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The Court of the Empress Josephine
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More Books by Arthur Léon Imbert de Saint-Amand
Cancel Submit. One of its concerns is the status of visual images as a form of evidence about court costumes and fashion, recognizing the difficulty of separating the styling of the clothes from their representations in the visual arts. Pictures constitute an extremely important, and sometimes the only, material source of information about clothing that may not survive or may differ from its representation in archival documents and other textual sources. Instead, they are better thought of as translations, which are governed by representational conventions of their own.
Indeed, visual images are capable of generating new images that refer as much if not more to those pictorial conventions as they do to actual garments or objects. In this regard, it is worth attending to distinctions between the genres and media of pictorial representation since their formats and physical characteristics can be telling in themselves of the role of fashion and costume in representing a court, particularly in a modern era of print culture and public exhibition.
I shall be looking especially at official portraits and popular engravings of Josephine in formal court costume, and will also consider portraits and genre paintings that presented her in more informal situations during the years of her reign. Josephine had established a high profile identity as a woman of fashion during the Directory and Consulate and this, combined with not directly inheriting a court tradition and ceremonial as had queens Marie Antoinette and Maria Lesczynska, gave her a certain flexibility.
She was in a good position to bring even the most formal female costume at the Napoleonic court into line with the latest Paris fashions. Imperial court costumes for women merged modernity with tradition and fashion with formality and luxury, whereas costume for men became increasingly formalized as a quite separate and old-fashioned court uniform.
Josephine was among the first to adopt the daring neo-Greek dress style, setting trends during what costume and fashion historians regard as one of the most creative periods in the history of female dress. The robe en chemise was originally little more than a long one-piece tunic of white muslin slipped over the head and fastened around the waist with a sash 4.
Several popular French engravings from the Consulate negotiated the issue by showing Josephine, elegantly dressed in neo-Greek attire, enacting rituals of deference to patriarchal authority. The portrait represented Josephine as the wife of the First Consul and had a quasi-official status. The extreme relaxation of her pose, with her back curved and legs stretched out and crossed in front of her, denoted the comfort of modern dress, and contrasted sharply with the rigid, upright postures that had previously been maintained by the boned bodices, corsets, panniers, and hoops associated with Marie Antoinette and the pre-Revolutionary court.
The high waist of the neoclassical dress hugged the breasts and its thin light fabric clung to the body, a style that flattered some bodies more than others. Contemporaries agreed that it suited Josephine admirably. She made the neo-Greek dress peculiarly her own and, as will be discussed, had herself portrayed in it even after she became empress. Shown built into an alcove, it is raised on a low dais that is covered with a Turkish carpet.
The sofa backs onto an open colonnade that reveals a landscape vista behind Josephine and, like the bunch of wildflowers dropped onto the cushion beside her, this backdrop associates her with nature. At the same time, the classical column rising behind her lends a conventional grandeur to the setting.
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GE From this point forward, as Philip Mansel has argued, male costume at the Napoleonic court became increasingly monarchical 9. Held in Paris, these ceremonies assumed extraordinary importance in announcing the symbolism of the new regime and underscoring its stimulation of the economy. Napoleon believed in the importance of the luxury trades to the economy of France.
Recent scholarship on consumption during this period has drawn attention to the previously neglected role of the luxury market, female consumers, and a non-aristocratic notion of taste promoted by the fashion press and merchants, in stimulating the production and consumption of fashionable clothing and accessories. This has been shown to be a significant aspect of the economic growth that took place in France in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries An imperial iconography and new courtly attire were rapidly fabricated, promoted and adopted in only six months This astonishingly speedy process owed something to the recent organization of massive revolutionary festivals.
Yet so much work was demanded of artisans in the Paris fashion trades that extra hands had to be imported from Lyon to make all the costumes in time. Scholars credit Josephine with influencing its design The modernity of her coronation dress is most evident in its conformity to the high-waisted silhouette of the neo-Greek dress The skirt fell continuously down the front in contrast to the open robe that divided over a petticoat in most eighteenth-century dresses.
These flat shoes were another feature of contemporary fashion. According to Daniel Roche, some 25, people had been employed in the textile and fashion industries during the eighteenth century. Napoleon reinstated traditional protectionist economic policies, banning the importation of Indian muslin during the Consulate and decreeing in that silk manufactured in France was mandatory for court costumes Le satin est ordinairement blanc, vigogne ou rose.
Josephine owned hundreds of dresses in coloured silks, satins and velvets She remained partial to white for her court costumes, however, often wearing a matching white train, which sustained the association of female court costume with la mode , particulary as pictured. She was almost invariably portrayed wearing white in both formal and informal portraits. When Josephine wore a coloured train, the general effect was to accentuate the white column of the dress The mantles designed for the Napoleonic coronation revived and redefined the mantle of the Bourbon court.
It dominates the entire foreground of the painting, curling and piling up beneath the seated empress and unfolding across the front edge until it is cropped by the corner, as if there were more to it than the painting could contain fig. This image of excess corresponds to surviving bills for the garment. The mantle required twenty-two metres of velvet, at a cost of francs, with the ermine lining and embroidered border costing twenty times that much at Jean-Louis-Charles Pauquet also portrayed Josephine seated in her imperial robes in an engraving after a drawing by Isabey published on the day of the coronation fig.
These historical borrowings were designed to give the ceremonial garb a gloss of longstanding legitimacy. While previous regimes had blended old and new, the Napoleonic costumes and coronation ceremonies did this in a highly strategic way. Coming in the wake of the Revolution, and centered on a Corsican parvenu, the invention of symbolism for the sacre was an anxiously controlled and politically freighted affair.
The resulting bricolage of historical elements is especially noticeable because the costumes and symbolism of the Napoleonic court were invented from scratch. The sleeve perpetuated and modified the fashionable mitten- and balloon-sleeves of the s by changing the fabric and introducing trimmings that brought out historical associations. As represented in several paintings, the puff sleeve was cut on the bias and softly gathered to form diagonal ridges that were studded with rows of diamonds along the raised edges and embroidered with rows of golden leaves in the sunken furrows.
The design and colouristic affect of this embroidery evoked the slashing and layering of Renaissance styles.
The coronation dress strengthened such historical associations in replacing fine muslin with a dense, buttery satin that could physically support the heavy embroidery and precious stones. Sheathing the arms and much of the hands with solid knuckle-length sleeves connoted feminine modesty in the moral domain of the body, and in this regard marked a departure from the provocative allure of the sleeveless chemise dresses and diaphanous muslin sleeves of the previous decade.
This echoed the poses of female donor figures depicted in the illuminated medieval manuscripts and Renaissance paintings studied by David in preparation for this painting An illustrated catalogue of the tapestry was produced on this occasion and four hundred copies of it were given to Generals Davout and Soult for distribution to the army which was then massed at Boulogne , as a form of historical propaganda intended to inspire and prepare the men for the invasion. This was one of several politically opportunistic associations of Napoleon with William the Conqueror The invocation of Queen Matilda represented their feminine counterpart, one that reinforced the traditional, deeply gendered association of women with needlework.
She became a feminine symbol for a modern style of embroidery that lost most of its specific political connotations in the process of becoming fashionable. The resemblance was instead formal and abstract. Notably, the colour of the thread contrasted with the cloth, distinguishing the new style from the white-on-white embroidery of neoclassical clothing, with monochrome silver or gold silk thread favoured over the colourful wools used in the Bayeux Tapestry. References to Queen Matilda, as a feminine symbol of embroidery, were politically motivated in support of an economic policy that was intended to revive the dying craft of embroidery.
She famously did not wear the same dress twice and changed her toilette at least three times a day. The changeability of fashion in the modern sense, then, had thoroughly invaded the court wardrobe, supplanting the more rigid symbolic values that had previously been invested in luxurious textiles and ceremonial costumes during the early modern period.
Art once again was enlisted in the service of politics. The publicity surrounding this cycle, and the coronation scene in particular, helped prepare the public for the idea of the sacre and the coronation of the empress. The French tradition of grand-scale scenes of coronation ceremonies was meagre, and there were no other pictorial precedents for the coronation of a French queen. Like the coronation scene, it explicitly conferred a sense of legitimacy on the new empress by re-deploying the traditional iconography of sovereignty.
With the Rubens prototype standing behind the painting and the engraving, both works demonstrate the propensity of visual images to generate their own conventions of representation, particularly when, as with the Rubens prototypes, they played a seminal role in authorizing political symbolism.
Government subventions proved less successful in this area than in the silk and embroidery trades, however Women at the British court still wore the wide hoops of the old regime in the early decades of the nineteenth century, but the captivating new style of grand habit designed for Josephine spread to other courts in Europe and was maintained in France after by the restored Bourbon court.