Mediaeval dresses fell puritanically from neck to floor. Silver armour gleamed in the soft sunlight. A leather cloak, an embroidered bodice and a dress with floating Guinevere sleeves all evoked a distant era of knights and troubadours.
This was Game of Thrones, right? There was actor Gwendoline Christie, big and bold, with two other powerful women: Michele Clapton, who is one of the costume designers for the HBO television series that has won Emmy awards for its dramatic filming and engagement with the public; and Gemma Jackson, who has created sets on such a heroic scale, from the Iron Throne itself to backdrops of Doune Castle in Scotland and the Mourne Mountains in rugged Northern Ireland, while Belfast’s fish shops provided piles of empty mussel shells to give a wild edge to the costume decoration.
All three women were part of a powerful team brought together by Sarah Mower, fashion critic at American Vogue. She convened the Game of Thrones trio for a cultural discussion at the Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall, on Britain’s southwestern coast. With a programme that includes literary events, as well as music, craft and art sessions for adults and children, this three-day festival hosted by Earl and Lady St Germans draws a wide cross-section of visitors – including a flock of fashionistas.
The grey stone castle of Port Eliot dates back to the Dark Ages and was originally a monastery. Brooding over the green lawns, the ancient building and its grand but threadbare interior were a picture-perfect setting for this discussion about a mediaeval revival.
The fashion show — modelled by local young women and members of the audience — was fascinating because the clothes were either expressing a current revival, maybe inspired by Game of Thrones, or were from the 1970s, when the Mediaeval period last came back in fashion.
In a feisty conversation, Sarah Mower and Alexander Fury, Fashion Editor of The Independent newspaper, discussed medievalism as a recurring concept. Queen Victoria held a mediaeval costume ball at Buckingham Palace in 1842; then came the Pre-Raphaelite painters, fascinated by the beauty of mediaeval art and architecture; and the Arts and Crafts Movement, which pitted its followers against the culture of the Industrial Revolution. The latter struggle was worked again in the 1960s with the rediscovery of Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings and the greenery-yallery of the Aesthetic Movement, which the fashion world interpreted through long-sleeved dresses and Liberty floral prints.
Sarah Mower did a great job in bringing everything together in the accompanying fashion show that she curated, with pieces by designers such as Giles Deacon and the Valentino duo, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, who have taken mediaeval innocence as inspiration, although in a far less fierce spirit than is found in Game of Thrones.
I had almost forgotten the silvered armour effects sent out by Dolce & Gabbana in 2014 and I had not even realised that the pattern on the bodice of a Mary Katrantzou dress was mediaeval when I first saw it. But I did recognise the flowing chiffon sleeves on a dress by designer and collector Thea Porter from the 1970s.
Fury described these mediaeval moments as “approaching simultaneously a cultural moment in time”, while Mower saw an anti-industry movement as “the idea of creating something new from the fragments of the past”.
The British, in particular, are embedded in the past. And even if the raw, bloody story of Game of Thrones, based on Britain’s War of the Roses, expresses the violence of the current global scenario, there was a charm to this fashion show of mediaeval innocence contained in a walled garden of flowers.