These days, the messages sent by our clothing can feel both too direct and too unwieldy, especially for women. We realize that the cut of our jacket or length of our skirt could say rich to one person and aspiring to another, married to one and available to another, attention seeking or quietly confident. Yet we do tend to assume that, however unconscious or inaccurate others’ interpretations might be, our clothes will inevitably convey, or at least appear to convey, crucial aspects of our identity. It is therefore refreshing, even radical, to encounter in Chloe Wigston Smith’s engaging new study, Women, Work, and Clothes in the Eighteenth-Century Novel, the proposition that, for a brief time, for some writers and characters, a robe was a robe was a robe.
The fashion industry has been largely responsible for amplifying the semiotics of modern women’s clothing. Fashion as an industry of public consumption was only just beginning in eighteenth-century England, as private wealth and colonial imports of fabrics and raw materials increased, and the collective memory of feudal sumptuary laws faded. Women, Work, and Clothes is a kind of counter-history or history from below of the moment of fashion’s emergence. Alluding to Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, the socialized dimensions of everyday life, “practical habits” is Wigston Smith’s name for an eighteenth-century discourse focused on the use of clothes and textiles “as tools, materials, and resources” (2). She proposes that many novelists of the period experimented with this way of reading—or rather not reading—clothes in order to confront a cultural obsession with appearances that especially penalized poor and working women.
The literary and linguistic significance of practical habits is nicely established at the start of the book. The metaphorical link between clothing and language had been in play for centuries when Alexander Pope encapsulated it in his memorable definition of “true Wit” as “nature to advantage dressed.” “The Ornaments of Prose,” the book’s opening chapter, chronicles the long development and feminization of this metaphor in ancient and early modern theories of rhetoric, then argues that eighteenth-century [End Page 307] novelists such as Samuel Richardson explicitly questioned and reversed it to promote new connections between femininity, sensible clothes, and an admirably forthright mode of self-expression.
Wigston Smith, who has a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia and studied the history of dress at the Courtauld Institute in London, is especially interested in the variety of material-cultural supports for and obstacles to novelists’ pragmatic view of clothes. In chapter 2, “Paper Clothes,” for example, the theme of physical decay in A Tale of a Tub, A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies, The Secret History of an Old Shoe, and several other it-narratives is contextualized in relation to England’s interdependent paper and textile industries, which used similar technologies (both paper and cloth were printed) and the same basic fibres (paper was made from rags, pressboard gave structure to a variety of clothes and accessories). In chapter 3, “Shift Work,” Wigston Smith’s analysis of the central role played by clothing in whore biographies and Old Bailey trials of female pickpockets and shoplifters enhances the contrast she draws between Moll Flanders, who evades the stigma of promiscuity usually attached to women’s intimacy with and passion for clothes, and Roxana, who embraces it to her detriment. “Public Work,” the fifth chapter, refers to the notorious actress-turned-courtesan-turned-poet, Mary Robinson, in order to explore a similar—though ultimately more despairing—contrast between the practical Juliet and her theatrical foil, Elinor, in Frances Burney’s The Wanderer. In her memoir, Robinson represented key moments in her life, such as a confrontation with her husband’s mistress, as fashion dilemmas. Burney implies that women are necessarily subject to sexist interpretations whatever they wear and that the women who think they can costume themselves for empowerment are particularly misguided. The book’s afterword, “False Parts,” debunks the supposed...