◼ THE DIARY OF SAMUEL PEPYS might have been written for radio. Today’s eye-witness drama on BBC Radio 4 had plain Mr Pepys reliving the Great Fire of London which destroyed 75% of the City in September 1666, while confirming the essence of a great diary: that the events pictured and people’s voices are so vivid you needn’t think twice about believing them – even the apparent sincerity of the dandiest of all English kings, Charles II, rolling up his sleeves and “pulling together” among the citizen fire fighters in the street.
His humble employee, the civil servant Mr Pepys, was careful not to remind readers that His Maj was obliged to give his royal permission first before property-owners’ homes could be torn down to halt the march of the flames (the common practice in those days), a nuance which resulted in the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, emerging as the dithering fall guy in the history books. After all, the fire did start in the shop of the king’s own baker, Thomas Farynor, in Pudding Lane.
A more amusing footnote to history was revealed by today’s drama and this was the king’s perfectly serious response once the fire had been defeated. On October 8 Mr Pepys wrote in his diary: “The king hath yesterday in Council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, after so much is lost. It will be a vest, and it is to teach the nobility thrift, and will do good.”
A week later, Mr Pepys reports: “The king begins to put on his vest, and I did see several persons of the House of Lords and Commons too, great courtiers, who are in it; being a long cassocke close to the body, of black cloth, and pinked with white silke under it, and a coat over it, and the legs ruffled with black riband like a pigeon’s leg; it is a very fine and handsome garment. It is a fashion, the king says; he will never change.”
Within a month news came to the English court that Louis XIV, the king of France, had put all his footmen and servants in this same dress as a livery. “Vests were put on at first by the King to make Englishmen look unlike Frenchmen; but at the first laughing at it, all ran back to the dress of French gentlemen.” All of which made Pepys “mightie merry, it being an ingenious kind of affront”, adding for appearance’s sake, “and yet makes me angry”.
Of course Charles changed his dress many times after his solemn assumption of a lifelong garment. The 17th century was a restless, trying time in men’s dress. “They had lost the doublet, and had not found the skirted coat, and stood ready to take a covering from any nation of the earth,” wrote the costume historian Alice Morse Earle.
The famous vest is said to be represented in a portrait of Lord Arlington, by Sir Peter Lely, but it’s hard to find much resemblance to Pepys’ description, or indeed any other contemporary portraits to capture this contribution to royal fashion. What we do find however is a 19th-century painting by Edward Matthew Ward, of Charles courting his mistress Nell Gwyn in an unusually all-black ensemble, a very sober expression of Charles’ innate flamboyance as the leader of fashion in his Restoration court. Can this be the black memorial vest?
The timing of Ward’s painting is right. As an actress – a profession the king had legalised for women – Nell was very much in favour with the Merry Monarch before and after the Great Fire, and gave birth to two sons by the king in 1670 and 1671 (among at least twelve illegitimate children that he acknowledged by various mistresses).
Compared with the king’s usual love of ornament, Ward’s rare depiction of simplicity in black may indeed be the monarch’s gesture of sympathy toward the losses inflicted by the Great Fire. Pepys reports that the cost in lost rent from the houses burnt was £600,000 per year, which would represent at least £115 million in today’s money.