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Empire in the Spotlight

Stany Dederen

Thanks to the popular Netflix series, Bridgerton, the early 19th century is undergoing a real revival. In anticipation of the upcoming season, fans are flocking to novels by Jane Austen and other mementoes of that period. In our collection presentation, enthusiasts can further indulge themselves and enjoy three original Empire dresses. Curator of Collections Wim Mertens reflects on how costume designers and fashion historians deal with the rigours and vicissitudes of bygone fashions.

Although the costumes in Bridgerton are a fun and contemporary interpretation of historically correct patterns, in our presentations of our historical silhouettes, we want to approach the reality of the time as closely as possible. But even our own vision is an interpretation. No one knows exactly how strictly people dealt with these garments at the time. We can only glean an idea on the basis of sources from the day, such as fashion magazines and paintings, as well as novels and diary entries. I expect costume designers also refer to this same material, although it is unclear how they process it and whether they have the opportunity to conduct sufficient preliminary research.

Wim Mertens, Curator of Collections MoMu
  • Dress in shot silk taffeta and neckerchief, 1800-10
    MoMu Collection inv. X4006, Photo: Stany Dederen
  • Cotton dress with white embroidery, 1800-20 | Shawl in wool and silk with buta motif, 1800-20
    MoMu Collection inv. X4004, Photo: Stany Dederen
  • Cotton evening dress with white embroidery, 1800-10
    MoMu Collection inv. T07/50, Photo: Stany Dederen

Conscious Choices

Whether Wim Mertens is troubled by the vestimentary anachronisms in films or television series largely depends on the intentions of the makers. "If a director wants to produce an historically correct drama, he or she will look at things more critically than when that is not the case. In the 1990s, for example, far more attention was paid to historical accuracy. Today, directors and costume designers often intentionally combine new novelties with traces of former fashions. This gives the production a contemporary aspect."

"Bridgerton is a good example. Although the first episode took some getting used to, I quickly realized that using historically accurate costumes had never been the intention. I nonetheless do still recognize the basic principles of early 19th-century fashion. I am thinking of the high waists, the puff sleeves and bouffant hairdos held in place with a ribbon. In terms of fabrics and colours, however, the designers went completely crazy. That approach also applies to the soundtrack. They opted, for example, for a classical orchestration, but the music is from our own time."

Contemporary Fabrics

"There are series that are disturbing to me. I think The Tudors, for example, was a missed opportunity. Although the shapes more or less agree with historic silhouettes, it went completely overboard with the selection of the fabrics."

Mertens’ criticism is nonetheless nuanced. "The closer we come to our own day, the easier it is to be historically correct. From the 16th century, for example, very few garments or fabrics have survived. Costume designers have to work with fabrics that are available to us today. You cannot compare a silk weave available on today’s market to authentic examples. It would be impossibly expensive today to achieve the same suppleness and shine. Perfection is therefore almost unattainable, even when producers want to be as accurate as possible."

  • Horn brisé fan, 1800-20
    MoMu Collection inv. T16/193/W88, Photo: Stany Dederen
  • Silk satin shoes, 1800-20
    MoMu Collection inv. T3436EF, Photo: Stany Dederen
  • Cotton handbag with white embroidery, 1790-1810
    MoMu Collection inv. T12/139/T3, Photo: Stany Dederen

Cinematic Trendsetters

For those anachronisms to be less troubling to him, "The entire picture has to make sense. In addition to the costumes and the settings, the story has to have strong appeal. When a story is based on a good book, it is easier to identify with than when it is based on a thin plot. Martin Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence and Dangerous Liaisons by Stephen Frears are both good examples. The costumes in both productions are very accurate. These films also date from a time when greater attention was being paid to such accuracy.

"One successful example of a production in which the director and costume designers deliberately played with anachronisms is Marie Antoinette, by Sofia Coppola. That film set the trend for the genre that Bridgerton is continuing today. The costumes do not pretend to be historically correct, and there as well, the soundtrack is pop music and modern classical music. Because I can see the playfulness with which it is done, I can enjoy it as much as I do more accurate series or films."

Learn more about the collection presentation here