Practical Habits: Clothes, Women, and Fashion in the Eighteenth-Century Novel

Smith, Chloe Wigston, Department of English, University of Virginia
Spacks, Patricia, Department of English, University of Virginia

Practical Habits: Clothes, Women, and Fashion in the Eighteenth-Century Novel When we picture the clothes of eighteenth-century literature, we may imagine masquerade balls, cross-dressed heroines, and disguised rakes, rather than the moment when a heroine like Frances Burney's Juliet Granville stitches a plain dress from rough linen. This study contends that, in novels by Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth-as well as in a rich range of pamphlets, newspapers, engravings, and other forms of popular culture-the materiality of clothing offers a crucial counter-narrative to the role of clothing as disguise. I examine how fiction exploits the expressive and discursive possibilities of clothing in order to scrutinize the relations between women and consumption, consumption and promiscuity, fashion and domesticity, and dress and national identity by juxtaposing novels with visual culture, court cases, and trade debates. Novels such as Moll Flanders, Roxana, Pamela, Cecilia, Belinda, and The Wanderer engage with clothing as a form of self-expression, but they also position practical clothing as a means to revise and reshape perceptions of women. In these novels, cultural meanings of clothing are renegotiated through women's work, just as the language of dress is rewritten through a sustained attention to material objects. For instance, Richardson's servant-heroine, Pamela, reforms the contradictory meanings of "hussy"-both a whore and a capable housewife-by exploiting a physical "hussy," a small case of sewing materials. As I show, late-century novels by Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth articulate growing frictions between the fictional possibilities of iii clothing and the cultural role of fashion. I connect this historical shift to the saturation of textual and visual images of fashion in women's periodicals and costume books, which presented fashion as a natural part of domestic knowledge. Cecilia and Belinda exploit metaphors of fiction to uncover the disturbing intimacy between fashion and domesticity, revealing the capacity of the novel to imagine more complicated interpretations of women than the usual narrow ties among women, fashion, and consumption allow. Finally all of these novels dissect the relations among clothing, gender, and nationalism by investigating women's contributions to textile production and their roles as consumers and creators of British style.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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