Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gustavus Adolphus' Wedding Suit and the Draining of the World

When I was younger I was obsessed with clothes. Not the clothes of our own time, but those of the past. It was a pretty girly obsession of course, but there was something real in it too. There was something in those silk and velvet gowns, slash and puff doublets, hanging sleeves, bombasted and cartridge pleated and befarthingaled, that said something about the societies of the past that I think we no longer want to say about our own.

There was a confidence and determination in the people who could wear clothes like that that we do not have. That we, in fact, cannot even imagine.

There was substance to these men and women, that makes us half-born men look like wraiths, like shades.

Are there any men around now whose shoulders could hold up a coat like this?

It was from this obsession that I learned the names of the great painters of that terrible time of disaster in the world but the Golden Age of portraiture, the late Renaissance.

It was especially the Holbein portraits of the English royal family, cardinals, chancellors and nobility held my gaze as if I were under a spell. I learned the names of every part of them, how they were constructed, where the heavy cloth was manufactured and how one got into and out of them.

Life was indeed, in this time perhaps more than many others, nasty brutish and short, but at least for them, human life was no ephemeral whisp of a thing. It was real and a man's life was remembered.

Today I can walk through the city of Rome, one of the least ephemeral whispy things we have left, and I look down the length of the Imperial Forum, or up at the Flavian Amphitheatre, or at the delicate Temple of Vesta, or stand in the shadow of the Colonnade of St. Peter's, or sit at Mass in front of the altar of the chair, and somehow it all seems to be fading away, as if it were all a watercolour of itself that has been left too long in a sunny window. The reality, the substance of the world has nearly drained away.

Gustavus Adolphus, Gustav the Great, King of Sweden, was a warrior king. One of the last of this species:

In the era, which was characterized by nearly endless warfare, he led his armies as King of Sweden—from 1611, as a seventeen year old, until his death in battle while leading a charge during 1632 in the bloody Thirty Years' war—as Sweden rose from the status as a mere regional power and run-of-the-mill kingdom to one of the great powers of Europe and a model of early modern era government.

He was also a married man and we have his wedding suit. It is magnificent, in pearly silk, pinked all over with little slices to show the lining. It must be in some museum now, I can't remember. I saw a photo of it once in the course of my obsession and remember the odd sense of dread I felt when I read that it is no longer displayed. It is too fragile and the museum conservators are taking pains to try to give it a few more years of life.

But a three hundred year-old silk suit, no matter the magnitude of renown of the person who once owned it, cannot hold out much longer. No matter what they do, it is going to disintegrate soon. And then there will be one less piece of the real man that wore it left in the world. One more hook by which we latter men remain attached to the real world of our ancestors will have let go.

Today I looked at one of the ancient monuments of Rome. A little arch, mostly unregarded, tucked away in a corner of the ghetto. It's columns are crumbling and are held up crudely with rusting iron braces. It won't last much longer either.

It just reminds me even as I look out the window at the great Dome of St. Peter's that all of this that remains is going to be gone some day. And somehow it seems, looking down a tunnel of centuries at these more real and substantial people, as if it is already half vanished.


Anonymous said...

Does it take a mensch to wear these clothes or do clothes make the man? I think a bit of both.

At a friend's behest, I hired a formal suit with tails for an occasion. The first time I put it on, I felt that, yes, I could go out and rule India.

But then you see yobbos wearing the same kinds of clothes at weddings etc, but still slouching around as though they're wearing jeans and t shirts.

BTW, re your query whether there are any men around now whose shoulders could hold up a coat like Henry VIII's. The answer is, of course, if they have the same padding that adorned Henry's shoulders.

Anonymous said...

I'll never forget the sight of a high school prom in a posh hotel I was staying in once in Chicago. The kids were dolled up to a degree that made me wince for their parents' visa cards, and they looked very fine. The spell was instantly broken, however, when I heard these angelic-looking girls talking to each other in the ladies room.


I think that companies that rent suits should provide copies of David Niven films to go with them to teach at least the boys how to sit, stand and behave when wearing them.

Anonymous said...

great idea!