I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous

One of my favorite artists is Kate Beaton. She draws whimsical, energetic, hilarious webcomics–and a lot of them have historical subjects! One of my favorite Regency-themed ones is this one about Prinny.

Anyway, when I was visiting New York a few months ago and went to meet my editor Leah, I wore my Napoleon-eating-cookies t-shirt. Alissa, an assistant editor at Dorchester, asked me about it, so I sent along a couple of comics with my contract. (Okay I need to take a moment. Typing “my contract” is still very exciting for me.)

So Leah went to the Museum of Comics and Comic Arts festival and MET her! I am so, so jealous. Kate even drew her a cute sketch of Jane Austen being long-suffering about the hot men in her head and their unreasonable demands. Check it out here in Leah’s blog!

One of the things I love about Kate Beaton is the way she draws historical clothing. She captures so much personality and period detail with a few simple lines. And this probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but I love historical clothing. I’ll admit to a soft spot for Georgian fashion (powder and patch!), but I really, really adore Regency-era stuff too.

Guess who hated Regency fashion? Thackeray. His novel Vanity Fair takes place over about ten or fifteen years (not sure exactly) surrounding the Battle of Waterloo. The recent movie with Reese Witherspoon had FABULOUS costumes–Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ haircut in that movie is one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen, and I’m not even a big fan of his. But when Thackeray drew his illustrations, he used contemporary (late 1840s) clothing. Here’s his explanation:

“It was the author’s intention, faithful to history, to depict all the characters of this tale in their proper costume, as they wore them at the commencement of this century. But when I remember the appearance of people in those days, and that an officer and lady were actually habited like this–

I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous; and have, on the contrary, engaged a model of rank dressed according to the present fashion.”

I have always found this absolutely hilarious, because to me, 1840s clothes are SO much less attractive.

But remember how, until a couple of years ago, everyone was so hideously embarrassed by the eighties? It was impossible to look at eighties fashion and find it even remotely attractive. And now you see sort of modernized, sexy depictions of eighties fashion around sometimes, and the nineties are starting to seem a little embarrasing (oh dear God, the shoulderpads! the HAIR! Watch an episode of “Lois and Clark” sometime and you’ll see what I mean).

When I was in elementary school (early 90s) there was NOTHING more horrifying than bellbottoms. I remember watching some kind of educational film made in the seventies when I was about ten, and every time a pair of bellbottoms came on screen the entire class would start laughing. And then flared jeans and peasant blouses came back in style, and “That 70s Show” took 70s fashion and made it look pretty adorable, and pictures of the 70s don’t seem quite so appalling anymore. (They’re still a LITTLE appalling.)

Is there a ten-to-twenty-year rotation on this stuff? Was Regency fashion Thackeray’s equivalent of the eighties?

And how can the same outfit seem so great at the time, so awful a few years later, and kind of cute and nostalgic after a couple of decades?

5 thoughts on “I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous”

  1. That hat in that illustration? Wicked sweet.

    Also I think you might be on to something here about this fashion rotation thing.

  2. That is AMAZING. Even though I know that "historical accuracy" as we think of it is a modern concept, I am still periodically flabbergasted by things like that, especially by the Victorian era…I can't stop myself thinking, "but…that's not what it looked like! Didn't they REALIZE?"

    (I am also fond of seventeenth-century paintings of classical and biblical heros and heroines–Hercules in doublet and hose or a blond Judith with slashed gloves is never not funny.)

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