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Essay: Baroque to the Future

by Maisie Bowker on 4 February 2020

The surprisingly political influence of the baroque period in Autumn/Winter 2020 menswear.

The surprisingly political influence of the baroque period in Autumn/Winter 2020 menswear.

The Autumn/Winter 2020 menswear shows found themselves caught up, knowingly or unknowingly, in the web of baroque influence. The art produced during this period has been disregarded by cultural critics for its perceived extravagance and vulgarity. However, baroque is getting its day in the sun, as Tate Britain is hosting an exhibition entitled British Baroque: Power and Illusion that runs 4 February-19 April 2020. The first exhibition in Britain to focus specifically on baroque art produced in Britain, it will be devoted to British art of the late 17th century, from the restoration of Charles II in 1660 through to the death of Queen Anne in 1714.

Baroque is a style known for its movement and drama that contrasts with the strictly proportioned and defined Renaissance. What has drawn designers to this period now? One thing we know is that baroque, has a strong political element: British baroque responds to and depicts the changing nature of power in Britain during the Restoration. Given the increasingly unpredictable political landscape today, fashion too has been mulling the potential for political comment, with varying degrees of critical and financial success.

The Restoration was a key moment in British history defined by a return to indulgence, after the Puritanical years of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. During said Restoration, British baroque’s excessive style can be seen to shore up support for the monarchy. While Charles II had returned to the throne after years in the political wilderness, his father had been executed by the people’s movement led by Oliver Cromwell. It had been proved in recent memory that the monarchy could be deposed violently if it didn’t play ball, and so it needed to bolster its own position and legitimacy, to reduce its chance of being so wildly unpopular that another king might lose his head.

Under Cromwell’s rule, numerous entertaining pursuits, including card-playing, gambling, the theatre and the celebration of Christmas were outlawed. Upon Charles II’s ascension to the throne in 1660, many of Cromwell’s bans were repealed, boosting the king’s popularity. These populist moves, Charles’ own salacious court (rumour has it that he fathered 21 illegitimate children), and the many artworks and buildings built in the baroque style, has led Charles II’s reign to be associated with indulgence, opulence and profligacy. Baroque can be seen as a movement back to the richness of objects, shadowed all the while with a knowledge that this opulence may not last for much longer. Feels familiar, no?

The Sea Triumph of Charles II, by Antonio Verrio, c. 1674. Oil paint on canvas, The Royal Collection/HM Queen Elizabeth II.

In their Autumn/Winter 2020 show JORDANLUCA drew connections between the baroque period and our own. The design duo appropriated the fanciful ideals of the 16th and 17th century by dressing their catwalk with crowds of candles in ornate holders. In the press release, the pair state that the baroque period was ‘a time much like now where the upper crust would flaunt their wealth to the poor who actually provided their wealth in the form of taxes & cheap labour’ urging the JORDANLUCA customer to ‘reclaim what is [theirs].’

Baroque art uses opulence and extravagance to overwhelm a beholder, and impress upon them a feeling of inferiority in the face of authority and knowledge, as can be seen in one of the key works in the Tate Britain exhibition, shown above: the portrait of Charles II painted by Antonio Verrio in c.1674. Charles dominates the painting, his red silk robe billowing out to catch our eye, he is surrounded by adoring mythical gods and goddesses, Neptune himself pulls the King’s chariot through the water. By associating him with the classical deities of Ancient Greece, Charles is cast as a divinity, enshrining his legitimacy to rule.

JORDANLUCA's A/W 20 show.

JORDANLUCA’s use of baroque excess claims the same knowledge and authority, yet instead of using the legitimacy lent to them by said opulence to consolidate themselves as divine rulers, they instead use it to force the beholder to pay attention to their clothes, and listen to their message: a stark warning against inequality.

Baroque can be seen as a movement back to the richness of objects, shadowed all the while with a knowledge that this opulence may not last for much longer. Feels familiar, no?

Likewise, Telfar used baroque excess to reposition power and authority. A press release stated that the collection ‘crosses baroque ornament and silhouette with humble material and form’: excess was combined with the bitter tang of reality, in acknowledgement that the wealth available to some is not available to all.

The brand staged their show in the opulent baroque setting of the Palazzo Corsini in Florence during Pitti Uomo. A large circular banqueting table framed an orchestra and provided the runway. The remnants of a feast thrown by Telfar the night before littered the table; bones, decaying fruit, and aging meat cluttered around the path of the models.

A homemade aspect came through in Telfar’s collection, in the raw-seamed denim short shorts, cut like a youth going to a party after taking scissors to their childhood jeans. Make do with the wealth you have by updating old pieces, fashion a large pussy bow over your old white vest. Tie your dad’s puffer jacket around the bottom of your old jeans, and voilà - you’re now invited to a baroque feast.

Situating a casual, urban-inflected collection in a palatial setting draws attention to just where power has historically been situated: given history's elitism–and racism–a queer, black designer like Telfar Clemens would not have had access to elite spaces. Taking the trappings of baroque for his own, Clemens gives his designs and models the legitimacy they have historically been denied.

Telfar incorporated breeches and stockings into his A/W 20 silhouettes.

Having said this, it’s not unexpected that fashion might take cues from baroque, given that the baroque movement toes the line of taste, sometimes tripping over its own display to fall into the realm of the vulgar. Fashion has constantly found itself stuck in the quagmire that is good taste. One needs only to look at Christian Lacroix in the eighties, or Galliano-era Dior from the mid-noughties to see excess and extravagance that seemed thrilling at the time, but in subsequent eras, has felt jarringly déclassé.

It is, however, perhaps less expected that menswear might take on a baroque feel, given that from a contemporary perspective, masculine dress has long been coded as sober and minimal, and the dominance of streetwear–necessarily a casual, sportswear-oriented aesthetic–over recent years. Indeed, menswear’s referencing of baroque causes us to reflect that masculine dress hasn’t always been simple, practical suiting and short, no-nonsense hair.

Edward Crutchley's models wore tumbling wigs at the A/W 20 show.
Charles II, by John Michael Wright, c.1671-76, The Royal Collection/HM Queen Elizabeth II.

This apparently solid idea of masculinity as undecorated is kicked over by Charles’s delicately stockinged leg. Charles II and his contemporaries used drapery, frill and large wigs to reinforce their visual authority - he was six feet tall, and still clambered into a good pair of platforms - which seems shocking in a time where men wearing heels still provokes strong reactions c.f. the Strictly Come Dancing dancer, Johanes, who crashed into living rooms and conversations when he performed in heels on prime time TV.

At Telfar and Dior Men, where Kim Jones referenced the work of the late stylist Judy Blame, male models were styled in garments and details that, to a modern eye, feel feminine: pussy bow blouses, velvet and elbow-length opera gloves. Yet for a baroque man about town, these would be emblematic of confident masculinity. Likewise, baroque-era wigs on men were a sight to behold, many of the A/W 20 menswear shows played with hair: the bouncing curly wigs at Edward Crutchley resembled Louis XVI, and the tight curls at Telfar resembled the putti that mingle in the margins of almost all baroque art.

The opening look at the Dior Men A/W 20 show: sweeping cape, overblown corsage and opera gloves.
Putto-esque pin curls at TELFAR

And in 2020, as the UK leaves the embrace of the European Union, and power shifts from traditional institutions to upstart newcomers, the reiteration of baroque excess for Autumn/Winter 2020 draws our attention to the role of opulence in a time of instability. While the world is burning, literally and figuratively, should we not have fun with what we wear? Charles II and his court were reinscribing themselves as divine leaders: the Duchess of Cleveland, Charles II’s mistress, commissioned a painting of her and her illegitimate son with Charles, posed as the Virgin and Child (the painting can be seen in the exhibition). Similarly, A/W 20 menswear is asking how men can reimagine themselves, as the macho ideals that once seemed inescapable seem to be dissolving.

Peter Lely 'Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child, c. 1664, oil paint on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London. Purchases with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, through the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), Camelot Group plc, David and Catherine Alexander, David Wilson, E.A. Whitehead, Glyn Hopkin and numerous other suppporters of a public appeal including members of the Chelsea Arts Club, 2005.

Telfar has played with history, digested it through the seams of their creations to formulate something that speaks to a new generation that recognise the opulence of previous worlds and add it to their stagnated present. Telfar and JORDANLUCA have acted out the scandal of entitlement, in a theatre of ambition that performs, and subverts, wealth. They remain what they are, while wearing a costume of wealth, mocking the figure they have created.

The baroque notion of gender reminds us that this modern play with boundaries is not as shattering to our traditions as the naysayers may scream. The influence of the baroque period has moved beyond aesthetics; by looking back on a period where the upper classes flaunted their aggressive consumption, we can perhaps regard the similarities in our time and begin to make the changes that are required.

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