Representations of Fashion in 1785

The discourses on fashion in the Lady’s Magazine (1770-1832) are, as we have seen, complex and multifaceted. While I have discussed some of the ways fashion appears in the magazine previously, in today’s post I would like to draw attention to the representation of fashion in three distinct genres: the serial novel, the opinion piece, and the advice column.

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Fashion is merely one subject among hundreds that could be used to demonstrate this point, but it is a subject of perpetual fascination to me because of how discussions of it are consistently bound of with debates on morality, modernity, gender and sexuality.

The anonymously authored serial novel The Dangers of Dissipation (1783-85) features a first-person narrator, Maria Wilding, who is a pleasure-seeking young lady whose tendency towards

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But in spite of Maria’s dangerous desire to be admired, when she almost loses her husband’s regard entirely after he finds her in a compromising (though not guilty) position, she realizes that it is his love and esteem that are most important. Her husband pretends to flirt with another woman to make her jealous, and it is around a cap that this plot point and the novel culminate. Maria is assisting Miss Gataker at her toilet one day before they go out when her husband enters with ‘a new-fashioned hat [. . .] trimmed with lace and ribbon, in a very elegant taste, and presented it to Miss Gataker, desiring her leave to put

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In the same issue, the Matron’s advice column [link] features an anecdote revolving around her cousin, Miss Partlett. Miss Partlett consistently dresses too young for her age, and Mrs. Grey just as frequently attempts to advise her against her fashion selections. In this column, Miss Partlett is ‘sallying forth’ in in a very fashionable ensemble featuring ‘an enormous feather’ that Mrs. Grey’s daughter attempts to reason with her, stating that propriety, not feathers, ‘render a woman worthy of esteem’ and that ‘every attempt that she makes to look younger than she really is, will have quite an opposite effect: it would only serve to make her more conspiculously ancient [. . .] Feathers, in the manner many young women wear them, put one too much in mind of funeral ornaments, upon the head of an old woman. They can make us think of nothing else, indeed, but a hearse’ (LM XVI [January 1785]: 27).

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This is not the first time, or the last, that the Matron weighs in against older women dressing too young for their age. Her concern is not with fashionable attire in general; in other installments she compliments the expensive and beautiful dresses that her grandson’s wife wears, and she admires the elegant simplicity with which her granddaughter Sophia dresses. But the showy and cheap satin deshabille that her other granddaughter wears, and the age-inappropriate attire of Miss Partlett attract her censure. That is to say, it is not fashionable or modern styles in themselves, but inelegant or inappropriate choices that do not suit the wearer against which the Matron advises; becoming and stylish fashions that are genteel and elegant rather than tawdy or modish are always advised.

A serial opinion piece, rather wonderfully titled ‘One of the Leading Causes of Prostitution: The Dress of Servant Girls above their Stations’ appears in 1785 as well, and, though the writer claims not to want to usurp the place of the Mat

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The serial continues with anecdotes and purportedly true stories for another two installments and is ultimately signed by ‘Annabella Evergreen’. It continues to blame servant girls for almost every ill known to humanity, including their own seductions by honest and innocent sons of the families for which they work. The rhetoric is fascinating and I highly recommend it. But what’s so interesting about its location in the magazine and its pointed nod to the Matron is that this opinion piece that masquerades as a moral essay would likely not have pleased the Matron, who offers a much more moderate view and is very empathetic to the plight of the less fortunate.

The genre of the miscellany necessitates that there is always a vexed relationship between how the various genres represent discourses, almost regardless of topic. Yet by probing these distinct treatments, it is possible to see that the magazine, while in one instance seemingly reactionary and in the next radical, tends to offer an overall liberal treatment of the social issues that were of such interest to its readership. What makes it so fruitful to look at one topic across a range of genres within a given year, or within a given genre across a range of years, is that the variety and shifts in opinions and view represented within the periodical are given their voice again. The magazine’s multiple dialogues —  between the genres as well as between the contributors to the different genres and columns — requires reading these conversations and their engagement with the contemporary social and cultural concerns in order to understand the otherwise seemingly disjointed and competing discourses.

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Jenny DiPlacidi

University of Kent

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