Thursday, August 30, 2012
Jeudi: The Art of Beauty
According to R. Turner Wilcox, whose epic and beautiful volume The Mode in Costume has become a standard by which other such books are measured, European muffs probably became fashionable in the city-states of Renaissance Italy. They were first popular in port cities like Genoa, Naples and in particular Venice. These muffs were flat and square, allowing room for only one hand at a time. They were made of brocade, silk, and in the colder months velvet. Along with flag-shaped fans on long handles and embroidered handkerchiefs, these early muffs were the very cutting edge of fashion unseen anywhere during the Medieval period.
The location of the birth of this new fad may give some indication of its origin. Or it may not. When Marco Polo visited China in the 13th century, he mentioned court ladies concealing their hands in what he called rolls. These were made of shimmering silk and lined with what was probably one of the softest materials available to these wealthy ladies: lynx fur. For those of you who have not felt the pelt of a lynx, allow me to assure you that you will rarely feel anything so delightfully soft.
The curious issue here is the time lag. It seems that the ladies of Venice did not adopt their version of the muff until the late 15th century, which leaves well over a century blank if indeed the trend migrated from China upon the great explorer's return to Italy. Perhaps the accessory was so rare as to be overlooked until it caught on. Or perhaps both cultures developed the muff as an alternative to long sleeves which covered the hands. The issue is certainly open to speculation.
By the reign Charles IX the fashion had migrated to France. Muffs were still small but by now they could fit two hands and were made of various types of fur. These furs were often dyed brilliant colors and the mania for colorful muffs had gone so far by the reign of Henri III that a royal decree banned all colors of fur muff aside from black for the middle class. Only court ladies could venture out with brilliant blue or scarlet red warmers for their hands.
Muffs became popular in England, particularly during the brief era of Charles I when they grew in size to accommodate the arms up to the elbows. Even Cromwellian ladies - if not staunch Puritans - carried such muffs, often made of beaver. More sumptuous furs returned with Charles II although, as an aside, it was this Charles who banned the making of any fur hats other than beaver. This was probably a bid to improve the cash flow in his colonies in North America, where trapping was as much a part of the economy as rum and slaves.
A curiously English spin on the muff, known as muffetees, appeared during the Restoration. These were something like mittens, worn one on each hand, and were for men exclusively. By 1663, this fad - perhaps mercifully - passed and men, like their ladies, returned to larger muffs often hung from a ribbon tied around the waist.
Muffs made of silk, satin or brocade and trimmed and lined with fur became the rage at the court of Louis XIV. This fad continued into the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI with only the size of the muff varying according to the current mode. Marie-Antoinette was at first stubbornly fond of the small, fur-puff muffs she had known in her childhood, but when she appeared one evening in the gardens of Versailles carrying an over-sized fox fur muff, the mania for gigantic muffs began in earnest.
Madame Mole Raymond's muff in the painting above gives an idea of the more scaled down, Directoire version of the "big" muff. In England, however, the rage for large muffs carried by both men and women continued into Jane Austen's time. It was only toward the end of the Romantic era, as English society began its slow slide toward the Victorian era, that muffs once again began to shrink. By the 1840s they were as dainty as the hands of the idealized "angel in the home."
Muffs continued as a fashion accessory into the 20th century. They saw a brief revival during the gay '90s when unusual materials like feathers would be used for their construction. Larger muffs again became popular before World War I but that may have been their last hurrah. From the 1950s the occasional designer has shown muffs on runway models but in our modern age of smart phones and tablets free hands - even at a freezing bus stop - are a priority.
Like the fan, I wouldn't mind a revival of the muff. There's a lot to be said, after all, for keeping one's hands to one's self.
Header: Madame Mole Raymond by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun c 1797 via Art History Archive