From the streets of London to the royal palace, hers was the story of rags to riches.
"Nell Gwyn" by Peter Lely, 1675
Nell Gwyn started her career as an orange girl at London’s King’s Theater during the Restoration period of the mid to late 1600s. As she wound her way through the crowds and enticed audience members to indulge in a sweet orange, Nell learned to use her wit and charm to win over the theatre-goers. It wasn’t long before she found herself on the stage and was gaining fans as an actress. Soon to join her fan base was none other than the King of England.
"Charles II and Nell Gwyn" by Edward Matthew Ward, 1854
Charles II was quite the ladies man, but even with other lovely courtiers doting on him, he couldn’t keep his eyes…or his heart away from Nell. Her down to earth demeanor, humor and beauty were enough to charm King Charles and keep him captivated for nearly 20 years until his death.
"Charles II and Nell Gwyn" by Roland Holyoake, 1900
I couldn’t help but get drawn into the Cinderella story of Nell as I read “The Perfect Royal Mistress” by Diane Haeger. After recently finishing the book, I found myself looking for touches of Nell's world in modern fashion.
The Restoration period brought with it an emphasis on the shoulders with broad, open necklines. Using a corset and dropped waist, the torso was elongated before it blossomed into a full skirt as seen in the painting below of Beata Elisabet von Konigsmarck.
The broad necklines on the Erdem spring runway had me imagining Nell in the halls of St. James's Palace wearing one of these dresses.
The close cut through waist and extended lines resemble the corseted dropped waists of the Restoration.
Ruffles, bows and brocades are reminiscent of the lavish detailing and fabrics seen on high class ladies like Princess Mary Henrietta Stuart, daughter of King Charles I, shown in the portrait below.
"Maria Stuart Widow of Willem II" by Bartholomeus van der Heist, 1652
Underneath the heavy gowns, the flowing dresses from Erdem are a bit like the chemises ladies would have worn as a slip of sorts.
Or the Erdem gowns may have been the perfect option for a portrait since ladies of the period were fond of getting painted in what appeared to be a state of undress. The women were painted with soft fabrics, disheveled hair and clothing delicately falling off the body.
"Nell Gwyn" by Peter Lely, 17th c.
The layers of fabrics and glimpses of skin suggest the sensuality of the woman. Not merely a portrait of beauty or femininity, this trend underscored the power women could hold in the role of mistress. To be a mistress of a man like King Charles II, as was the case for Nell, meant power and opportunity beyond what her class or circumstances would have otherwise permitted.
"Nell Gwyn" by Simon Verelst, 1680
So what can we learn from “pretty, witty Nell?” Not to go hunting for a king of our own, but rather the power of humor. No matter the circumstances, her wit and fondness for inspiring laughter kept Nell afloat whether walking through the streets of London or the palace halls.
Runway Photos: Vogue.com