Saturday, April 27, 2013

Lady's Accessory: History of Handkerchief

My theater group was working on a play and for one of the scenes we needed a blood-soaked handkerchief. So, I set out to make one out of bit of linen I had lying around.

And it got me thinking, where did handkerchiefs come from?  Modern Woman magazine wrote this about the origins of handkerchief in 1940:
"Historians credit Marie Antoinette with the invention of the pocket handkerchief. She was so broken up at leaving her home in Austria that she cried all the way to France and wiped her eyes with bits of lace torn from her dress and lingerie. Anticipating future tears, she made it a point always to have a piece of lace tucked in a pocket of her dress. This, say the historians, was how handkerchiefs were born." - via Bobby Pin Blog
This is a lovely, sentimental story, but it's probably not true. Marie Antoinette must have spent quite a bit of her time crying, but she was not the first person to use pieces of cloth to wipe away her tears.

Rose Bertin, La Galerie des modes, 1770s 

Some believe that the handkerchief was invented by King Richard II of England (1377-1399). His courtiers noted that he used square pieces of cloth to wipe his nose. But it is very likely that handkerchiefs existed as far back as the Roman times. Poet Gaius Valerius Catallus (84BC) mentions something that could be an equivalent of a modern napkin or handkerchief in his writing.
Linens whose loss affects me not for worth
But as mementoes of a comrade mine.
For napkins Sætaban from Ebro-land
Fabúllus sent me a free-giftie given
Also Veránius: these perforce I love
E'en as my Veraniólus and Fabúllus. - The Carmina of Caius Valerius Catullus
Handkerchief were not only practical items but also wonderful keepsakes that people would give each other as presents. Much of Shakespeare's Othello revolves around a misplaced handkerchief.
Iago Nay, but be wise: yet we see nothing done;
She may be honest yet. Tell me but this,
Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?
Othello I gave her such a one; 'twas my first gift. - Othello by William Shakespeare
Othello and Desdemona, Daniel Maclise, 1859 

Handkerchiefs were usually made of fine linen, cambric or lawn cloth with rich embroidery or lace along the edge. During the Renaissance they were used for hygiene purposes, but they also gained popularity as fashionable accessories for the wealthy. It is possible that the fad began with the court ladies in Italy and slowly made its way to Germany and France.

 A Woman Holding a Handkerchief, Paris Bordone, 1530s(?) 

They eventually reached the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and judging from the portraits of the time were used to signify the prosperity and status of their owners. Elizabeth herself had quite a collection of handkerchiefs which were mostly New Year gifts from her loyal subjects.

Portrait of Lady Diana Cecil, William Larkin,1614

Handkerchiefs were often perfumed to ward off unwanted smells or revive their owners should they faint from fatigue or excessive sensibility. It is very likely that Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice utilized a handkerchief during her bouts of nervousness.

Alison Steadman as Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Fashion plates of the 18th and 19th centuries abound in pictures of fashionable ladies clutching pieces of cloth in their hands. However, when reading sources from this period, it is not always clear whether handkerchief refers to a pocket handkerchief as we now it today or to a kerchiefs that covered a lady's neck and bosom for modest day wear.

Costume Parisien, 1824

Henry Tilney from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey knows a thing or two about ladies' dress. He suggest that muslin could always be turned to good use if it is made over into caps, cloaks or handkerchiefs.
"But then you know, madam, muslin always turns to some account or other; Miss Morland will get enough out of it for a handkerchief, or a cap, or a cloak. Muslin can never be said to be wasted. I have heard my sister say so forty times, when she has been extravagant in buying more than she wanted, or careless in cutting it to pieces." - Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen  
Yet from the context it would seem that he is talking about kerchiefs rather than pocket handkerchiefs.

Evening dress, Ackermanm's Repository, 1818 

Ackermann's Repository of Fashions from 1829 has this to say about a new fashion involving a pocket handkerchief.
An attempt is making to bring into fashion pocket handkerchiefs very richly embroidered, the centre of which, by means of a riband, passed through a row of open work, forms a purse. The idea is novel, but in very bad taste; as yet it has been adopted only by a few merveilleuses. Those used by élégantes of acknowledged taste, are of two sorts ; the most elegant have a very broad hem, close to which is a row of open work of about an inch in breadth, each corner is ornamented with a butterfly most beautifully shaded; or else a bouquet of flowers coloured after nature. The other sort which are pretty, but not so expensive, have a broad hem, and a border of open work, close to which is a coloured Grecian border from an inch to an inch and a half in breadth. - Ackermann's Repository, 1829
It would seem that some Parisian fashionista were trying to style a sort of reticule out of a handkerchief, though the author of this review seems unimpressed.

Some beautiful examples of pocket handkerchiefs:

An imperial fine linen handkerchief, 19th century, Russia via Christie's  
Linen handkerchief, Venetian needlepoint, 1700s via Gathering the Jewels 

Handkerchief, Convent of Notre Dame de Visitation, 1865 via Met Museum

Today handkerchiefs have been replaced by napkins and paper towels; though they are still used in men's formal wear. However, we should endeavour to bring back these elegant and useful pieces of cloth. You can find real beauties from the 1930s and 1950s in vintage and second hand stores.

But if you want something a little more refined, make one yourself. Here is a simple tutorial that shows you how to sew a pocket handkerchief by hand. You can spice them up with some lovely embroidery. Whitework looks especially lovely. Monogrammed handkerchiefs make lovely gifts and if you start now you will have a few dozen ready by Christmas. And this lovely tutorial will show you how to make a scented handkerchief.

More on the topic:
A Brief History of the Handkerchief in Europe during the Late Middle Ages through the Renaissance by Margaret Roe
An Intimate History of the Handkerchief by THL Genevieve de Valois
Vulgar Things by Hannah Carlson, Common-Place 
Handkerchief Heroes
Bobby Pin Blog

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Treasures from Aleksei Bakhrushin Theatre Museum

While in Moscow some weeks ago, I took the time to do something I have always wanted to do. I visited A. A. Bakhrushin Theatre Museum. Aleksei Bakhrushin was a businessman and philanthropist who amassed a pretty remarkable collection of theatrical memorabilia. His house, a lovely brick building in faux-Slavic style, and collection were later turned into a museum dedicated to the history of theater in Russia.      

A.A.Bakhrushin Theatre Museum

Some great vintage theater posters. The top three are forThe Scarlet Flower, The Firebird and The Stone Flower. The two below are for Snowmaiden and Şüräle. And the two below that are Koschei and The Sleeping Beauty.    

One of the main halls of the museum housed an exhibition Study of Garden dedicated to flowers, nature and gardens in theater, opera and ballet. They had a lovely collection of prints and I killed my camera's battery in this room trying to capture all of them.  

Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide 

Fanny Elssler as Florinda in the dance La Cachucha by Achille Devéria
Le Diable boiteux by Gide, directed by Coralli
The Paris Opera, Paris, 1836  

The Pearl costume sketch by K. F. Valts
The Miraculous Pearl by Riccardo Drigo
Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, 1890s
The Pearl has to be my favorite costume sketch. I am simply entranced by the mechanics of that skirt. How does it stay up? Does it make it difficult to dance? Shouldn't it be called 'The Clam', not 'The Pearl'?

François costume sketch by A. I. Charlemagne
The Queen of Ice by Marius Petipa
Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, 1865

Bettli costume sketch by A. I. Charlemagne
The Queen of Ice by Marius Petipa
Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, 1865 

Camellias costume sketch by A. I. Charlemagne
The Queen of Ice by Marius Petipa
Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, 1865 

Bellflower costume sketch by A. I. Charlemagne
The Queen of Ice by Marius Petipa
Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, 1865

Bird woman costume sketch by F. L. Sollogub
Unknown Play, 1880s 

Water fairy costume sketch by F. O. Schechtel
The Golden Apples by Edmond Audran, directed by M. V. Lentovskiy
The New Theater (Maly Theater), Moscow, 1884

The second wicked stepsister costume sketch by O. N. Polikarpova
The Scarlet Flower, directed by E. Medvedev
Collection of The Puskin State Museum of Fine Arts, 2010  

The merchant costume sketch by O. N. Polikarpova
The Scarlet Flower, directed by E. Medvedev
Collection of The Puskin State Museum of Fine Arts, 2010 

The Scarlet Flower is the Russian version of the Beauty and the Beast story. And, incidentally, my favorite fairy tale. So I was especially excited by these fun and colorful costumes. I think these were made for an opera. I only wish I could have seen the show itself.        

Fancy spyglasses that double as key chains, snuff boxes and perfume bottles
During the 19th century theater boom in Russia novelty spyglasses became very popular. They were usually richly decorated with ivory, mother of pearl and rhinestones.          

A cast of Marie Taglioni’s foot and her dancing shoe
Marie Taglioni was a renowned Italian-Swedish ballet dancer who is probably most remembered for her role in La Sylphide which was created for her. Taglioni was very popular during her stay in Russia, so much so that a cast of her foot was made to show how neat and petite it was - Victorians clearly prized narrowness and smallness in feet. 

Modern recreations of 18th century male stage costumes, paper, 2011
Modern recreations of 18th century female stage costumes, paper, 2011
There were several rooms dedicated to different periods in theater history. The two costumes above are from the 18th century room. These masque costumes were quite impressive, considering they are made out of paper. I wish they had a few more of them.   

A model of an 18th century stage
The model above was great in its detail, but really too far to take a good look at. I do love the staircase and the hall with the columns that seem to be mashed together from two very different productions.

A model of the Maly Theater, Moscow 
I was told by one of the ladies working at the museum that this model has a pretty fun history. Originally, they thought that the model was simply one of the Maly Theater building from the outside. But once, when it had to be moved, it cracked and fell apart into two pieces. They thought that it broke, but it turned out that it just had a secret lever that opened it up to reveal a detailed model of the inside of the theater.  

I certainly wish my camera hadn't died as quickly. There were a few very nice costumes, not to mention many, many, many more prints and illustrations. I certainly intend to make another trip to this museum next time I'm in Moscow.

You can see the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum website here (unfortunately, only in Russian)   

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Carmilla - A Gothic Horror Reviewed

It is hardly news to anyone that we live in a vampire obsessed society. The Twilight saga is barely over and they are already talking about a reboot. Then there are The Vampire Diaries that have been renewed for season 4 and True Blood is about to start their 6th season. So where does this fascination with the undead creatures of the night that suck blood come from?

'Dracula!' you say.

Oh, no! There is a vampire novella that pre-dates Dracula by 25 years and can be credited for starting the lesbian vampire genre, which I am told is very popular.

Carmilla  from Gothic Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 14, by Lisa K. Weber 

Created by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish Gothic writer, Carmilla was published in 1872 and tells a story of a beautiful young woman who becomes an object of desire and victim of a female vampire.   

~ ~ ~ Beware of Spoilers ~ ~ ~        

Illustration for Carmilla from The Dark Blue by D. H. Friston, 1872

Our innocent protagonist Luara lives a quite and retired life with her father in a castle in Styria (Austria), when a mysterious young woman named Carmilla comes to reside with them. Laura is both attracted and repulsed by her strange new friend and her sudden and violent outbursts of extreme sensibility. Things start getting particularly sinister when a wasting illness hits the peasant girls in a nearby village. Laura is also affected and becomes languid and slow, just like her bosom buddy Carmilla. But all mysteries are solved and the villain is vanquished when a friend of the family, General Spielsdorf, who had lost his beloved niece to a similar affliction, comes to visit the family.
Carmilla is a truly horrid novel. And if Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey had been born a generation later, I am sure this would have been her absolute favorite. I cannot recommend it enough.The atmosphere is dark, heavy and spooky and vampire lore is a little different from what is considered canon today. The way the villain is defeated is particularly gruesome. And while our protagonist Laura is a little dull, Carmilla has plenty of layers.

 Funeral, illustration by Michael Fitzgerald for Carmilla in The Dark Blue, January 1872
Carmilla was by far the most engaging character in the novella. She appears to be sweet and innocent and is liked by everyone, but has inexplicable moments of rage. Her relationship with Laura is complex. On the one hand she is attracted to her and suffers from the knowledge that her passion will eventually kill her lover, but, at the same time, she almost revels in the knowledge that they are connected through love, death and blood. Carmilla is romantic and languishing, but also monstrous.

By the end of the story, Laura learns that vampires' desire for their victims resembles passionate love and that they often stalk their victims. Sounds familiar? I could not help but notice that the relationship between Edward and Bella from the Twilight saga closely resemble that of Carmilla and Laura. Both are very intense, stalker-like, obsessive and morbid.

Carmilla graphic novel, Gothic Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 14illustrated by Lisa K. Weber 

Many people find fault with Twilight for supposedly making vampires less monstrous and more emotional, brooding and, yes, sparkly. But to be fair, the handsome vampire type has been around since Polidori's The Vampyre and vampires of Anne Rice can out-brood anyone. Carmilla also falls into the tortured and brooding vampire category. And while sparkling may seem a little silly, there is a lot of common vampire lore that is just as asinine. Why are vampires afraid of mirrors, for example, as they are in The Last Man on Earth? Or what's with all the garlic? A good portion of spaghetti bolognese could kill the most powerful of them.    

The Moth Diaries, a YA novel loosely based on Carmilla, adapted into a film in 2011  

Twilight is often criticized for portraying an abusive and dysfunctional relationship as romantic and attractive. But based on Carmilla's example we could argue that vampire stories have always glamorized dysfunctional relationships. While Le Fanu probably wrote the lesbian subtext to titillate and scandalize his 19th century audience, that is not what makes Carmilla's relationship with Laura problematic. Carmilla's  passion for her victim is all-consuming, selfish , dishonest and very abusive. After all, the end result of it will be Laura's death.

That is why Carmilla reminded me so much of Twilight. In both stories, the vampire has obsessive, possessive and intense feelings for the human character. The stories, however, end very differently. While in Carmilla the vampire is destroyed and Laura is free to live her life, though she never quite goes back to being herself, in Twilight the vampire 'wins' and turns his lady-love into a vampire.

The Vampire Lovers (1970) based on Carmilla with Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith

Considering that Carmilla is a story about a vampire and her lesbian lover, I am very much surprised that Hollywood has not tried to cash in on this gem of a story in recent years. There have been quite a few screen adaptations of the novella or inspired by it, but none of them seem to have been all that memorable.

For all you aspiring screenwriters out there, take note, a script based on Carmilla could be your big break!

For those who want to read the novella, it can be found on Wikisource or Gutenberg.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Change of Abode and History of the Home

My absence from this blog was occasioned by some unfortunate developments. One of which was the announcement of our landlady that she would like to see us go within the next five months. The unpleasant prospect of becoming homeless has prompted my flatmate and I to look for a new place. We suddenly realized that we have very different priorities when it comes to different rooms in the house.

While we had no extraordinary expectations for our bedrooms, it turned out that she is very particular about the kitchen and I am more interested in the bathroom. She loves cooking, so naturally, she wants a bright spacious kitchen with lots of work spaces. And I, after a long day, like to luxuriate in a bubble bath, so a clean, pretty bathroom with a bathtub is a must.

This made me think of a wonderful BBC series by Dr. Lucy Worsley - History of the Home. In it she tells about the different rooms in our modern house and how they came to be. It's a really great series with all sorts of interesting titbits and trivia. And it's very enjoyable watching her try out old-timey appliances, sleeping arrangements and labor-saving devices. Many things we take for granted are very recent additions and what we consider a necessity today was in the past viewed as a needless extravagance and vice versa.

Here's the story of The Bathroom:

And here is the history of The Kitchen

You can find the entire series here.
More about the series on the BBC website 
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