Those close to power have sometimes been luminaries in the world of fashion too. Meghan Markle’s new it-bag is the latest in a long line of must-have fashion accessories first worn by the rich and famous, says Robert Hume.
The bordeaux leather bag – all £495 of it – with its peacock-blue fold and vanilla straps – sported by Prince Harry’s fiancée two Fridays ago in Nottingham, sold out within eleven minutes on the manufacturer’s website.
Of course, it’’s not the first bag to become a fashion icon. There’s been the (Grace) “Kelly” bag, the “Jackie” (Kennedy Onassis) Gucci bag, and, more recently, the “Pippa” (Middleton) bag.
For hundreds of years, those in or close to power have been setting the fashion industry alight:
Queen Cleopatra 1st century BC – the eyeliner
The ancient Egyptian beauty used bright green paste on her lower eyelids, and deep blue eye shadow with gold-coloured flecks of lapis lazuli stone on her upper eyelids.
She darkened her eyebrows and lengthened her eyelashes with black kohl – a mixture of powdered lead sulfide and animal fat.
But in Cleopatra’s case eyeliner was applied less for cosmetic reasons than for practical ones. Dark pigment around the eye helped protect it from the midday sun glaring off the desert sands, and reduced the risk of eye infections. After the decline of Ancient Egypt eyeliners fell out of fashion in Europe until 1922, when Tutankhamun’s tomb was excavated. Worldwide coverage of this event reintroduced the Egyptian eyeliner into Europe. More recently, Punk, Goth and Emo cultures have used eyeliner, eye shadow and mascara to dramatic effect.
King Louis XIV – the wig
In 1655, when he was only 17, the hair of France’s ‘Sun King’ started thinning. Worried that baldness might ruin his reputation, he brought four dozen wigmakers to his court at Versailles.
The wigs were made of horse, goat, or human hair, and coated with lavender or orange powder to hide any unpleasant odours.
Five years later, his English cousin, Charles II, whose hair had started to turn grey, also had a wig made.
Aristocrats in both countries began emulating their kings.
As France was the centre of fashion at that time, the fad of wig wearing soon spread from Paris to the upper middle classes across Europe, and became a way for flaunting their wealth.
Those who could afford the more elaborate creations were called “big wigs”.
Queen Marie Antoinette made huge hair all the rage.
The French queen wore a lofty hair-do called a “pouf” which took hours to assemble. When she was seen wearing it at the coronation of her husband Louis XVI in 1775, it triggered a wave of young French noblewomen to wear their hair in exactly the same way.
Their maids would create the pouf by using a very thin metal frame and a base made from a cushion or a piece of cork.
They would intertwine a mixture of their lady’s natural hair with some false hair, curl it with heated clay curlers, and coat the hair with white or grey powder, before lavishly decorating it with ships, animals, pearls, and ostrich feathers.
The higher one’s pouf was, the more fashionable one was.
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-64) made a break with the traditional white kurta and wore instead a longer, hip-length, collarless coat.
Nicknamed “Nehru jackets”, the coats were famously adopted in the 1960s by the Beatles who travelled to India to study meditation techniques.
Several James Bond film villains, including Dr No, wore a Nehru jacket, and singer Sammy Davis Jr. was reported to own two hundred of them.
At one time they were thought of as the latest thing in formal menswear and a possible replacement for the tuxedo but the original craze was shortlived.
In the late 1990s the Nehru jacket briefly reappeared in fashion magazines as a desirable garment for women as well as men. U.S. president Bill Clinton was seen wearing one in 2001.
First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis did not stop at bags. She also helped make super-size shades fashionable, and acceptable to wear even on cloudy days. She said that she liked the opportunity they gave her to watch people.
The large lenses arose not from aesthetic reasons but out of necessity because she had wide set eyes.
Onassis ordered a whole collection of them, and would keep them in a large bowl by her front door. Each pair was engraved with her favourite Greek key design, and set her back about $1,000.
American department stores also started recreating her sleek, classy dresses and pillbox hats for millions of women hoping to achieve the “Jackie look.”
Getting shirty with Nelson
Formal, grey three-piece suits and dull ties were never Nelson Mandela’s thing.
After his inauguration as President of South Africa in 1994, he cast them aside in favour of brightly patterned shirts. So did his fans.
Hundreds of different versions of his flamboyant ‘madiba’ were manufactured, patterned with anything from fish to flowers. For his 1996 visit to the UK and audience with the Queen, he spurned an Armani suit and wore one of his favourite shirts instead.
Many people found it a breath of fresh air. The BBC said he “paved the way for a fashion revolution” in the South African parliament. Style magazine wrote: “He’s given us a whole new look.”
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