Because so much of the activity surrounding the Congress was, let's say, extra-ministerial (the countless balls, dinners, hunting parties, and wild love affairs) it's no surprise that some of the most fun material in Zamoyski's Rites of Peace involve fashion--and, in particular, cattiness about fashion.
The British come in for the worst of it, which is understandable: because of Napoleon, they had been cut off from the continent--and thus from changes in fashion--for nearly twenty years. And the Europeans were cutting them no slack. Metternich, after writing to his wife that "It is raining Englishmen," told her that the ladies' dress appalled him. "You have to see it to believe it," he wrote, while Jean-Gabriel Reynard jotted in his diary that
Their separation from the Continent over twenty years has turned them into savages.The ladies come in for the worst of it:
A somewhat unkempt if dashing, short-skirted look appeared to prevail, even amongst the older women. Schwarzenberg was astonished by Lady Castlereagh's dress sense. "She is very fat and dresses so young, so tight, so naked," he wrote.Elsewhere, Lady Castlereagh is merely one victim in a broadside aimed at all the English ladies:
"Lady Castlreagh," Roksandra Sturdza wrote, "also amused the crowd by her colossal figure, which was rendered even more extraordinary and more gigantic by her dress; she wore ostrich feathers of every colour of the rainbow." According to Nostitz she "was always dressed up in ridiculously theatrical ways, colossal and graceless, plump and talkative, the joke of society." In this she was no different from the many other English women in Vienna. "The English women stand out by their ridiculous costumes," recorded Baroness du Montet, who complained of "the extreme indecency of their dress; their dresses, or rather sheaths, are so tight that their every shape is exactly drawn while they are open in front down to the stomach." Eynard was greatly amused by one English aristocrat who "came into the room in a dress tightly pulled in over her bottom which went down no more than a couple of fingers below the knee," adding that "this wealthy noblewoman looked like a tightrope walker, or even like one of the ladies of the Palais-Royal."Lord Castlereagh himself seems to have been no more up on current fashion than his wife:
His appearance at Bale caused something of a sensation. He was kitted out in a curious blue tailcoat covered in braid of a kind not seen on the Continent since the 1780s, a pair of bright scarlet breeches, and "jockey boots." One of his attendants was decked out in what looked like a hussar uniform, and "appeared to have put his shirt on over his coat." . . . Humboldt wrote to his wife the following day, greatly amused by the contrast between the Austrian, Prussian and Russian diplomats, all uniformed, booted, and dripping with decorations, and Castlereagh, who in his gold-braided blue coat, red waistcoat and breeches and white silk stockings, "resembled nothing so much as a footman."And all this at the same time as Beau Brummell was revolutionizing men's fashion back in England! There's really no excuse, your Lordship!
That's not, however, to say that all was well with the Europeans: even the English could enjoy looking down on Tsar Alexander, who
was far less socially experienced than most of those with whom he was mixing, as it was the first time he had spent much time in society. According to one lady he understood neither hyperbole nor irony, which resulted in misunderstandings and occasional offence. . . . He mostly dressed in the uniform of Colonel of one of the Russian Guard regiments, which no longer suited him, as he had grown a little plump over the past year, and the tight coat made his arms hang in front of his body like an ape's, while the skin-tight breeches stressed the outline of his fattening bottom. Yet he continued to affect the dash of a young buck His envy was aroused when Frederick William appeared at one ball in a hussar's uniform, and he decided that he must have one too. "I found him today trying on eight or nine pairs of hussar's breeches, and inconsolable to find them all too tight or too short," reported Anstett, adding that a courier was sent off to St Petersburg to fetch his aide-de-camp General Ozarowski's hussar uniform for the Tsar to try.It's important to remember that this was a man who took himself and his role in the world so seriously that he soon took to leaving an empty place at the dinner table each night for Jesus.
Though kings and conquerors may come and go, the rule of the Fashion Police never falters, and as both men and women have come under their eternally withering fire in this post, I'll close with an account of a contest between the sexes, one of the many time-killing pastimes invented at the Congress that in themselves are enough to render the whole enterprise absurd to modern eyes:
On 15 February, at Countess Zichy's, Alexander and Countess Wrbna-Kagenek got into an argument about whether men or women took longer to dress, and decided to test the issue. Bets were laid as each retired to a nearby room with a witness and undressed, and when time was called they both dressed again and reappeared.The Countess won. Ridiculous as it is, you did want to know, didn't you?