Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The fall and rise of Mimi

I've been doing a lot of reading lately on Glasgow and particularly on notable women in Glasgow. It's fascinating stuff!

Many people are aware of the story of Madeleine Smith. I'd know about her since a school trip to the Black Museum in Glasgow's Pitt Street police office when I was at school, and from an old Ladykillers episode on TV. But I only knew the basic story of the 22 year old socialite from Blythswood Square who was tried for the murder of her lover in 1857.

She was the grandaughter of one of Glasgow's most notable architects, who was also much loved by his employees & peers. Her father, also an architect, was wealthy with a town house in Blythswood Square and a country home in Helensburgh. Yet this well brought up girl started an affair with apprentice nurseryman, Pierre Emile L'Angelier,  from the Channel Islands, an affair she tried to keep secret due to their differences in station. They met at her bedroom window, and although rarely alone she lost her virginity to him and carried on the relationship for two years. Meanwhile her parents, oblivious to the relationship found her a more appropriate suitor whom she became engaged to. When she tried to end things with Emile and asked for her many letters to be returned he threatened to use them to expose her and force her into marriage to him. A month later he died of arsenic poisoning. Her letters were found in his rooms connecting her to him, and to damn her further she'd been seen buying arsenic in the weeks preceding his death. She was arrested for muder,

The trial was a scandal. The detailed love letters to L'Angelier from his 'Mimi' were judged too shocking to be read out in full in court and her calm, cool demeanour remarked on. However public feeling was with her at the time, believing her wronged. The verdict was Not Proven as the evidence was circumstantial, they'd never been seen together for one thing. But did she do it? Soon after her lawyer said he'd rather dance with her than dine with her. But there have been various books released since researching the crime, some vindicating her.

After her release she moved down to London to get away from the notoriety and to spare her family who must have suffered terribly. She met and married George Wardle, with the blessing of her father who supplied a dowry and attended the wedding.

Now this was the part I didn't know. George Wardle was an artist, who became William Morris' business manager and was a friend of Phillip Webb who designed the famous Red House. Madeleine (now going by the name of Lena), as a skilled needlewoman, possibly herself worked with Jane Morris who was encouraged by her husband to gather a company of women to work on his embroidery designs. Her new social circle included the young Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and she entertained her bohemiam friends in her new home in Bloomsbury. It has been suggested she even modelled for Rossetti at some point as Mary Magdalene. No doubt her past gave her added character and interest that she would not otherwise have had.

Over time her marriage fell apart and she struggled by with the support of her husbands relatives until at the age of 70 she followed her son to America. When her husband died in Plymouth in 1910 she married a man several years her junior, whom she'd probably been living with prior to that. Despite occasional press interest she kept her past relatively quiet and Lena Wardle Sheehy died in New York in 1928 aged 93.

We'll never know whether or not she killed Emile, but in many ways she was a remarkable woman who was not constrained by the times she lived in. She carried on and lived a full and interesting life rather than disappearing into obscurity. It's hard to work out her character, she appears to have been rather selfish and manipulative but certainly self-possessed and strong enough to weather the publicity and notoriety. It seems her family had a harder time dealing with it. I find her rather fascinating, if not exactly likeable.

So what has this to do with corsets you ask.... well maybe nothing, but just wait and see!

An interesting article here:
And the author of a book on the subject has a site here:

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The umpteenth wedding dress post

As everyone else is blogging about the royal wedding, I thought I'd get my tuppenceworth in. I hadn't intended to get caught up in it but I found myself absorbed in the spectacle and more interested than I'd expected in seeing this lad we've seen grow up get married. Perhaps those of us old enough to remember the 1981 wedding when we were all a bit less cynical felt a bit of a link that transcended politics or anger, or even logic. Maybe we needed to right the balance after wasting so much excitement 30 years ago on something that turned out to be so empty.

But, this is a blog primarily about the clothes.

The Official Royal Wedding photographs

I thought the dress was perfect. Perfect for her, the occasion, the venue. A wedding dress is all context and all about the bride and a designer should be chosen to fit with what the bride wants. In that respect the house of Alexander McQueen with it's pedigree of the unconventional, might seem to be a curious choice for Kate Middleton, who has always demonstrated fairly conservative tastes. But it isn't really. Firstly it had to be a British design house, and it had to be a designer able to offer impact, structure, detail and quality of the highest degree. All things Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen could do in spadeloads. It also had to ideally be a design house with a respect and knowledge of heritage and tradition, again McQueen fits the brief.

The Service

So the results; was the dress groundbreaking? No. Was it high fashion with a capital H? Again, no. This was not the place for that, nor was it the bride for that. An in-your-face, divisive dress would've been totally inappropriate. It was however beautifully cut and crafted with layers of fabulous understated detail. It had structure and enough volume to dominate the space without being a puffball or dominating her. I think lots of people expected her to go for something sleek and modern, perhaps more like Pippa's maid of honour dress. But in the setting of Westminster she needed more visibility and scale so that was never going to happen. It also referenced the past beautifully, with nods to Grace Kelly's famous lace sleeved wedding dress and also Princess Margaret's and even the Queen's wedding dresses. A nice touch to link to the past, and most visibly to a another non-aristocratic and high profile bride such as Grace Kelly. Yet the cut of the skirt and train had that flash of McQueen brilliance (and of course lace is very current) All in all, the detailed handmade lace, the top quality fabrics, the exquisite cut and a design which perfectly suited the woman and allowed her to shine, enhanced by the subtlety of the designers vision rather than drowned in fashion ego - meant this was truly a couture bridal gown.

The Service

I also want to bang a regular drum of mine. I have read so many compliments on her posture and her tiny waist. Some people don't seem aware that the gown was corsetted.
To quote the official website: The ivory satin bodice, which is narrowed at the waist and padded at the hips, draws on the Victorian tradition of corsetry and is a hallmark of Alexander McQueen’s designs.
Now clearly the extremely slender Catherine does not require any reduction, however the lines of the dress worked so well because of the structure. So many women hanker after the gorgeous gowns from the golden age of Hollywood, drool over historic costume and lust after the New Look fashions of the 40s and early 50s. Yet, when they try to recreate the look it very often just doesn't quite work. That's because dresses today mostly lack the internal structure those dresses had, and nobody suggests a corset as an alernative. Or, if there is structure it's poor quality plastic boning that stabs and twists and results in the wearer, understandably, writing off everything boned as uncomfortable. If you want that firm shape and cinched waist, the perfectly hanging skirt and just the 'right' shape then a properly fitted corset is what you need. I shall get off that soapbox now... but I warn you, I'll be back on it.