On a dreary Saturday in June, what better than to immerse oneself in the glamorous world of eighteenth century fashion? Held at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, University of York, the ‘Desiring Fashion’ conference was certainly tempting enough for delegates to brave rain, wind and cows on the train line, and the excellent programme of speakers, supplemented by a small exhibition, did not disappoint.

Lesley Miller – “Material Marketing: how Lyonnais manufacturers sold their silks in the 18th century”

First up was Lesley Miller of the V&A, offering a fascinating insight into the ways in which Lyon merchants generated a demand for their products which extended as far as South America. Lyon benefitted from regular fairs, which offered opportunities for a ‘coming together of people and product’, but the merchants had ambitions far beyond the locality. Selling methods included targeting the Parisian court, since, as Lesley put it, ‘if you capture the court in Paris, people will copy the court in Paris’, and this ‘trickle-down’ effect would spread Europe-wide. Other royals were also solicited. For example, Phillipe de Lascalle, a famous Lyonnais merchant, would make and send flattering textile portraits to monarchs to attract their custom. Lyon had the geographical advantage of being situated close to two navigable rivers, which offered the opportunity for wide distribution of samples for sale. Lesley’s talk was illustrated throughout with examples from one of these books of textile swatches , probably seized by British customs at the end of the Seven Years War, when imports of French silk were prohibited. The book contained silks from a range of manufacturers, and apart from providing wonderful Powerpoint slides, it offered a window into the world of the eighteenth-century travelling salesmen. It was these men who were the men focus of Lesley’s talk, because, in her words again, ‘Unscrupulous men are infinitely attractive’. Using archival sources such as the correspondence of the appropriately-named Bonaventure Carret, she introduced a world of high-class networking, where the key to making a sale was successfully courting a client. Carret and his salesman socialised with the ruling classes, ascertaining both the financial credentials and the personal tastes of potential clients, and running up hefty expense accounts in the process. They were advised to be sure to provide novelty, variety and quality in the samples they used to tempt their wealthy clientele, but also to flatter, speaking in the language of the potential buyer and delivering what was asked for even if the salesman did not consider it to be in good taste. The practical and mundane aspects of the work were also highlighted – men would be on the road for long periods, and networks of transport and of credit were vital to sustaining the profession – but in general, these charming gentlemen, often well-educated and skilled in languages and diplomacy, were a breed of salesmen far more glamorous than today’s door-to-door variety.

Hilary Davidson – “Recreating Jane Austen’s Pelisse-Coat.”


Replica Pelisse-Coat by Hilary Davidson

While Lesley showed us how objects can open doors into the study of the extraordinary lives of unknown salesmen, the next paper showed how they can also illuminate the everyday life of more celebrated users. The object this time was a replica pelisse-coat produced by the extremely talented Hilary Davidson of the Museum of London and on show as part of the exhibition which accompanied the conference and also featured replica dresses by York’s own Serena Dyer. Hilary talked us through the delicate process of creating such a replica, which in this case was based on a rather exciting original. The brown, oak-leaf patterned coat belonging to Hampshire Museum’s Service may once have been owned by Jane Austen, but the difficulties of balancing preservation and display of the coat, which dates from around 1814, made the production of a replica attractive. Hilary began by demonstrating the links to Austen. The coat was donated to the Museums Service by members of Jane’s extended family, and excerpts from her letters which proved that she certainly commissioned, wore and loved a pelisse-coat similar to that in Hampshire around 1814, having written to her sister to tell of the admiration it had received. Brown was a popular colour in the early-nineteenth century, as shown on various fashion plates and textile samples, and oak-leaf and acorn patterns were benefitting from a surge in popularity due to their associations with patriotism and monarchy, as Britain was at this time heavily embroiled in war with Napoleonic France. The coat, therefore, has historical significance beyond its possible celebrity owner. Hilary then moved on to the replica’s production, explaining how she had spent two days taking down all of the details of the original coat, noting the ways in which it was designed to fit the figure of a woman of this period, which would be drastically altered by the practice of wearing stays. Discussion followed about the status of replicas as compared to original objects, with Hilary offering a persuasive case that making and wearing replica garments allows an insight into their production, use and the experience of the wearer which cannot be gained from traditional sources alone.

Serena Dyer – “A Beautiful Bargain: Lady Sabine Winn’s relationship with fashion.”


Replica 1790s dresses by Serena Dyer

After a break for lunch, and a chance to examine the replica and original objects on display, convenor Serena Dyer gave a fascinating account of the interactions between Lady Sabine Winn of Nostell Priory and her dressmaker, Mrs Ann Charlton, who was based in London. Serena used the letters of Mrs Charlton to uncover a remarkably intimate relationship, in which Mrs Charlton commented upon the health and wellbeing of the Winn family, as well as showing a surprising lack of deference in scolding her client for ignorance of fashion when items were rejected. It is difficult to know how typical this kind of confidential, conversational exchange was between dressmakers and their clients. The blurring of the personal and professional relationships may have been down to Lady Winn’s isolation, as she was not popular among women of her own class in the Yorkshire society in which she lived. However, Ann Charlton had another elite client in Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, and her published testimony in the Countess’s famous divorce case also hints at a certain degree of intimacy. Serena’s excellent talk therefore provided a nuanced insight, not just into the marketing strategies of dressmakers, but also their potential emotional significance for their clients.

Catherine Flood – “Fashion in Print and the Pleasures of Picturing Modern Life: fashion plates and fashion satires.”

Serena was followed by Catherine Flood, whose paper ‘Fashion in Print and the Pleasures of Picturing Modern Life’ arose from an exhibition on fashion prints and satires which was housed in 2010 at the V&A, where she is Curator of Prints. She cleverly juxtaposed fashion plates advertising the latest styles with satires ridiculing them, showing that the latter were often closely based on the former. In fashion plates, subjects were often left vague to allow the clothes to dominate and the viewer to picture herself wearing them, and Catherine suggests that placing oneself in the frame was one of the pleasures of viewing a plate. However, she also argues that this may also have been the case with the satires. Although these –sometimes viciously- mocked the most recent trends, the fashionista who recognised herself as the subject could take pleasure in being part of a very modern moment. The transitory nature of fashion and the speed with which both plates and prints were produced meant that the clothing depicted was the very latest, and for the viewer recognising herself this confirmed her status as being, in modern parlance, ‘bang on trend’.

Aileen Ribeiro – “Desiring Beauty: women and cosmetics in the eighteenth century”

Aileen Ribeiro also used satirical prints in her detailing of the debates surrounding makeup and cosmetics which continues to the present day. In the eighteenth century, much like today, opinions on their use varied from condemnation of the narcissistic wearer to appreciation of her improved aesthetic appeal for others. Like Catherine, Aileen concentrated on female rather than male fashions, and described some of the disgusting and often dangerous concoctions women used in their quest for beauty. As well applying lead paint to the face, belladonna was used to enlarge the eyes and some even used an enamel substance to whiten the face, with the side effect of immobilising it (rather like today’s Botox!) Although awareness of the dangers of such products was spreading in the second half of the century, safety regulations were very limited and, as we know today, knowledge of harmful side effects does not always discourage use. Neither did the taxes imposed on cosmetic products in 1786 – an attempt to repair the damage done to the nation’s finances by the wars with America – do much to dent their popularity, and were largely rescinded after 1800 due to being too difficult to collect. Although criticism of overly made-up women from the start of the century, it was the revolutions at its end that ‘blew away the artifice of the old regime’, from which point a more fresh-faced – if not entirely natural – look was favoured by fashion, as could be seen in the rather lovely portraits of the English Hon. Caroline Upton and the French Fortunée Hamelin displayed by Aileen.

Elizabeth Gernerd – “Pulled Tight and Gleaming: The Stocking’s Positions within Eighteenth-Century British Masculinity.”

It was the turn of the gentleman of fashion in the last paper of the day, in which Elizabeth Gernerd of the University of Edinburgh showed us the importance of the leg in the display of eighteenth-century masculinity. Stockings were designed to show a shapely calf to its best advantage, and the portraits of wealthy gentleman often demonstrated their pride in their athletic legs. Some of these portraits were even hung so the leg was at eye-level, drawing the viewer’s eye in and then upwards to appreciate the subject’s physical and social stature. All men wore stockings; they were available in a variety of materials, colours and patterns for different occasions, and a change of stockings could completely alter a man’s appearance. Not all men could afford this variety – the colour of runaways’ stockings was often noted in advertisements seeking their return, implying that they may only have had one pair. But for the gentleman, a clean white stocking stretched over a well-turned leg was a symbol of masculinity, and even the elaborately coloured and patterned stockings of the outrageous macaronis did not challenge this idea. The antithesis of the masculine ideal was not a patterned stocking but one which was not adequately fitted to the leg. As the earl of Chesterfield informed his son, ‘nothing gives a more slovenly appearance to a man than an ill-dressed leg’, and slouched or fallen stockings are a common sign of emasculation in eighteenth-century caricature. The patriarchal state was based on masculine authority, so humorous caricatures such as Richard Newton’s 1794 Wearing the Breeches, in which the gender order was reversed, carried with them the concern that men’s private behaviour was endangering Britain. This, Elizabeth argued, was what made the maintenance of a well-dressed leg so important: the fallen stocking implied fallen standards, and the maintenance of such standards was vital on the legs of the men supporting the nation.

The day ended with thanks from organiser Serena Dyer to delegates, speakers and the Centre’s administrator Clare Bond.

More information about the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York and details of upcoming events can be found here.