Fashion week, Alexander McQueen at the Met . . . . lately, we’ve been looking at fashion very seriously. But fashion has always had its funny side too. Take, for example, this 1776 caricature of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
One of a series of satires by the husband-and-wife team Matthew and Mary Darly, these prints mock the elevated hairstyles popular in 18th-century London while also providing political commentary.
While fashion in the “Age of Reason” focused on the head, the Victorian era was defined by a style that aimed a little lower: the bustle, also known — and relentlessly lampooned — as the “Grecian bend.”
Named after the bent-over silhouette women affected when wearing the bustle (which posture was apparently thought to resemble the figures on a Grecian vase), the “Grecian bend” inspired hilarity in lithographs, sheet music, magazines, and pamphlets.
““The Grecian Bend. What It Is.” N-YHS General Collections.
Bill Cunningham’s 20th-century photographs looking back at vintage fashions are funny in a different way. A collector of antique clothing, as well as a fashion photographer, Cunningham posed his longtime friend Editta Sherman — also known as the “Duchess of Carnegie Hall” — in front of historic buildings, wearing costumes from the same period, to compare architectural and fashion design and construction.
The effect is whimsy, not satire, as can be seen from this example where the model’s feathers echo the ornate entrance to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (formerly the mansion of Andrew Carnegie). Cunningham discusses these photographs — which were exhibited at N-YHS in 1977 — in the recent documentary Bill Cunningham New York.
Fashion researchers, serious or not, will find a wealth of other materials documenting the history of style in the New-York Historical Society’s library collections.