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  • Dressing the British:Clothes, Customs, and Nation in W. H. Pyne's "The Costume of Great Britain"
  • Chloe Wigston Smith (bio)

In his preface to The Costume of Great Britain (1804), W. H. Pyne's publisher, William Miller, declares that a book devoted to domestic dress will help to contextualize the "Manners, Habits, and Decorations of several highly interesting Foreign Countries."1 Pyne's folio concludes Miller's series of costume books on Turkey, China, Russia, Austria, Spain and Portugal, Italy, and the city of Rio de Janeiro, published at the end of the long eighteenth century. Similar to early modern examples of the genre (well-established by the eighteenth century), the series focuses on foreign apparel, perhaps accounting for Miller's description of British style as a useful postscript to international dress.2 The publication of Pyne's costume book corresponds with the popularity of Microcosms as a genre, whose pages often illustrated an encyclopedic collection of domestic trades and scenes; Pyne himself was working on a Microcosm while he gathered the plates for his costume book, and his text anticipates the small flood of domestic costume books published at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Towards the end of the long eighteenth century—as Britain consolidated its strengths in textile manufacturing and as the country was gripped by the "Great Terror"—these costume books document a growing interest in the national and regional dress of Britons. This essay examines how British [End Page 143] costume books—a genre that favors everyday dress and customs over cutting-edge style—attempt to imagine national habits. While the national focus of The Costume of Great Britain suggests the volume seeks to depict a coherent portrait of British identity, the volume instead conveys the difficulty of doing so. This diverse national portrait reflects the aesthetic fluidity of the text, as well as its emphasis on social variety. The shifting landscape of dress in The Costume of Great Britain is linked, I demonstrate, to its exploitation of competing artistic conventions, as well as to the tensions between text and image that crisscross its visual and verbal portraits of customs and class.

Pyne's costume book pictures the attire of a range of social classes, not merely the apparel of the urban elite. In doing so, the volume imagines costume as a form of national habit, a collection of customs materialized through familiar activities and rituals. Although the conflation of clothes with custom underwrites many costume books—in contemporary French examples, the same slippage occurs between "costume" and "coutume," and earlier German examples, such as Christoph Weiditz's Trachtenbuch (1529), devote attention to occupational wear—I argue that Pyne complicates the interlacing of dress and custom by articulating national style through images of rural and urban labor.3The Costume of Great Britain theorizes dress as rooted in manual work and economic productivity, revealing how British identity grows from the labor of ordinary women and men.

Just as Pyne casts a wide social net for his study, he also exploits a range of eighteenth-century artistic traditions. Pyne's work contributed to the library of drawing manuals aimed at amateur artists from the 1790s onwards, such as Microcosms and collections of rural figures and landscapes (which Pyne also produced). While Pyne has been primarily associated with the picturesque aesthetic popularized by William Gilpin and others, his costume book draws on conventions such as fashion plates and urban street criers in addition to the picturesque.4 Pyne's costume book, however, resists each of these aesthetics, producing an incoherent portrait of national identity during wartime (as I discuss in the first section of this essay). With its longstanding commitment to representing a variety of apparel, the costume book, as a genre, is wedded to diversity rather than to continuity, often depicting figures across time, space, and class. Pyne's contribution to this genre, as my second section shows, constitutes the first sustained attempt, in Britain, to represent contemporary habits—a move that distinguishes his work from earlier British examples. In the end, as my third section reveals, the social variety of Pyne's costume book, and the tensions between text and image that emerge in...


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pp. 143-171
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