Posts Tagged ‘fashion’

It was the summer of 1618, and the poet and, yes, dramatist, Ben Jonson, was at the height of his fame and powers.
I emphasise dramatist, because shortly before this date Ben Jonson had published his Works, in which he included his dramatic works. This was not done – at that time dramatic scripts were not considered ‘works’ but throw-away pieces. He received a lot of criticism for this; he was by then inured to the extremes that criticism could reach, his part in the ‘War of the Theatres’ had been bloody, hard, and he had had to concede defeat. For Ben Jonson’s character, defeat was not easily admitted, or lived with, and yet he had swallowed it the best he could.

So, in 1618, July 8th, Ben Jonson set out on an epic journey; it was well-advertised to interested parties.

He was to walk from London to Edinburgh. 450 miles.

He took the Great North Road out of London, up country, meeting the coast near Alnwick, Northumberland, whereon he followed the coast road right around to Edinburgh, coming in from Leith, on September 6th.

– A friend of my son’s walked to London from Cambridge one day: it took a punishing 12 hours. Ben Jonson’s walk took him 60 days.
The friend was fit and young; Ben Jonson had acquired his legendary girth of 20 stone in weight. He was also 46 years old, rather older than middle-age, for those times.
At the beginning of his career Ben Jonson was nick-named ‘the anatomy,’ due to his lean-ness: tall and thin.
How time was to change him.

What was the purpose of this walk? It can be considered a huge publicity stunt: he was, as all were, constantly on the look out for patronage, and Royal patronage was the best paid. He was, in effect, purposely celebrating the journey made by King James I/VI of Scotland – in reverse. The name Jonson, was also, through his father’s side, a Scottish Border name, from Johnstone, of Annandale. By acknowledging the Scottish name, he was therefore cementing his link, and also his credentials, to further a further suit with King James.

He stayed there six months, and then undertook the return journey, following the same route.

His journey has been tracked, and meticulously noted: see the map:

It was thought for a long time he undertook the journey alone. Rather recently, though, papers have been unearthed in the Cheshire Archives, which give detailed notes on the journey, in another’s hand.
The paper was not signed, and describes the walk as a Foot Voyage.

For much of the way, then, he had a travelling companion, a member of the Alder(s)ley  (sic) Family perhaps, among whose effects the notes were found. Was this a relative of the 1st Baronet, John Thomas Stanley, 1597–1672? The family are connected to the Earl of Derby, and the Baron Sheffield.
The Stanleys came in for some criticism in Alan Garners’ 1976 novella, The Stone Book.

The Alderleys, called, confusingly, the Stanley Family, are connected with what is now the affluent dormitory town of Alderley, properly known as Alderley Edge, and a place well known the readers of young adult fiction, and general fiction writer, Alan Garner. His earliest, and latest book are set there: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and the latest, Boneland, (2012).


Ben Jonson noted that his shoes gave out by the time he had reached Darlington, near Newcastle. That was not bad going, actually. He had another pair made, and suffered them for the next few days, until he wore them in.

What we know of Jacobean male footwear is scanty, and restricted to court fashions, and further, to what was depicted in portraits from the period.
During the late Elizabethan era, however,  pamphletting was taking off. One such practitioner was Philip Stubbes, a puritan. He inveighed against  ‘unchristian’ workplace practices. We have to thank him for the details he provides of such practices of the time. One of which was, shoe making.

He tells us the leather was soaked in liquor for hardening, then well greased. The fraudulence was in the use of, for example, the more thinner, fragile, calf for cow hide and, controversially, horse skin for ox-hides. They were always, he insisted, cat-skin lined.
The sewing was done with hot needles and twine. He says the shoes were then heated by the fire to harden them. We can only presume this was a fraudulent practice.

What of the soles? He does not mention soles. Heeled boots for men became fashionable in the late Elizabethan  period; the heels were of wood. Would workmen’s – brick-layers, as with Ben Jonson – also use wooden soles? Wooden pattens were still in use in the period.


Ben Jonson’s stay in Edinburgh reached its summit in his long sojourn with William Drummond, of Hawthornden Castle. This lasted from December, 1618, until early Spring, 1619, and his return journey. What eased the familiarity of their company was that William Drummond owned, and continually added to, one of the best libraries in Britain, at that time. Both were avid bibliophiles.
We also have William Drummonds’ notes on the sojourn: a commentary on Ben Jonson’s conversation, but without his own input.

One incident particularly spoiled Ben Jonson’s epic of his walk and sojourn in Scotland. That was the arrival, a few week’s after himself, of ‘self-styled… poet’ (Ben Jonson, His Life and Work, by Rosalind Miles, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), John Taylor, the ‘sculler’, or water poet. The name derives from his previous occupation as a Thames waterman. He was born in Gloucestershire, and became a boatman/ferryman in Kent – the Sheppey region.
I am always surprised at the mobility of people then: Shakespeare from Warwickshire to London was seen as no big step.

King James applauded John Taylor’s writing, preferring him above Sir Philip Sidney (perhaps out of a sense of mischief?). Ben Jonson was indeed put out by his arrival, having walked all the way, the same route, as he himself had. He became convinced his London rivals had put John Taylor up to this, to mock his own feat. It was vigorously denied, and to a believable extent. Although John Taylor did indulge later in spectacular stunts, such as manning and sailing a real paper boat into London.
also see

Ah, but John Taylor had not the high connections of Ben Jonson, in Edinburgh; nor was he made Freeman of the City, as Jonson was.

On his return to London he found several things had changed. For one, the Queen had died. This was soon followed by the death of Richard Burbage. A national loss, and a more localised one; but the public stage had lost two important players.
The Queen’s death put his own suit with King James on a back burner.

If any reader is looking for an introduction, way in, to Ben Jonson’s poetic works, I would heartily recommend the Thom Gunn selection, on Penguin:

Ben Jonson:



I’d like to take you back to Paris, the 1790s. The Terror has just ended, Robespierre’s own head has flown off with his pigeon flock – and the guillotines are being taken down.

You are part of the demi-monde, the target group for the Terror. You have seen your colleagues, family, contemporaries arrested, carted off, seen them tremblingly ascend the red and soaking scaffold. The smell in the air, of fear, blood, bodily fluids.

Then to wake and see the unbelievable once again: the guillotines gone; to see life settling once more around you.

But it can never settle. How do you react?

And so we have the Incroyables, the sons of the nobles and wealthy spared the Terror. How did they survive? They adapted to the situation, sold guns and arms, became money-lenders. Many made fortunes like this, many became the nouveau riche.

They dress absurdly, swathe around their delicate necks yards of material. There was a splurge of public balls, called bals des victims: it is said the dancers dressed in mourning black, or wore black armbands; they greeted each other with sudden jerked bow of the head, neck, mimicking decapitation.

The Incroyables styles were all over-the-top: large earrings, green jackets, wide trousers, huge neckties, thick glasses, and hats topped by “dog ears”, their hair falling on their ears. One

Exaggeration and parody were their responses, whether behaving as effete young men, or care-free and spendthrift. There was always the darker side, and the acknowledged counterpart of the care-free. One source states:A ball held at the Hôtel Thellusson on the rue de Provence in the 9th arrondissement of Paris restricted its guest-list to the grown children of the guillotined.

The Incroyables had their counterparts in the Merveilleuses, the daughters and young wives of the nobles.

The response was all in attitude, and dress was the focus of that. The Incroyables were all for exaggerated effects. They also carried cudgels when on the streets. They had no love for Revolutionaries.

So much so the termed themselves Incoyables, and Meveilleuses – anything without the R for Revolution. Almost Oulipo in its time.



The dress of the Merveilleuses was based on Greek and Roman models, the chiton, the flowing robe. Underneath, however, frequently nothing or the least was worn. The light material caught the contours of the body, the neckline was low. Along with this was a semi-Greek styling of hair, loose coils for the women, the Roman statuary style for the men. Wigs took off in a big way, and the more outlandishly coloured the better: blond was popular because the Paris Commune had outlawed blond wigs; but also blue and green were to be seen. Collars became large, the two-horned hat, with tassels, popular. Styles frequently emphasised the guillotine: wigs were short at the back, exposing the neck: ‘a la victime’.




From this use of translucent and semi-transparent materials came the ‘naked from a distance’ look. It also became popular amongst the men. It consisted of flesh-coloured and close-fitting under-garments. These styles took off in England and can be seen in late-Georgian fashions.

Talleyrand commented: “Il n’est pas possible de s’exposer plus somptueusement!” (“It is not possible to exhibit oneself more sumptuously!”).

Famous merveilleuses were Madame Récamier, Madame Hamelin, Joséphine de Beauharnais, and Madame Tallien.

Those few years could not last; everything carries the seeds of its own demise. One source states: The leading IncroyablePaul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras, was one of the five Directors who ran the Republic of France and gave the period its name. He hosted luxurious feasts attended by royalists, repentant Jacobins, ladies, and courtesans. Since divorce was now legal, sexuality was looser than in the past. However, de Barras’ reputation for immorality may have been a factor in his later overthrow, a coup that brought the French Consulate to power and paved the way for Napoleon Bonaparte.


It should come as no surprise the styles of this short period became the source for modern fashions and styles. In 1984 John Galliano brought out a collection based on the styles of Les Incroyables.

from my kindle book, Parameters:

The particulars of place, and the specifics of persons, are the main grid references in the career of Celia Birtwell.

There are many images for characterising her life: she is fireweed, blown seeds fruiting everywhere; she is honeysuckle, weaving and winding through her time and age to blossom with exotic scents; she is… it has to be a floral/faunal image, especially garden variety.

The grid points depict moments of surges of growth; these are interspersed by, at times long periods of quiet, of underground rooting.

Where the grid points of place and person coincide we see the major growth spurts.

The first grid point is Salford, (Manchester, northern England) the year 1941. You will not find her on the electoral register for that year; it was a year without a census.

Where was her schooling, who were her friends? She has learned that private is indeed private, but that a personal life can become public property.

Our next grid point is Salford College of Art, the year 1956. No records exist of her Textile Design course; I have enquired. Who, again, were her friends and colleagues?

Moving in on another trajectory we find Raymond (Ossie) Clark, Warrington (Lancashire, northern England), 1942: “Born in the middle of air raid!” voluble; lively; tyro. The meeting, ‘The Cona Coffee Club’, Tib Lane, Manchester. It was a ‘bring your own record’ place; already we have the ‘bright young things’; an identity of their own; the age of the teenager. This was Manchester waking up and hopping to a new rhythm.

And so they met, one incandescent and fiery, the other grounded, earthed, maybe a little pagan.

Like any wind that could stir in those static post-war years, it blew south. We next plot them separately in Notting Hill, London, 1961; Celia worked in the Wig Department of the Aldwych Theatre. They were provincials, Northern, working class; they had all the credentials for crashing London barriers. But the confidence to hawk designs around those venerable fashion houses came from set designer Anthony Powell, painter Hugh McKinnon. Her designs sold straight away.

The Clark-Birtwell collaboration became a working reality. We hit 1965, they had dedicated outlets: the Quorum Boutique, London, and stars queuing at the door.

Celia designed the fabrics, and Ossie tailored them into outfits, shirts, dresses. They clothed the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pattie Boyd, Marianne Faithful, Twiggy; later Jimi Hendrix, Telitha Getty, Paloma Picasso. From the fashion aristos to the real aristos.

1969 and the relationship became a marriage, with children. But that was not the age of marriage-with-children. Ossie loved the rock star scene, spent most of his time out there; Celia meanwhile hunted out Vita Sackville-West’s wonderful garden at Sissinghurst, and Kew Gardens; taking notes from Bakst’s Ballet Russe costumes; from Picasso, Matisse. The gaps opened up. They were always there. The marriage fell apart in 1973.

A booming business; a van driver who would one day provide live, happening music: Dave Gilmour pre Pink Floyd; Brian Jones camped out in a flat above the shop.

Paris 1969, and the person entering the graph was David Hockney, bronzed from California, suave from success. He produced the wonderful Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, now accorded Greatest British Painting status.  But the painting shows the strain of the relationship: the cat was not Percy but Blanche; the body language is all askew. It was originally read by the hip art establishment as a depiction of modern marriage: new establishment mores, full of alternative interests and directions, yet stable. She looked in that painting, she said, “too bovine”: she was not that placid, so acquiescent.

After the break-up Celia disappeared from the chart. She had regular work with the Radley label, but time was taken bringing up two sons, one needing extra care, and teaching at Art Colleges. This was the 70’s; and very remedial times where a woman’s, not to mention a mother’s, place in industry and fashion was concerned.

It was not until 1984 we see another grid reference, when Hockney encouraged her to launch once more into the marketplace. And the place, Westbourne Grove, her own shop.

Scoot to 2006 and her fabric and clothes designs for Top Shop sold out completely within forty-five minutes of the store opening its doors.

In 2007 we chart the Elle Decoration Design Award for Fashion Contribution to Interiors. Because her work now covers Fashion, Accessories, Furnishings, Wall Papers. With ranges of Classic, Couture, Jacobean fashions in glorious silks, with pink and gold designs, with silk organza, cotton and linen, sometimes flannel, her work continues to grow, expand, gain recognition.

I have given the grid readings but not the topography; privacy became something of a major concern in her life; she saw what happened to Ossie; the publication of the Diaries was one step too close. She shielded the children from the more lurid details.

The grid points can be read also as loom settings: the fabric woven is rich, strangely textured in places, but in the whole exquisitely pleasing and accessible, malleable and delightful.

She now has the stability, and a client-base to die for. She recently celebrated her 71st birthday.