Art reviews: Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians | RSA New Contemporaries

Not only is it intriguing and informative, this survey of the extraordinary fashions of the Georgian era will also give you a new-found appreciation for the simplicity of modern dress, writes Duncan Macmillan

Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians, King’s Gallery, Edinburgh ****

RSA New Contemporaries, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

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After a period of closure, the former Queen’s Gallery, now renamed the King’s Gallery, has reopened with Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians, an exhibition chosen, not for artistic interest, but to illustrate the extraordinary fashions of the Georgian era. The pictures inevitably are mostly of royalty and courtiers, more elaborately and certainly more expensively dressed than ordinary people, but more modest dress is also illustrated. There is, for instance, a pair of pictures of domestic life by the charming Venetian observer of manners, Pietro Longhi.

In the later decades of this period, too, men of fashion began to dress more simply. Thomas Rowlandson pillories how this followed their copying the dress and manners of the working classes, notably wearing trousers instead of knee breeches as they had done previously. The poet Byron was a leader of fashion and a romantic painting shows him, too, wearing trousers. Even the royals simplified their dress. In a portrait painted around 1759, George II wears a red velvet coat weighed down with gold. Thirty years later his grandson, George IV when Prince of Wales, appears dressed in a fashionably simple dark blue coat.

The prince was back in very ornate dress for his marriage to Princess Caroline, his future Queen, however, while her dress is heavy with silver decoration. Court dress did tend to be old-fashioned, even archaic, but throughout the 18th century the dress of rich women was always very elaborate, although also often beautiful. A star item here is a dress from c.1780 made of delicate Indian muslin embroidered with silver thread. It is partnered by a man’s costume very like one worn by Johann Christian Fisher in a beautiful full-length by Gainsborough. The woman’s dress is clearly boosted by hoops, but the resulting shape is less extreme than some fashions earlier in the century. At one point, dresses were so wide that ladies had to go through doors sideways, although these structures evidently did offer defence against predatory hands. How bodily functions were dealt with is left to the imagination, however.

A star painting here is a full-length, also by Gainsborough, of Queen Charlotte wearing a beautiful dress of silk gauze covered with gold spangles. It is a ravishing picture, but it does rather point to the absence of anything by Allan Ramsay, painter to the King and particular friend of the Queen. Not only did Ramsay paint costume more beautifully than any of his contemporaries, in his later female portraits, clothes, complexion and colouring are so exquisitely matched they must have followed intimate discussions with his lady sitters about their wardrobes. He was an insider in this story and – especially in Edinburgh – he should be here.

By the end of the century, women had abandoned their hoops and for a brief period enjoyed elegant, unbuttressed simplicity inspired by Greek and Roman models. A good example of this charming fashion is a white muslin dress worn by Princess Sophia in a lovely portrait by Sir William Beechey. This show cuts off around 1830, but in reaction to this incipient liberation, the Victorians soon had women once again imprisoned in stays and crinolines.

Installation view of Style & Society Dressing the Georgians at the King's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh PIC: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesInstallation view of Style & Society Dressing the Georgians at the King's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh PIC: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Installation view of Style & Society Dressing the Georgians at the King's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh PIC: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Men wore wigs for much of the 18th century. It was only latterly that displaying one’s own hair again became the fashion. Byron’s hair, for instance, is seen fashionably blowing in the wind. Women mostly wore their own hair but often in fantastic, towering constructions. Queen Charlotte’s hair is an elegant example. Others were more extreme and the methods used were pretty unsavoury. Hair washing was frowned on. Instead hair was powdered with wheat starch which was then combined with rendered animal fat to make a kind of cement. Venus attired by the Graces is a delightful cartoon of an elderly woman being transformed from age to youth by three hairdressers with powder, tongs and bellows. An actual pair of hairdresser’s bellows is on view nearby. The introduction of shampooing, initially massaging with oils, was credited to Sake Dean Mahomed, who came to Britain with the East India Company and set up his salon in Brighton. Some of the most delightful pictures here, such as a painting of Queen Charlotte with her family by Zoffany, include the royal children, but even children could be fashion victims. It was a bit shocking to learn from an item on view that even small children wore stays.

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Wilkie’s full-length portrait of George IV in the kilt and tartan outfit made for his visit to Edinburgh in 1822 is a key exhibit. His costume cost a fortune and was only worn once, with flesh-coloured trousers hiding the royal knees. David Morier’s painting of the tartan-clad clans being slaughtered at Culloden is also on view. The Georgian monarchs’ view of tartan was mostly very one-sided. But there is much else here to intrigue and inform while thanking fate and fashion for the simplicity of modern dress.

New Contemporaries is showing at the RSA. Still catching up from Covid, the show includes selected graduates from both 2022 and 2023 and from all five Scottish art schools. The only possible link of this show with Georgian dress, apart from being simultaneous, is a touch of the bizarre. There are aspects of Georgian fashion, especially as it is parodied in cartoons, that would not be out of place among the work of these recent graduates. Niamh Mairead Dunphy, for instance, has made concrete casts from blow-up sex toys. All laid out on the floor, some shattered, Rowlandson would happily have put a satiric spin on them. No need to add comedy to Jack Ire’s wonderful carved, wooden piano with added grotesques, however. Nearby Martha Williams’s bed fitted with bicycle wheels is another strange piece of furniture, but the steel slippers on the floor beneath it are something else altogether. Finn Rosenbaum’s Bell Installation, a mechanical belfry of cow bells from tiny to enormous, is delightfully reminiscent of the mad machines of Jean Tangueley. Suggesting the rites of Voodoo, Holly Tafe’s open coffin with a top-hatted corpse stabbed through the heart is bizarre in a different way, while Tom Fairlamb’s floor covered in tiny fish, flapping electrically as though in their death throes, has darker more contemporary echoes of climate change and habitat destruction. Lizzie Munro suggests different pagan rituals in a figure made entirely from grasses, weeds and vines that looks very like the Queensferry Burry Man. Following a slightly similar route, Fionnlagh Skinner looks to Scottish folk tales for inspiration and tells the story of the Battle of the Birds in three-dimensional images across the space of a wall. Working in ceramic, Ben Johnston has created small, free-standing sculptures with intriguing echoes of the shapes of found stones, what he calls spirit or philosopher stones.

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There is much here that is simply visually impressive, however. Jemimah Vaughan’s Setting the Table is an elegant, free-standing still-life made from cut steel, a nicely handled homage to cubism, while a tall, wobbly-looking steel chair made by Martha Williams looks as though Giacometti was making furniture. Tilly Glancy’s The Nomadic Sundial is an enormous and simply spectacular patchwork quilt, but ne of the most striking of all the objects here is a big hanging made of loosely felted wool by Louis Baillie. It is so wonderfully black and light absorbent that it is like a hole in the wall.

Style & Society until 22 September; New Contemporaries until 24 April