Tag Archives: Satire

The Advantages of Wearing Muslin Dresses

Keeping with the theme of ladies’ mishaps from yesterday, I thought I’d share with you an even funnier incident with the fireplace.

Advantages of Wearing Muslin by James Gillray (1802)

When this print was published in 1802, the fashion of wearing muslin was reaching new heights and men did not approve, at least not publicly. Muslin was skimpy, clung to curves, and could have used some fire retardant to keep it from attracting flames. Élégantes, however, would not be persuaded, and Gillray capitalized on their silliness. He should be applauded for coloring the shoes and accessories exactly the right hue according to fashion of the day.  Orange, scarlet poppy, cherry and rose were heavily favored, although I’m not sure either of these ladies would flatter the trendsetters’ view of themselves.  Gotta love Gillray for that.

P.S.  In comparison to yesterday’s Fragonard, notice the cat running away from the fire?  Yes, felines are smarter than ladies.

Come back tomorrow to see the real fashion Gillray was interpreting through satire.  I’ll be posting some colored fashion plates from 1802, one with an absolutely gorgeous embroidered dress.

Satire vs Real Life: Fashion in 1800

Last week we looked at the satire print “A French Family” from 1792 and the newly fashionable deshabille including the chemise a la reine.  When it first arrived on the scene in England via Perdita (actress Mary Robinson), the garment  was considered shocking, and strict husbands forbade their wives from wearing a dress that resembled an actual chemise.

The problem with the garment was very simple: it was made of thin cotton fabric,  like a lawn shirt, and was bleached to resemble plain white chemises.  It effectively placed the habit of the boudoir in a public sphere, and the ton couldn’t get enough.  Not only was the fabric expensive, the cotton markets of Egypt and the United States were unavailable to England due to poor trade relations.  Increased trade with India through the British run cities of Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay introduced cotton in the 17th century but it wasn’t until the 1790s that cotton was manufactured in English mills, making it accessible and, most importantly, cheap.

The fabric shown in the fashion plates below was top quality muslin that silhouetted women’s bodies in any kind of weather, and was particularly revealing in English weather.  To the disgruntlement of many, taking a stroll through Hyde Park showed off heretofore unseen ladies assets–bosoms, bums and legs exposed in a family park.  Oh, my.

It seems ridiculous today,  but the clingy muslin dress was probably the 18th century version of a wet t-shirt contest.  I’m going to place its shock factor somewhere between the modern bikini in the 40s and the modern thong in the 70s .  Men drooled and old ladies clucked at the loose morality of youth.  But everybody fashionable wore it.

Paris ladies in full winter dress by Cruikshank (1799)

Compared with Cruikshank’s print, in reality the fashion was far less shocking.  The dresses hung closer to a woman’s natural form and must have seemed louche to those accustomed to panniers and peek-a-boo underskirts topped with yards and yards of fabric, but they were classical, simplified.  They were also a life-saver in hot, humid weather, and, as Anatole France relates almost a hundred years later in his 1893 At the Sign of the Reine Pedaque, were still appealing to men and women, albeit in different ways:

Following a discussion of war strategies:

“It is a secret I may well confide to you since there is no one to hear me but you, some bottles, Monsieur, whom I am going to kill presently,  and this girl here who is taking off her clothes.”

“Yes,” Catherine said, “my chemise is enough.  I’m so hot.”

Remarked by an Abbe to the heroine Catherine who has just experienced a drenching by a rogue:

“. . . the chemise of mademoiselle here, which owing to the wine with which it is soaked has become but a pink and transparent veil for her beauty.”

“It is true that idiot has wet my chemise,” said Catherine, “and I shall catch cold.”


A French Family, 1792

after Thomas Rowlandson“Such precious manners and such indecency,” scowl the English.

Displayed here is the perennial contentiousness of French vs English through the eyes of satirist Thomas Rowlandson in 1792. What’s being poked at in this engraving? Fashionable deshabille. The central man is without his breeches, the lady wears a scandalously clingy and popular Chemise a la Reine, and the child below the fiddler is inspecting the curiosities beneath its nightshirt. Beyond the hired musicians, the most fully dressed figure is a dog. One of them wears not only a dress but a hat, and has feigned a delicate paw. The flaw, however, can been seen in the impudently raised tail, peeping out the too short vestment.

Can you readers spot any other bits an actual French family might find objectionable? Do tell! To the delight of his most astute observers, Rowlandson loved to sneak in telling details.

Sex Education for Women Circa 1802

In this early 19th century version of “the video” females of all ages, from a grandmother to a child who must stand on her tiptoes to view the exhibition, come to learn from the wax-work pregnant woman, her womb and fetus exposed by cut-away flesh beneath a glass box.

“O famous wax-work!” states the satirical poem below, “Where our fair ones come, Like female Neros made to see a womb, To hear fine Lectures, read on Generation, And all the Arts explain’d of Procreation.”

The figurines entwined in erotic embraces on the side table serve as further instruction for the curious ladies who, much to the chagrin of those remembering “politer times”, are eagerly “Exploring in the sight of all the world, The dark Receptacle from whence we’re hurl’d.”

The Poem:

In days of Yore, when modesty reign’d here,
Virgins were bashful, Matrons were severe;
None knew then what it was to chat with Men,
Or in smart Billets-doux to use the pen.
Sermons and Psalm-Books much employ’d their time,
Nor, save the latter, read they ought in Rhime.
If e’er they wrote, ’twas when some choice Receipt 
Was found to cure a Cough, or toss up Meat;
Such th’ Assiduous House-wife sought with Care,
And in her Books preserv’d as Treasure rare.
Each Woman then, the Glory of her Spouse,
Look’d to his Wealth, and constant kept his House.
Decent her Garb; her Language true and plain;
She heightened ev’ry Joy, and softened ev’ry Pain.
In our politer times, the Female Race
An easier mode of Living [by] far embrace.
No more such arduous Methods Women try,
But with the Men in thirst of Pleasure vie:
Like them, they Ride, they Walk, nay Rake and Drink,
And seldom say their Prayers, or deign to Think.
Thus rub thro’ Life, forgetful of its End;
By none Befriended, and to none a Friend;
Wild without Wit, from Spleen — not Judgment — grave;
Despising Faith, but to her Lusts a Slave.
Each courtly Wanton wanders thro’ her Time,
And feels Declension ere she reach her Prime.
But of all Follies, sure the last and worst
Is that with which our learned Age is curs’d.
This bawdy Itch of knowing secret Things,
And tracing human Nature to its Springs;
Exploring in the sight of all the world
The dark Receptacle from whence we’re hurl’d.
O famous wax-work! Where our fair ones come,
Like female Neros made to see a womb,
To hear fine Lectures, read on Generation,
And all the Arts explain’d of Procreation.
That Rake, in time to come, when he convenes,
What copious Drury sends, and Wild-street gleans,
He may have Bawds in Bibs, and Midwives in their teens.
What Vices Greek and Roman Dames defil’d,
How they on Slaves and Fencers often smil’d,
Rode, Drink, and Danced, we’re by old Sat’rists told;
But of no Thais of our modern Mold —
Who ere for Wedlock ripe is wild to see
What must its Joys, and what its Pains must be;
How in the Womb the Foetus is reclin’d;
What Passage thence by Nature is design’d;
With ev’ry other Circumstance beside,
That may inform her ere she be a Bride,
And make her wiser than the Dame who bore
This prying Wench, — or Grandmother before,
Who liv’d when Innocence sway’d here of Yore.
O might the shocking Scene so strike the Mind,
As that true Sense from this strange sight they’d find:
Learn to believe themselves but frail, tho’ fair;
And make their Souls what they deserve — their Care;
Live to those Ends for which their Lives were given,
To bless Mankind, and make this World a Heaven.
The Wax-work then — should be deem’d worthy Fame,
Not be, as now, all its Spectators’ Shame.

Risk One’s Hair, Risk One’s Head: Losing the Periwig

As I am wont to do, I was recently digging around a volume of The Gentleman’s Magazine when I discovered a fictionalized account regarding the first brave soul to don natural hair après the periwig fashion and the row that ensued.  Dare I say this is a version of Gentlemen brawlers, bandying over hairstyle supremacy? Victor Hugo, if only it were true!  I would be most amused.

From ‘By Order of the King: A Romance of English History’ by Victor Hugo

“Lord David held the position of judge in the gay life of London.  He was looked up to by the nobility and gentry.  Let us register a fact to the glory of Lord David.  He dared to wear his own hair.  The reaction against the wig was beginning.  Just as in 1824, Eugene Deveria was the first who dared to allow his beard to grow, so in 1702 Price Devereux dared for the first time to risk his natural hair in public, disguised by artful curling.  For to risk one’s hair was almost to risk one’s head.  The indignation was universal.  Nevertheless Price Devereux was Viscount Hereford, a peer of England.  He was insulted and the deed was well worth the insult.  In the hottest part of the row, Lord David suddenly appeared without his wig and in his natural hair. Such conduct shakes the foundations of society.  Lord David was insulted even more than Viscount Hereford.  He held his ground.  Price Devereux was the first; Lord David Dirry Moir, the second.  It is sometimes more difficult to be second than first.  It requires less genius, but more courage.  The first, intoxicated by the novelty, may ignore the danger; the second sees the abyss and precipitates himself therein.  Lord David flung himself into the abyss of no longer wearing a periwig.

Later in the century these lords found imitators.  After these two revolutionists, men found sufficient audacity to wear their own hair and powder was introduced as an extenuating circumstance.  In order to establish, before we pass on an important period of history, we should remark that the true pre-eminence in the war of wigs belongs to a Queen Christina of Sweden, who wore man’s clothes and had appeared in 1680 in her hair of golden brown, powdered and brushed up from her head.  She had besides, says Nisson, a slight beard.  The pope on his part, by his bull of March, 1694, had somewhat let down the wig by taking it from the heads of bishops and priests and in ordering churchmen to let their hair grow.”

Related Posts:

18th Century Wig Curlers