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War and Peace: Elegance in Dress

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“Show me the clothes of a country and I can write its history.”

— Anatole France (1844 – 1924)

[Men And Women In Costumes, 1804-1829.], Digital ID 812355, New York Public Library The start of the nineteenth century has many echoes. Sometimes I can shut my eyes and see them, all the elegant men and women twirling round ballrooms to the lilt of the newly popular waltz. I belong to a generation of young women who grew up on the Regency stories of Georgette Heyer. One encounters in her literature (written mainly in the 1950s) nostalgia for a time “when men were men and women were women.” Some of this has to do with the fact that the century started out with most of Europe at war. Nowadays we don’t see our wars as having much impact on fashion, save for the growing presence of camouflage fabric. Back in the early 1800s, however, most men enjoyed adopting the look of a cavalry man: boots, trousers and a jacket cut with a dash. The late English historian Arthur Bryant wrote a book on this period, and there was reason behind its title: The Age of elegance, 1812-1822. This was a time when on the eve of the great battle of Waterloo, the Duchess of Richmond held a ball in Brussels, where Wellington danced calmly through the evening until anxious aides brought him word of Napoleon’s massing troops. Even then, he didn’t leave until he bid his hostess a polite farewell. It was also a time when those same ballroom attendees would ride out in their carriage the day after the battle to view the carnage in the fields. P.S. Heading west again for a week. I’ll pick up on all this around the 11th.

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