- The Moral Negotiation of Fashion in Regency England
Religion and the Georgian world of goods are rarely discussed in tandem. There is immense scholarship on medieval Renaissance religious culture, but the modern history of consumerism is remarkably secular in conceptualization.1 This booming literature has covered change over time in material culture, regional and occupational variation in patterns of ownership, the sophistication of retail, and advertising, but engaged only glancingly with religious ideas.2 The growth of object studies has brought the emotional, talismanic, visual, and haptic qualities of things to the forefront. Fashion studies have grown exponentially. The glamor of surfaces has seduced the field.
A series of prejudices about the Hanoverian Church has militated against sustained inquiry. The inexorable rise of secularism, an established church remote from the intellectual and cultural excitements of the age of enlightenments, and the existence of a torpid, worldly clergy are all assumptions that have been disputed by historians of religion, but remain hard to shift in general accounts.3 Conversely, scholars of Georgian religion have often been disengaged, with one or two exceptions, from the mainstream of cultural history.4 Some discussions of radical Protestantism foreground sartorial abnegation and renunciation of the world, but lay consumerism [End Page 165] is not a topic that has interested many historians of Anglicanism. Yet reconciling wealth and virtue was a critical intellectual preoccupation of the age.5 The fashion victim and shrewd consumer matron have their historians, but what of the pious and judgmental? This essay brings two disconnected schools of historical inquiry into conversation by exploring the spiritual and material for two devout female Anglicans: Katherine Plymley (1758–1829) and Anna Larpent (1758–1832). It charts their ambivalence about luxury and their performance of studied restraint, and investigates their management of religious morality and social status in relation to things. Most surviving religious diaries of any detail were penned by nonconformists, or Anglican Methodists and Evangelicals who had experienced a spiritual awakening. The conventionally devout were apparently less discursive. These two diarists are invaluable, then, for revealing the world view of more mainstream congregants of the Church of England.
Dress was an issue for Anglican women for a variety of reasons. There was no coherent Anglican doctrine on worldly goods. Tories, Latitudinarians, and Evangelicals all jostled for visibility within the Church of England. Bishops condemned excess from the pulpit and urged the rich to charity. On the other hand, conformity to fashion could be recruited to support convention and preordained hierarchy. A providential view that wealth could be used to do good works and could be enjoyed moderately was gaining ground. Material abnegation was potentially more disturbing than prosperity, raising the specter of fanaticism, and even papist infiltration from abroad. But worldliness remained a grave problem for the Hanoverian episcopate. The things of the world were transitory and potentially corruptive. It behooved people to refrain from self-gratification, to set an example of restraint, while still being hospitable and charitable. Anglican leaders rejected the idea of all goods being in common (preached in some radical Methodist circles), else how should the rich demonstrate benevolence? Ecclesiastical decency demanded comfort at home and dignity in appearances, but worldly clerics were deplored as they set a bad example to the laity and opened the church to accusations of hypocrisy. To quell any personal doubts, the richer clergy drew on the theological idea of "adiaphora," that is, things indifferent to salvation. As possessions were not forbidden by scripture, they were harmless in themselves; only their abuse was immoral. Consequently, no specific guidance on acceptable consumerism was preached from the cathedral. The lack of specificity left an intellectual vacuum, and meant that each devout individual had to [End Page 166] make constant judgments on the proper use or misuse of material things for themselves.6
Beyond the bishops, though still within the Church of England, fashion was a problem for the Methodists. John Wesley denounced fashion as an aspect of "the irrational sinful customs of a frantic world," though endorsing the use of dress to reinforce social position. Women bore the brunt of the tirade.7 The rejection of profane pleasures might be a marker of awakening...