Fear and clothing: Ever get that Sun King feeling?
A weekly column on the vagaries and charms of fashion
I have been watching Versailles on Netflix. Okay, bingeing on Versailles on Netflix. Basically it is a lavish soft porn soap opera on an epic scale. I love it. Every time a ludicrous and frankly outrageous plot twist occurs, I say: “That’s it – this stuff has gotten out of hand, I cannot in all credibility continue watching.” Then I google the plot twist and knock me sideways if the series is not absolutely historically accurate. It all actually happened. This is history, people. Rife with poison, intrigue, world domination, and a healthy dose of sex, drugs and much baroque and roll. So I carry on watching, assured that I am a student of history, not just a gagging voyeur.
A subplot all of its own is fashion and its many uses. Sometimes they spell it out in case you missed it. The entire cast of characters, ranging like planets around the Sun King Louis IV, are bedecked in armour of a sartorial variety. The king is dressed before a gaggle of aspiring courtiers in public every morning. Each item of clothing is placed on him as if the courtiers in attendance were dressing a statue of a god for an elaborate religious ceremony involving prayer and human sacrifice. The act of dressing becomes the act of becoming. From a vulnerable chap in his nightgown he is transformed into the essence of king. Gold spun into eternity.
In another scene Madame de Montespan, sensing the king’s wavering affections, orders a new gown in the hopes that she can magic her way back into his bed. Monsieur the king’s brother uses drag as a symbol of his personal freedom. A young woman on the make exclaims she needs a new dress that confirms her ascendancy. Dukes are bankrupted by their breeches in addition to their indiscretions on the gambling tables. Conspirators don the modest clothing of Protestants to signal dissent. And jewels are read like tarot cards. Portents of the past and future.
Clothes in this gilded universe are an invention and a ready alphabet. Explaining everything to the casual observer of society. Who you are and where you fit into the solar system simply explained by a piece of well-cut cloth (or not). The codes set into motion in this courtly fantasy still affect our view of the world. Clothes really maketh the man. They can bare his soul or at least what he aspires for his soul to be. I think I might never dress absentmindedly again.