- Women and Fashion
The jacket cover of Kate Haulman’s insightful book about fashion in colonial America depicts two women, dressed in flouncy at-home gowns, wearing beribboned hats atop extravagant high-roll hairstyles. They peer out of a window at British redcoats gathering in an encampment, one woman looking through a spyglass, both wearing expressions of interest. The illustration, titled “The Wishing Females,” is dated late in the century, 1778–81, a moment of social and political turmoil, when fashion seems unlikely to be on anyone’s mind.
Yet as Haulman and all the authors under consideration show, throughout history in America, Europe, and Russia, fashion has been intrinsically connected to politics and social change, as well as to personal identity. Fashion, Haulman writes, serves as “a screen onto which people project ideas about issues such as gender relations, social order, and political authority, and a vehicle through which they expressed those ideas” (3).
All of these works investigate the relationship between fashion and self-fashioning, between individual choice and cultural assumptions and pressures. These works, in addition, ask about fashion as a social marker. In some cases, for example, choices of dress and accessories helped individuals to distinguish among their social group, identifying class and status, but after styles became widely disseminated, when those in the lower or [End Page 164] middle class could obtain copies of high fashion, those distinctions blurred. Fashion both aided and complicated the task of reading people. As Rita Felski asserts in her afterword to Cultures of Femininity in Modern Fashion, choices in dress represent an individual’s negotiation with “circulating social energies,” and convey “silent yet eloquent messages about who we are or would like to become” (232, 233). Those messages reflect a panoply of identity traits, including class, ethnicity, marital status, education, moral and ethical convictions, access to leisure, financial dependence or independence, sexuality, conceptions of beauty, and desire for visibility.
Haulman points out, ironically, that the women in “The Wishing Females” are wearing a uniform, which makes them as easily identifiable as the British soldiers. Their hair style, especially—an exaggerated construction of human and horse hair—was a European style much favored in such port cities as Boston, New York, and, especially, sartorially elegant Philadelphia. The style, however, became a subject of much controversy among Whig supporters of the American cause and Tory supporters of the British. Whig men associated high-rolled women with prostitutes or the mistresses of British soldiers; the style seemed to contradict the republican spirit of the new nation, with its rhetoric of egalitarianism and disdain for elites. Apart from political affiliation, moreover, the high roll indicated wealth and class: a woman needed to spend hours of her leisure time, and enlist the skills of a hairdresser, to achieve the look. Besides anxiety over a woman’s possible interest in Tory men, as “The Wishing Females” suggests, Whig men also worried about women’s interest in their hairdressers, who usually were young, single, European, and male. High-rolled hair, clothing made from imported fabrics, hoop petticoats, foppish men’s styles scorned as “macaroni”: fashion reflected more than simply adornment, more than simply expressions of desire.
The “social energies” reflected by fashion informs the nine well-researched and engaging essays in Cultures of Femininity. Editors Ilya Parkins, a professor of women and gender studies, and Elizabeth M. Sheehan, a professor of English, have brought together contributions from a variety of...