Tuesday, December 27, 2011

For Auld Lang Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

 I’m such a sentimentalist I get all chocked up and teary every time I hear Auld Lang Syne. It never fails to remind me of old times, of friends I’m no longer in touch with, and of loved ones departed. But on the stroke of midnight on December 31 as we sing the familiar words, how many of us will remember they were written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song that has become the New Year’s Eve song? How many of us even know that auld lang syne means “old long since” (old times)?

Fourteen years after Robert Burns wrote Auld Lang Syne, Maria Nugent, the wife of General George Nugent, Governor of Jamaica, wrote an entry in her *journal, which was the inspiration for this blog.

December 30th, 1802

Dress at 7, for the ball given to me to-night, by the Assembly, dear little George at my toilet. For the benefit of posterity I will describe my dress on this grand occasion. A crape dress, embroidered in silver spangles, also sent me by Madame Le Clerk, but much richer than that which I wore at the last ball. Scarcely any sleeves to my dress, but a broad silver spangled border to the shoulder straps. The body made very like a child’s frock, tying behind, and the skirt round, with not much train. A turban of spangled crape, like the dress, looped with pearls, and a paradise feather; altogether looking like a Sultana. Diamond bandeau, cross, &c.; and pearl necklace and bracelets, with diamond clasps. This dress, the admiration of the world over, will perhaps, fifty years hence, be laughed at and considered as ridiculous as our grandmother’s hoops and tissues appear to us now. 

 There is no painting of Lady Nugent’s gown, so we’ll have to make do with the picture of the two ladies on the left and leave the rest to our imagination. Aside from the gown being virtually sleeveless, what struck me as I read the journal entry was not even war seemed to prevent true-blue fashionistas from acquiring the latest fashions from abroad. Only in the case of Lady Nugent’s purchase, abroad was France, a country at continuous war with England from 1793 to 1815, except for a brief period of peace during which the gown was made. The dressmaker was the sister of England’s enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte. The client was the wife of the governor of one of England’s prized colonies. In some circles, this might be viewed as sleeping with the enemy, though admittedly we buy clothes and shoes by the container-load from China, the so-called enemy of capitalism.

Lady Nugent also mentions “hoops and tissues.” A search for these undergarment essentials took me further back in time to the mid-eighteenth century and the elaborate Rococo period with its frills and bows. Sure enough, this is when hoops were taken to their extreme in hoop petticoats called panniers (a French term for wicker basket). Often made of whalebone, panniers extended skirts to a width of several feet on either side as shown in the painting at top right. If Lady Nugent could have seen into the future, she would have been surprised to find a renaissance of those outrageously wide skirts in Oscar de la Renta’s Spring/Summer 2012 Ready-to-Wear Collection. And how surprised she would be to discover the neoclassic style of her ball gown is as in vogue today as it was on that December night two hundred years ago.


                                           1902                                                                                   2002

 * Lady Nugent’s Journal of her residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805

Image sources:
Wikimedia Commons