it feels very romantic.”
Designer Alberta Ferretti, whose chiffon, lace and sequin evening dresses (£4,450) are the embodiment of the influence, agrees. “It is impossible not to be charmed and seduced by the romantic decadence of the time that the book describes,” she says.
Elsewhere, Dolce & Gabbana’s winter collection Baroque Romanticism, with its indulgent procession of golden embroidery and brocade in varying proportions, includes lace dresses (£2,700), velvet Mary Jane pumps (£625) and puff-sleeved corsetry (£1,240). Lanvin has a rose brocade ruffle dress (£3,305), worn with a jewel-encrusted headband and masculine brogues in its show, cropped tulle shrugs (£1,145) and tiered taffeta dresses (£8,010). Marchesa’s rich velvet, floor-length gown features an embroidered bodice cut to just below the breastbone (£3,825).
“Clothing from Thackeray’s era was so incredibly made and detailed,” says Seth Weisser, co-owner of What Goes Around Comes Around, a vintage store in New York. “Most pieces were custom-made and their quality could stand the test of time. We still sell many early pieces to our high-fashion clients, who mix and match with current trends.” Think lace skirts (£510) and dresses (£300) by Carven, Simone Rocha tinsel tops (£495) or beaded tie-on collars by Michaela Buerger (£315).
Even denim brand Acne is taking inspiration from the period, collaborating this season with photographer Katerina Jebb to create a series of photographs inspired by the archives of the Musée Galliera, Paris’s costume institute, and revealing the inner construction of Napoleonic jackets and Regency dresses. The resulting images were then developed into prints for Acne’s autumn/winter collection, used on T-shirt dresses and floor-length trains to expose the skeletal workings of clothing past. Thackeray’s character Becky Sharp would be beside herself.
“I would say Vanity Fair continues to amuse and entertain us because Thackeray identified social types that persist in some form to this day: the dandy, the social climber, the femme fatale,” says Sarah Grant, curator of prints at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. “This was a period when people became much more keenly aware of fashion as a concept – the late 18th century saw the birth of fashion journalism, the introduction of the first proper fashion magazines and fashion plates.”
Also, Ferretti points out, “Luxury and excess became an obsession in the 19th century. It was in those days, in fact, that the Empress Eugénie launched [Charles Frederick] Worth, who is considered the first true [fashion] designer.”
It is no coincidence that one of next year’s big fashion exhibits in New York will be the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute show focusing on Charles James, the 20th-century English designer considered the heir to Worth and likewise known for creating lavishly sculpted gowns. Designers have been gearing up for their red carpet moments on the museum’s marble steps and the results have already begun to filter down to parties and events everywhere.
Consider Poppy Delevingne toasting the unveiling of the Christmas tree at Claridge’s hotel in London in a Dolce & Gabbana embellished beaded top and lace skirt, or Jodie Kidd in a Marios Schwab gown and choker at the British Fashion Awards; actress Louise Bourgoin in a series of square décolletage dresses at Miami Basel; Clémence Poésy in a white Valentino lace gown at a Valentino Mytheresa.com dinner in Berlin; and seasoned period-dresser Helena Bonham Carter wearing a top hat and maroon fur stole for the opening of Winter Wonderland at London’s Hyde Park.
You can just imagine Becky Sharp’s admirers waiting for their waltz.