Dress for Excess: Fashion in Regency England
Dress for Excess at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion
With so many bank holidays and so much sunshine around at the moment, escaping to the coast seems almost like the only sensible option. Brighton already has more going for it than most seaside destinations – innumerable trendy cafés, brilliant shopping, gorgeous architecture and perhaps most fun of all, the pier. (Let’s just not mention the lack of a sandy beach). But there’s an additional reason to head to Brighton this year, even if you’re familiar with the town. Dress for Excess – an exhibition of Regency costumes – is currently on display within the gloriously over-the-top folly that is the Brighton Pavilion. This former royal residence and monument to the extravagant tastes of the Prince Regent, later George IV, is well worth a visit in its own right. Until 5 February, though, a wander through its opulent Chinese-inspired interiors will also take you past exquisitely-preserved examples of both men and women’s costume from the period between roughly 1780-1830. The exhibition culminates with a room dedicated to the tastes and fashions loved by George himself, with his stunning five-metre long coronation robe as its centrepiece.
George, a famous bon viveur, was determined to craft an image of the British monarchy that would promote the country’s image as a great power – at once cultured and awe-inspiring. An obsession with making sure that he and his court were the most chic and elegant in Europe was one of the main means by which he went about this. Fascinated by the latest trends, while his own tastes – and certainly his spending habits – might have tended towards the extravagant, he was willing to bow to whatever the most elegant and forward-looking men of Europe were wearing.
The exhibition traces the way men’s clothing moved towards much simpler and more sober styles during this period, with the basic elements of modern styles which still dominate men’s wardrobes emerging – the formal suit, for example, and trousers instead of breeches. This was the era of the dandy – a figure who, in spite of what popular opinion and the title of the exhibition would have you believe, was more likely to dress in sombre, perfectly starched black and white than to give in to any flippant excesses of fashion. In no small part thanks to George’s influence and love of fashion, the period covered by his regency and subsequent reign laid the foundations for London to go on to become the international centre of masculine tailoring that it still is today. Indeed, while there are some beautiful examples of women’s clothing on show, one of the strengths of this small but fascinating exhibition is its focus on menswear, a side of fashion that’s often unfairly neglected. Deftly showing how the political and the apparently superficial are woven together, it’s a great reason to revisit the Pavilion, or to take a break from the beach to discover it for the first time.
Dress for Excess at the Brighton Pavilion runs until 5 February 2011. Entry is included in the price of admission to the Pavilion; see http://www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk/WhatsOn/Pages/Dressforexcessfashioninregencyengland.aspx for more details.
Dress for Excess at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton runs from 5 February 2011 to 5 February 2012 in the Prince Regent Gallery