Friday, October 13, 2023

Elegant Arms and Engageantes...

In the Georgian exhibition in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace, I loved looking at the sumptious silks, satins and taffetas on display, either on the actual garments on show or portrayed in the paintings representing the period.
The silk industry was lead by the French city of Lyon, however the silk-weaving district of Spitalfields, London held its own too, producing increasingly rich, detailed fabrics that were coveted more than the finished items of clothing they were used for. The floral and botanic details on the gown worn by the duchess above were woven onto a background of silver threads and the lustre of the silk flowers is complemented by the metallic glint, all of which is captured in the painting.
Sometimes the mastery of the artist in portraying the unique sheen and silken aspects of the clothing seems to surpass the skill of lifelike portraiture, the exception to that being animal studies with their incredible rendition of fur not to mention those expressive eyes!
Lace, flounces, frills and here, ermine trimmings, all seem to have appealed to the artist as a means to demonstrate his great talent as much as to the largely affluent individuals - male and female - who sought to show off their vast wealth and status through such richly decorated garments. You almost want to touch the surface of the painting, so realistic are the textures - look at this gentleman's incredible velvet jacket!
Along with silk, lace was extremely costly since its production was unbelievably long and arduous, demanding great skill. You can sense the pride such lavish, frothy lace details must have inspired in the garment-wearer and their portraitist. And just look at the elegance of the hands with their delicate, expressive fingers, with or without jewellery to highlight their grace.
Beautifully poised fingers and gently intertwined hands are framed by folds and flounces of lace and the purity of skin, untainted by sunlight or indeed a day's work, is highlighted by pearls.
To emphasise the elegance of slender wrists and dainty hands - on both ladies and gentlemen it should be said - there was widespread use of engageantes throughout most of the 18th century. These generally took the form of extended decorative flounces of lace or (another fabric) that were worn underneath existing sleeves of either a dress or bodice if not a man's coat.
The word engageante derives from an old French adjective engageant, meaning 'attractive' or 'seductive'. Certainly, these delicate layers of ruffled lace or linen offset the beauty of the rich material of the main garment in a glorious manner.
These were not false sleeves as such, nor were they loose cuffs or indeed part of any lighter undergarment. They were independant articles used to enhance and embellish outfits already richly decorated with bows, ribbons and embroidery, from the reign of Louis XIV onwards.
Engageantes could be sewn or tied onto the underside of garment sleeves that generally reached elbow-level. They could be removed at will, in order to be cleaned or otherwise exchanged for other styles, in other materials, thus enabling the wearer greater possibilities to adapt clothing to circumstances.
In this manner, elaborate, highly decorative engageantes could give way to plainer, more practical versions for daily routines. Whilst the more ostentatious ones could have up to five layers of ornate lace, the simpler variety were far less voluminous.
Generally speaking, they were longer behind the elbow than in the crook of the arm and thus could hang in a fluid manner.
Gradually, engageantes assumed more modest proportions in accordance with changes in fashion and fell out of use towards the end of the century due to the rise in Neoclassicism with its purity of lines which made excessive detail and decoration redundant.


  1. Fascinating post, I have seen Buckingham Palace, but had no idea that there was a gallery. Thanks!

  2. Thank you! Yes, it was a beautiful visit all round and being in such a famous setting gave it a certain added charm.


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