“It is especially laughable, when some dress as parrots and amuse themselves with many colors: the coat black, the vest blue, the pants red, the tights yellow, the wig white, the eyes brown/black, and other similar tasteless fantasies. Such people are immediately seen as not having everything right under the hat, as if they are hare-brained.” – Louis Bonin, Die neueste Art zur galantine ind theatralischen Tantz-Kunst, 111.
The comic opera Pimpinone, presenting a doomed relationship between an old bourgeois and a young servant, was first performed in Germany in 1725. Because there are only two characters, the personalities could have been very one-dimensional and opposite, which would have encouraged a binary visual in the costumes. Instead, Telemann offers us two interesting characters to work with and develop through the costumes.
Indeed, the ever-increasing social status of Vespetta is pivotal to the opera. As the story starts, she is looking for a job when she meets Pimpinone. Inspired by several genre paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Vespetta’s first look is very simple, dark, and dull: an earth colored skirt worn over an ordinary petticoat, a plain shirt, a wide utilitarian apron, and a sober little black cape.
Pimpinone is quite stylishly clumsy and understated for a man of his wealth. However, in men’s fashion between the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, the progression of taste was slow compared to women’s fashion, and Vespetta may not have immediately noticed the haphazardness in Pimpinone’s outfit. Her attention must have certainly stopped at the little signs of richness disseminated awkwardly throughout his mismatching costume: the accumulation of gold and silver buttons on his coat and waistcoat, the delicate lace of his shirt, the feathers on his too small hat or the big bows on his shoes. Nobody informed poor Pimpinone the trend was now for a buckle on the shoes, that narrower knee breeches were in, and superfluous ornamentation was out! The simple lines of his coat are nothing except a lost reminder of his youth (in another century!) while it was more appropriate, in the 1720s, to have a fitted coat with the sides arranged in elegant pleats.
As Pimpinone is not aware of his own lack of fashion, and despite his ambition to fawn on Vespetta, he is still faithful to his particular sense of misinformed taste in the second intermezzo. On the contrary, after being employed by her old and rich master, Vespetta’s outfit in Intermezzo II shows more seductive aspects: the brown tones of her first costume turn into an eye-catching cinnamon laced jacket, bordered by the ruffles of her shirt. A lace edged fichu covers her cleavage, and the hoops under her petticoat and skirt are now highlighting her feminine shape. More than useful working articles of clothing, her new apron and maid cap are rather decorative symbols of domesticity, indicating her servitude toward Pimpinone.
Intermezzo III marks the great reversal of the situation between maid and master, a beloved topic in 18th century comedy. This dramatic change is visually accentuated by Pimpinone’s costume decline, from his toes peeking through the stockings to his disheveled wig, and by a great step forward in Vespetta’s costume evolution in terms of colors and volume. Her extravagance, brought on by her sudden access to wealth, makes her look like an accumulation of fashion faux pas. Bright colors, stripes, plaid, and flowers are all blended together, while the style of her costume is a mix of the old-fashioned mantua dress and the rising trend for wide hoops. All of these fancies are oddly combined with a skirt that is much too short, a reminder of her poor but convenient working outfit. The most laughable and ironic aspect is perhaps her superficial taste for the simple life as dictated by the upper classes: a delicate apron is hanging at her waist and a birdhouse has found a clunky place on her hat!