If you follow me on Twitter or have checked out my Current Projects page, you’ll know that I am preparing a paper for the Developments in Dress History Conference at the University of Brighton in December. The paper is titled ‘Conspicuous Intellectualism: Banyans and the Construction of Masculine Identity through Dress in the late Eighteenth Century’ (thank you to one of my best friends, Shobha, for giving me the main title, credit where it is due!). And it involves quite a bit of research.
I have been reading and re-reading various essays, novels, and political and philosophical tomes written by eighteenth-century scholars attempting to get as clear a picture as possible of what the intellectual culture was and how it might have shaped an eighteenth-century, middle to upper class man’s attitudes about himself and masculinity. This is the Age of Reason. There is a lot of intellectual debate going on. The printing press was no longer a new invention, it was a flourishing one; innumerable circulars and pamphlets flooded not just the metropolitan areas but the countryside as well. The landed gentry needed their news and opinion pieces when out of town as much as when they were in town casting their votes, after all. Books were becoming more plentiful for those who could afford them (though you bought the pages and paid to have it bound yourself, so that it would match the rest of your books, of course). The authors being read and discussed were Rousseau, Voltaire, Hume, Paine, Goethe … just to name a few.
It was a tense time politically. There was the Seven Years’ War that spread across the Continent and beyond (to be called the French and Indian War in North America). That was followed by the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. In Britain, the Union between Scotland and England into Great Britain was fairly new (1707), and not universally adored. The Union had dissolved the Scottish Parliament in favour of a “new” British Parliament, but since it remained at Westminster, it was seen by those opposed to the Union as the absorption by the English parliament of the Scottish. That’s not to say that the Scots (those few who could vote) didn’t have representatives, but in a country that still considers Scotland and England a massive distance apart (the train ride from London to Edinburgh is about four hours, a travel time I do not find impressive), in the eighteenth century it must have been extremely unnerving to have your government packed up and moved to over 500 km away when the only mode of transport was sail, horse, or your own two feet, and you might speak Gaelic rather than English.
Not everyone opposed the Union. Many, like David Hume, saw it as an opportunity for growth and progress for Scotland. Which is what it turned out to be, but it is not easy to see what the struggles during turbulent times will bring when you are living through them. Especially when your uncertainty is compounded by the removal of the Stuart king, James II, in 1688 in favour of the safely Protestant William and Mary (Mary being James II’s daughter).
This deposition rattled more than just the Scots. It completely upended the long-held ideal of the Divine Right of kings. This Divine Right was seen to have been proved when the Cromwellian Republic, established in the wake of the Civil Wars and the beheading of Charles I by his own people, failed. The Restoration of Charles II was accordingly atonement for the sin of regicide, and the prosperity of that era (or so they thought of it) was proof they had been forgiven.
But when Charles II died childless (well, legitimately childless … ), his openly Catholic brother James II was seen as a backdoor to the blood-drinking papist despots of the Continent, and not fit to rule Protestant Britain, thank you very much. We’ll just ignore that Britain had only been truly Protestant for little more than a century, shall we? Good.
Charles II and James II were the descendants of Mary Queen of Scots. Charles II was the last king to be crowned in Scotland as well as England. For those in Scotland opposed to the deposition, the Union was just a further stripping of their identity. Particularly when it was followed by the Clearances in the late eighteenth century.
There were multiple attempts by the Jacobites to reinstate the ‘rightful’ king: First James II (attempts from 1689 – 1690); then his son, James III (‘The Old Pretender’, attempts from 1708 – 1715); then the glorious Bonnie Prince Charlie, who failed for the last time in 1745 at the Battle of Culloden, and whose face now adorns shortbread biscuit tins the world over. How the mighty have fallen…
The Jacobite cause never truly faded, though. There are still Jacobites today, albeit very small in number, who want to depose the current monarchy and put a (believed) descendant of the Stuarts back on the throne. Which ignores that the current monarchy are descendants of the Stuarts, they are just the product of daughters married off to Hanoverians rather than the ‘direct male’ line. The crazy is everywhere.
But in the eighteenth century the Jacobite cause was seen as a true threat. There were secret toasts held by secret clubs, the toasts made in glasses with secret signs etched into their designs, secret loyalties stitched into garters and bedcovers by the Jacobite women. The secret, potential threat.
It was an uneasy time to be in Britain. Not least because they had deposed the ‘rightful’ king, and other than the rebellions (which were easily quelled) nothing had happened to the government itself. It carried on with the business of running the country. Taxes were set and collected. People went about their business. Which called the ancient, established idea of ‘rightful rule’ into question, and rattled the core belief systems of an entire nation (or two nations, to be precise). This meant the Cromwellian Republic had simply failed, rather than being a divine punishment of some sort. It also meant that they were right to stamp out the rebellions, because the Jacobites were clearly standing in the way of Progress. Progress replaced ‘divine right’ in a way. It was seen as linear, unyielding, and right. Thus anyone who stood in its way (ie, the Jacobites, or the indigenous people of colonised nations), was mowed down accordingly in its name.
Real power was now acknowledged to be in the hands of the politicians. Now all those votes the landed gentry were casting when in London really, truly meant something. And they began to be bargained for, debated and even bought in new ways. Or perhaps they weren’t new, they were just more publicised thanks to all those busy presses. Either way, a war of sorts began. Not just between political factions, but between ‘Court’ and ‘Country’.
Court in the eighteenth century meant high society, and the king’s court, not an institution where crimes are tried. The Court began to be seen as corrupt, superficial, fake and decayed. Who knew what was under all that make up (worn by both men and women), or those ridiculous wigs? What diseases did they hide? If you wanted truth, you went to the Country, where real people made their own way in life. The people of the Country didn’t make their living on gossip or outdoing each other in appearance. They grew or reared their own food, made their own clothes… and so on. You can see the beginnings of the Victorian morality discussions about Country innocents off to the City to make their fortunes in the factories and ending in Ruin.
Interestingly enough, it was through clothing that this debate began to be waged. Simplicity became desirable, decoration detestable. This might have had something to do with the ongoing wars with France and thus an interruption in British silk supplies, but who has time to bother with facts when you’re being philosophical in the Age of Reason? When have human beings not come up with philosophical and moral justifications for conforming to necessity? The other intriguing fact is that it would take longer for women’s fashions to simplify even though they were the most constricting, to the point of doing bodily injury. It was acceptable for women to be concerned with their appearances. Everyone knew they had weak minds (unless they were Voltaire, who believed women to be just as good as any man, only nicer). But a ‘real man’ had more important things to consider. If he did take care or wear things that were considered too decorative, or put on wigs and make up, he was a dandy, or a macaroni (Yankee Doodle Dandy, anyone?).
This became most apparent to me when I was reading Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werthur, because Aileen Ribeiro cited it as being highly influential to fashion in her Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715 – 1789 (pp 212 – 216). I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive her. But, I can see why it would have an impact. (I do not, however, recommend it to anyone looking for a good read, it is an eighteenth-century philosophical morality piece, so not for the faint hearted or the easily-annoyed.) The main character retires to the Country to recover from the death of a friend and sort out some family affairs. There he sits in glades and reads Homer in the original Greek and connects with the local people (the working class and yeomanry), sharing their ‘true’ sorrows, and admiring their self sufficiency. In the highly regulated dress etiquette of the eighteenth century, and quite frankly because it was impractical, one did not wear the same clothes in the Country as one wore to Court. And Werthur’s disparaging comments on the people at Court and what they wore indicate that he has the fashionably disdainful attitude towards its artifice that should be expected of a well read, thoughtful man of his century. It’s all very Rousseauian. There is a passage where he lifts his own plain, blue Country coat to almost reliquary status, mostly because it was what he was wearing when he first met his love interest Carlotta (who is engaged to and in love with someone else when he meets her, but he insists on falling in love with her — sorry — is helpless to fall in love with her anyway). I told you it was all very annoying. The other reason he holds this plain coat in such high esteem is that it is a representation of the real, uncorrupted TRUTH of the Country, etc. And Werthur is ever so happy to be rid of his Court finery when he is fired from his position in the Ambassador’s employ. I think you get the point. Not that he stops making it for another hundred pages, or so.
The thing I found most striking is that while we no longer have ‘Courts’, this attitude is still prevalent in our own society. Perhaps it is even reflected in the fact that what we call simply a pump or a high heel in American English, is referred to as a “Court shoe” in British English. Though I’ve not done enough research there to say for certain. It is still true, though, that to care about your clothes and appearance, or fashion in general, and especially both deems you superficial and frequently stupid. You don’t have anything better to do with your time, so you go shopping, etc. The film of The Devil Wears Prada seems to bear this out, the plain, practical but passionate young journalist gets a job at a fashion magazine so she can make rent and is corrupted by shiny, pretty clothes, finally making her way back to ‘true’ journalism at the end.
There is a sort of reverse vanity among certain people that is expressed through intentionally NOT paying too much attention to your clothes. When I was in Oregon this time last year (and admittedly, I was in Portland for less than 24 hours, so I might be doing that lovely city a disservice), I swear everyone was in hiking or all-weather gear of some sort. No doubt proving they were down-to-earth, no-nonsense sorts of people. Or maybe it was just that it is almost always raining or misting up there. But do you have to wear Northface nylon parkas and hiking shoes? Couldn’t even just a few people wear excellently cut trenchcoats and a nice pair of Wellies or riding boots?
I knew a young woman who had a history of being actively mean to people she ‘no longer had to see everyday’ during chance meetings (if she didn’t like them), of being rather nasty to others about their clothes while being extremely sensitive about her own, and who declared that she was lucky to be so ‘low maintenance’ because it made her such a good girlfriend. Her interpretation of low maintenance being that she didn’t wear make up or spend a lot of money on clothes. There is so much wrong with that entire situation that it would make for a book, not a blogpost (all human beings are high maintenance, full stop), but the fact remained that she didn’t adjust her conduct or her attitudes, but her closet. Why did she feel the need to neglect her appearance, rather than alter the part of her that thought it was okay to bully others? How did that prove she was ‘low maintenance’? Is it that we are such a visual society? Do things like this happen in other cultures?
I have sat in coffee shops listening to friends discuss how much they have spent on their clothing, trying to outdo each other with who had the lowest price tags. Why? I am possibly prejudiced, but I assumed it was to prove that they were far to busy being deep and intellectual to bother with things like clothes. Or maybe it was just one of those senseless competitions students will enter into for no actual purpose.
I do find myself wondering as I do my research what, precisely, says that because you care about your appearance, your clothes, or just clothes in general that you must not have anything else in your head? Whether you live in the eighteenth century, or the twenty-first. Yes, there are people who go over the top when it comes to shopping and appearance. But isn’t there an equivalent at the other end of the scale? Who’s to say that the man or woman dressed to the nines in New York City doesn’t have as much of an appreciation for nature as the rugged hikers of Oregon? Who’s to say that just because a woman loves make up and clothing that she’s not a deep thinker?
The eighteenth-century Court versus Country debate, that’s who. But I think it goes deeper.
In France, if a female politician dressed in the dowdy way most American and British women in politics do (Nancy Pelosi being an exception), she wouldn’t get elected. The French attitude is that if a person doesn’t take care of themselves and make an effort to present their best self to the world, how on earth can they be trusted to take care of a country?
Is it Protestant eighteenth century, then, that gave us these attitudes? Am I being too sensitive because these are criticisms of something I love? Is it possible that those who are so dismissive of clothing are dismissive out of insecurity? They are unsure and awkward about their clothes, so they belittle those who are not like the child who derides the toy of a friend that he actually covets. Or are they genuinely unconcerned and reacting to a world that, no matter how many philosophical treaties we write or read on the subject, does still judge based on appearance? That seems to be what David Mitchell is doing in this Soapbox rant:
You can’t judge a book by its cover because appearances can be misleading. Even carefully ‘unconstructed’ ones.
Feel free to weigh in.