Friday, June 6, 2014

Stilettos, or Something Like It

The Tatler
Saturday, June 6, 1710

‘A stage-coach sets out exactly at six from Nando’s coffee-house to Mr. Tiptoe’s dancing-school. And returns at eleven every evening, for one shilling and four-pence.
‘N.B. Dancing shoes not exceeding four inches in height in the heels, and periwigs not exceeding three feet in length, are carried in the coach-box gratis.”

Men's Shoe first half of the18th Century, Bata Museum

As Shakespeare didn’t, but undoubtedly meant, to say, “If all the world’s a stage, then let’s dress like it.”  At the end of the day, how do you dress if you live in a hierarchical society bulging at the seams? Some say out—panniers, wires or swords, and some say up--heels and wigs or hats (?).  Steele’s’ acidic advertisement in 1710 points to the foibles men will go to impress themselves and everyone else. Well, as Tripping Knob, a famous, but undocumented dancer of the 1710s put it, “I may not have the power of the Monarch, a Duke, a General or Councillor of State, but by g-d I can be taller than all of them combined. If all these persons of rank want land and space here and abroad, shouldn’t I be able to colonize some space at home?”  

Men's Mules circa 1710, Bata Museum
Knob has a point there (intended), in an age of colonization isn’t acquiring space of paramount importance at all levels of society.  If Knob wears high-heels and towering periwigs, isn’t he colonizing his social space, albeit temporarily?  In a questionably upwardly mobile society, social space may be a limited but accessible playing field. As far as that goes isn’t Knob’s paramour, Mistress Tinder Box, doing the same thing with her panniers and hoops?  In hindsight we may look askance at the backwardness and constraints of our ancestor’s costumes, but did they?  Satire only works if enough readers or viewers understand the reference, and that only works if the reference is common knowledge for that group. Someone needs to be wearing these articles of clothing often enough for the reference to stick. Clearly Steele felt that his readers, London’s clever society, would get his jab instantly.
Admiral George Churchill, by Godfrey Kneller

Jeff Hopper is an author, editor and manager of the Warner House

Perhaps this will be a summer of looking at wigs and heels and things that make your space, my space à la the 18th C.

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