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Eighteenth Century Fiction 19.1&2 (2006) 225-227


Reviewed by
Erin Mackie
University of Canterbury
Tita Chico. Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 2005. 302pp. CAN$80.25. ISBN 0-83875-605-0.

Designing Women offers a lively and sophisticated account of one of the most visible and provocative places in eighteenth-century English culture, the lady's dressing room. More than simply an exposition of the dressing room's broad significance in a single historical moment, Tita Chico's study shows how the meaning and functions of the dressing room change through history. Her study provides, then, not only a window on a rich set of epistemological and aesthetic preoccupations but also a window from which we can watch the unfolding of modern notions of femininity. Tracing its emergence in seventeenth-century satire through to its refigurations in mid- and late eighteenth-century domestic novels, Chico argues that the dressing-room trope "reformulates the question of female sexuality and desire into an implicit celebration of sexual reproduction" (160). Whereas the dressing room first appears as a site for satirists to query female agency, self-sufficiency, and the feminine aesthetic of cosmetic self-fashioning, it comes, through the texts of Samuel Richardson, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and others, to take on a function less productive of masculine disapproval and more productive of legitimate feminine forms of virtue, knowledge, and authority.

Chico's choice of the dressing room for a book-length study proves not in the least whimsical. Eighteenth-century literature frequently takes us into these personal spaces where women dressed, entertained, and corresponded. Sometimes, as in Swift's satires, these forays into feminine recesses are voyeuristic and distasteful. Here, the dressing room is a kind of anti-cosmos where women have deposited, crumpled and decaying, all the filthy detritus of their dubious self-fashioning. We cannot wait to get out. In other texts, such as Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, we spend most of our time in the dressing room, where, while we might share the heroine's anxiety and travails, we are never disgusted by this, her most intimate environment. A literary commonplace, the dressing room is specific to eighteenth-century England; its rhetorical prominence is confined to this time and place; in it Chico finds revealed a wealth of literary and cultural information about the period. And, as Chico shows, with its implication in matters of gender, sexuality, epistemology, and aesthetics, the dressing room abundantly repays attention given it from the perspective of contemporary critical concerns. Finally, what Designing Women most powerfully articulates, for me at least, is that it was precisely because the dressing room bore the weight of the concerns Chico explores here that it was so ubiquitous in eighteenth-century literature. If we have not already asked "Why the dressing room?" we should; Tita Chico has a substantial and satisfying reply.

Taking as its focal point a specific cultural site, Designing Women approaches [End Page 225] this through a variety of textual genres and modes: verse satire, conduct books, and prose fiction. However, Chico does not handle her sources in a purely instrumentalist fashion, but shows how the dressing rooms in these texts are products specific to the rhetoric and conventions of the formal conventions of each. Thus, Designing Women contains much for students and scholars interested in satire and in the novel. In chapter 6, for example, Chico conducts a detailed, compelling reading of Clarissa by looking at the competition between satiric discourse, with its accusatory, sceptical, and misogynist figuration of the dressing room, and Richardson's novelistic discourse that figures the dressing room as an "architectural analogue for the production of virtue, epistolarity, and interiority" (159). Analysing Belford's report of his visit to Mrs Sinclair's dressing room late in the novel, Chico argues that his depiction of corrupt, secret feminine places "is designed to expunge any hint of impropriety from Clarissa and her virtuous narrative by associating...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 225-227
Launched on MUSE
2006-11-21
Open Access
No
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