It begins with a fashion mishap—with “a soprano in the wrong dress.” And the dress, well, it’s quite a dress, “a Worth creation of pink taffeta and gold silk,” with flounces and a fichu that “seemed to clasp me from behind as if alive.” So we know from page one that fashion—or rather, the concerted crafting of one’s appearance—is a key element in Alexander Chee’s new novel, The Queen of the Night, which John H. Maher wonderfully reviewed earlier this week. But even as we read further into Lilliet Berne’s many lives, the question remains: What le diable is a fichu?
Set in the crowded streets and opulent opera houses of 19th-century Paris, The Queen of the Night is—along with being a magnificent novel—an extravagant catalogue of gorgeous clothes. Along with that pink taffeta number, there’s a beaded black satin gown, an emerald-green riding costume, a jet silk velvet gown, and many other elaborately described garments. Chee clearly has a fine eye/imagination for outfits, which is why this novel is worthy of study not only for its many lessons regarding life and art and so forth, but for its fashion advice! Thusly:
6 Fashion Takeaways from The Queen of the Night
#1. How to deal with an irksome garment
Take a sabre to it!
At the Sénat Bal, after realizing she’s wearing an awful dress, Lilliet finds the two brother dukes who have a fetish for slicing up dresses and then takes one of their sabers and “plunge[s] it into the taffeta flounces and cut[s] all the way to the hem.”
Afterward, once “the taffeta resembled an enormous flower torn to petals in the grass,” she sends it back to the tailor who made it for her. That’s a bold move, queen.
Die, irksome garment, die!
#2. Outfit changes are outstanding
This is the single biggest takeaway.
If you wear the same outfit all day, well, turns out you’re drab, lame.
So how to not be so pedestrian? Change your outfit at least three to four times per day and make sure to dress precisely for the situation. White tulle is ideal for afternoon tea, for instance.
Of course, you could be like the tenor who wears “evening dress at all hours of the day.” But really, that’s BORING! Instead be like Lilliet or the Empress and change as frequently as occasion and your wardrobe allow.
#3. Actually, you can still be hip in the hinterlands
Most of the fashion in The Queen of the Night concerns gowns and brooches and such regal things. But still, coming from Minnesota, Lilliet is able to rock some of that American frontier fashion. With her “dun-colored day dress,” “skirt full of crinolines,” and “raccoon coat,” she’s quite a sight as the Settler’s Daughter in the Cajun Maidens circus. The takeaway, then, is no matter where you live or hail from, you can always look fabulous. When all else fails, just call it circus chic!
#4. If you have to wear hand-me-downs, wear the Empress’s
Why shop at thrift stores when you could be a grisette in the palace?
The Empress Eugénie cannot wear the same dress twice, of course, which means occasionally she’ll pass along one of her old outfits to her hand-maiden-servant girls. While this isn’t the best job in the world, it definitely has its perks—including being gifted a “rose-petal pink and white” gown with a black lace collar that is “unearthly in its beauty.”
#5. Everyone needs a signature piece of jewelry—and cancan shoes!
From my understanding, the cancan is like the 19th century version of the twist. And you need special shoes to do it.
Also, you need your own signature piece of jewelry, which you can either wear proudly or keep concealed as some sort of symbolic talisman.
These are musts.
#6. And always remember: fashion determines fate’s arrival
“The fit of a dress,” we’re told early on, “determines the stride of a woman—whether she can bend at the waist, sit, or ride—and so for a woman to change her dress was to change even the way she walked and the speed at which she ran to her fate.”
It is worthwhile to keep in mind, however, that when pursuing your fate (or when your fate is pursuing you), it’s a good idea to dress comfortably if you can. Though no matter what you’re wearing, whether it be sweat pants and running shoes or a grand gown that’s got more layers than a wedding cake, you and your fate will always meet. It’s like an inescapable, possibly doomed, romantic date.
The featured image and final image are by Pierre-Louise Pierson.
The picture of Empress Eugénie is her official portrait.
Entropy Fashion Week Line-up
- Monday: “LIT SCENE FASHION REVIEW”
- Tuesday: “From The Franzen to the Litbro: What Outsider Artists Can Teach Male Writers About Fashion”
- Wednesday: “Best Accessories of the 19th Century (Or Fashion Tips from Chekhov and Austen)”
- Thursday: “Fashion Week Special Edition: An Outfit For …”
- Friday: “The Many Fashions of The Queen of the Night“