Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Height of Fashion (if not Virtue), c. 1771

Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Susan reporting:

Mothers and daughters warring over clothes is nothing new, with each generation pushing the limits of  fashion to the horror of the previous one. Young Anne, left, has returned home to the country after a sojourn in London.  She's dressed in the literal height of fashion, with towering hair and a richly trimmed gown displaying considerable bosom, and even a trendy little lapdog. Her modestly dressed mother is justifiably shocked, and cannot believe that this expensive creature is her daughter. (We've also seen country boys morph into macaronis in London, like the one here.)

Of course, with young country women in 18th c prints, there's always a more sinister (or at least cynical) explanation for wearing the latest London finery. In John Cleland's infamous 1748 novel Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the orphaned and impoverished yet still innocent Fanny desires to go to London to "seek her fortune" ("a phrase, which, by the bye, has ruined more adventurers of both sexes, from the country, than ever it made, or advanced") only after admiring the stylish clothes of a visiting friend, Esther Davis:

"Nor can I remember, without laughing, the innocent admiration, not without a spice of envy, with which we poor girls, whose church-going cloaths did not rise about dowlass [coarse linen] shifts and snuff [thin wool] gowns, beheld Esther's scower'd sattin-gown, caps border'd with an inch of lace; taudry ribbons, and shoes belaced with silver! all of which we imagined grew in London....[I believed Esther when she explained  how] several maids out of the country  had made themselves and all their kin for ever, that by presarving their VARTUE, some had taken so with their masters, that they had married them, and kept them coaches, and lived vastly grand, and happy, and some, may-hap came to be Dutchesses: Luck was all, and why not I as well as another."

Once in London, Fanny soon learns that "VARTUE" was not rewarded nearly as profitably as sin, and receives her satin gown and carriage only after becoming the mistress to a wealthy lord.  Could that be what the horrified mother in this print suspects, too?

Above: Heyday! Is this my daughter Anne! by F.E.Adams, published 1779 by Robert Wilkinson, with an early version published 1771 by Carington Bowles. Copyright the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

4 comments:

Keri said...

Wow, I didn't even notice the little lap dog! I love this picture; the expression on Anne's face is pretty hilarious too.

Jan Godown Annino said...

A Hoot & a Holler - thanks a bunch.

PJ said...

Every time I look at this drawing I have to laugh. Some things never change...older folks thinking younger folks fashions are ridiculous. You could easily substitute an older man of today with the same incredulous expression looking at a male youth with his humongous, too large jeans, underwear band top in view, about to fall to his ankles. ha ha

Julia said...

Funny thing, I never liked the novel Fanny Hill very much, but I like your quote - it's so sadly innocent, you can really hear the young country girl in it, and I'm immediately thinking of the stereotypical young US-girl from somewhere in the Mid-West planning to make it great in New York, in the worst case scenario: as an actress. (Stupid roles if you're lucky, horrenteous competitive pressure, casting couches and the like).

As for the young girl in the painting, I'm hoping that she has managed to shock her mother merely by buying used dresses from the legions of peddlers and schlockmeisters who made their little profits in the big cities of allowing the reasonably well-off to acquire a tawdry sort of glamour. I mean, she made it back alive to poor old mum, so I'm very much hoping for the best.

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