“Golden lads and girls….must come to dust.” Shakespeare, Cymbeline.
Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart
Van Dyck, c. 1638. Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London. Image source: WGA
Collateral damage of baroque absolutist illusion, nowadays they’d be the latest posh boys to break into show business.
They were wrong but romantic; collateral damage of absolutism and revolution, teenage brothers, cousins of the king, transformed and immortalized by Van Dyck into an illusory image of English aristocracy that inspired fantasies still enjoyed today, including fictional upper-class heroes like the Scarlet Pimpernel and the 1930s gentleman detective, whose outward foppishness concealed brains and virility, and, more recently, re-invented as the modern meterosexual vampires of film and TV, whose lineage goes back beyond late Victorian Dracula, to Byronic heroes, Restoration libertines and doomed Cavalier youths.
The confident, sensual magnificence of Baroque male fashion boasted feminine attributes; in comparison, the presentation of ideal masculine sexuality of a hundred years earlier – Henry VIII in his straddling stance jutting out his codpiece – looks crudely insecure.
Even a realistic artist and social observer like Frans Hals….. could not resist the twinkling charm and dashing air of a luxuriously dressed, handsome twenty-six year old man, his own identity unknown, famous as The Laughing Cavalier, one of the great mythologized pin-up boys of history.
Charles I’s court was a model of decorum, and the king in person was a devoted family man, but royalist clothes, their gorgeous colours, soft fabrics and billowing outlines, broad-brimmed plumed hats and high-heeled boots, retain a subtly erotic power that momentarily deflects our attention from the religious and fiscal policies which drove his subjects to rebellion.
The advertizing tricks work so well that it is hard to take the ruthless despotism of Thorough seriously when you are melting in front of an image of latent sexual ambivalence, all lace and satins and curls, usually supplemented by an even more adorably strokable spaniel in the corner.
When the baroque style of dress was restored with the monarchy, and an extravagantly licentious court, it was more overtly transgender and louche, until the undulating lines hardened into elaborate formality in the last decade of the 17th century, and were redefined in the 18th century age of Rococo taste, that sought piquancy on the boundary of reason and madness, dancing on the scalloped pastel-coloured seashore while storm waves rolled in, or picnicking on the edge of a volcano.
The rationalized shape of menswear and the irrational confinement of women in picturesque, sometimes almost unmanoeverable clothes, provided the template for classical ballet design, fairy tale illustration, pantomime, porcelain and wedding cake figures, and popular performance art costumes of today.
Just a simple country girl: Marie Antoinette, in a copy of a portrait by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, oil on canvas, after 1783, National Gallery of Washington.
Vigée-Lebrun was the queen’s favourite image-maker, along with her dressmaker, Rose Bertin, who was satirized in the French press for her extravagantly pernicious influence as “la ministre de modes” . Image source: WGA
In the 1780s, a privileged prisoner at the heart of the ancien regime, Marie Antoinette, led the revolution in fashion away from the artificial concoctions of formal court dress, which she and her dressmaker and milliner, Rose Bertin, her infamous “minister of fashion”, had taken to excess in the preceding decade, and experimented with freedom in a more natural, simple way of dressing in muslin gowns and straw hats, a rich woman’s bucolic idyll in which she could play at being a child of nature, the last peaceful fantasy of absolutism before the deluge.
Before it was turned into sugar, Rococo frivolity was deadly serious, a way of denying or satirizing unpleasant realities, until they couldn’t be denied anymore, but were still laughed at by fashionable people, like the female relatives of victims of the Terror, unrepentant survivors of the ancien regime who attended balls wearing thin red velvet ribbons round their necks in remembrance, or anticipation, of the guillotine’s cut.
In Van Dyck’s filtered vision of the English Caroline court, the shimmering satin and nonchalant poses distract attention from the arrogant and none too bright expressions of Lords John and Bernard, aged about seventeen and sixteen in 1638, just boys touchingly doing their best to live up to dynastic expectations, who nowadays would be the latest posh kids to break into show business. Seven years after their sumptuous double portrait was painted, they were both dead, killed in separate actions during the civil war.