I’ve been inspired by the recent coverage of the fall 2017 collections during New York and Paris fashion weeks to think about the many ways fashion is deployed as a critique of women’s vanity. Here are a couple of brilliant prints I came across recently that are great to consider together. First, we have “The Inconvenience of Dress” (1786), which mocks the late-1780s demand for “false rumps” or “cork bums” to fill out the rear portion of women’s skirts. The poor dear needs help from a false rump because she can’t get consume enough calories to build her own, given the fashion for generous neckerchiefs in women’s wear in this period, too. Aye, but “Who’ll not starve to lead the Fashion?” as the ditty below asks:
Next, when the waist rises and the skirts narrow considerably with the advent of the neoclassical (or empire) style, we get this rather tacky and cruel caricature, “Following the Fashion” (1794), in which we see “Cheapside aping the mode” of “St. James giving the TON,” (that is, the “bon-ton” or fashionable look, but also probably a pun referring to the fat lady on the right). Whether the female form is sylph-like or monstrous, the clothing is portrayed as utterly swallowing up the women.
Finally, after another decade, the sheer, high-waisted neoclassical gown had taken such hold in the fashion world that even older (and thus obviously ridiculous) women insisted on wearing the style, in spite of the obvious disadvantages of these gowns in a damp and chilly climate.
Here we have “A Hint to the Ladies, or, A Visit from Dr. Flannel” (1807), in which a servant in an outmoded eighteenth-century style wig and a greatcoat and breeches says “Mrs. Jenny said your Ladyship complain’d of being cold about the loins –so I have just slept (slipt) in with a warm flannel petticoat,” another outmoded fashion from the eighteenth century. The fashionable lady protests, “I have no loins fellow! Do you want to make a monster of me?!!,” which mocks the obviously sheer and more body-conscious fit of the neoclassical style. This is also emphasized by her parted legs and the resulting outline of her thighs, which had been effectively hidden from view for hundreds of years under fuller skirts (and quilted petticoats like the one she’s being offered.)
All in all, it’s a timeless message for women of whatever age or body type: we’re doing it all wrong, no matter what! Too much fabric and clothing is ridiculous, but so is going about in sheer, high-waisted gowns with much narrower skirts, especially if you’re fat or old. In fact if you’re fat or old, daring to appear in public at all is an offense to taste and discretion, no matter what you’re wearing.