Women and fashion: can’t win for losing, turn of the 19th century-style

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.

5 thoughts on “Women and fashion: can’t win for losing, turn of the 19th century-style

  1. I wondered about the word, too, in the Dr. Flannel caption. I think it might be “step’t in,” without the requisite apostrophe, but that’s just a guess. The winter of 1794-1795 was one of the brutally coldest and hungriest in Northern Europe in the 18th century. Dr. Flannel would have gotten a much warmer reception for crashing the drawing room in the second panel. The harvest had failed, and there were massive episodes of food rioting all over Britain, and in France as well. Geo III’s carriage was stoned by the mob when he arrived at Parliament to give an address, and there were shots heard in the area. White flour was prohibited as an ingredient in hair powder. The specific political contextualization of these three prints, and others, vis a vis the Age of Revolutions, would be fascinating.

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    • Thanks, Indyanna–I accept your reading of “stept” instead of “slept/slipt.” I had thought that perhaps the cartoonist was punning on the word “slip,” as in the OED’s definition “the edge, skirt, or flap of a robe or garment. Obs. rare.,” but your read fits with the paleography of the caption better.

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      • The Wikipedia entry for T.[homas] Tegg, 111 Cheapside, the “publisher” of the third print, is interesting also. And the dog. I couldn’t but be reminded of that guy who veered onto the blog years ago to pose questions about pissing dogs in Revolutionary-era satiric iconography. There’s one for the Funeral procession of Miss Ameri-Stamp, and the one ridiculing the Edenton Tea Party could well fit in with these ones sartor-igraphically. I use them in classes a lot. Paul Revere did one for the Boston Massacre, in which the requisite dog seems to be eyeing a Redcoat boot greedily. I wonder what became of that project?

        Beginning to blizzard here in the east. And to all a good night!

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  2. We will achieve full liberation once men are subject to the same level of scrutiny and ridicule as women.

    For example, my male students insist on wearing basketball shorts to class anytime the thermometer edges above freezing. It looks ridiculous on all of them, even the handful that are actually on the basketball team. The truth is, they could not be bothered to change out of their pajamas.

    I am an almost equally bad example. I wear jeans and button down shirts to work, even though I am a middle aged man who would look much better in a suit. (The shirt blouses out in the wrong places and the pants slide off my waist, I am as laughable as the caricatures above). Unfortunately, a decent suit with an appropriate cut costs real money. The only affordable options for male clothing are designed for boys between the ages of 16 and 20. So I am a rooster dressing as a spring chicken.

    The basic social fact of American male slovenliness needs to be satirized.

    I like Indyanna’s idea, maybe this could be a class?

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  3. Pingback: Friday links that have nothing to do with health care | The Daily Context

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