Purses, Productivity and a Pastorella ‘past her prime’

Examining the index of any year of the Lady’s Magazine for titles that mention fashion or dress inevitably produces a number of items, yet some of the most provocative discussions on the topic have seemingly unrelated titles. In 1778, for example, contributions on women’s dress are found in long-running serials such as ‘The Matron’ and ‘The Female Reformer’ as well as appearing in letters to the editors. Many of the articles that feature fashion are informed by the major philosophical concerns of the period and function as social commentary rather than solely as fashion reports. Such items, often bearing obscure titles or none at all when buried within the body of lengthier serials, can be easy for researchers to overlook.

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LM, I (1770). Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Part of our research project’s database includes assigning specific keywords to each item that usefully signal the subject matter in ways the genre or title may not indicate. For instance, a letter to the editor published in January 1778 listed in the index merely as ‘Shapes, fine’ strongly condemns the fashion of stays or corsets. Using terms characteristic of eighteenth-century discourse generally and particularly prevalent in discussions of manners and fashion the letter writer references ‘nature’ and ‘artifice’. The letter, signed H—, then goes on to locate the practice of ‘women’s lacing themselves up’ as one that will ‘entail diseases and deformity upon their successors’ – language more commonly encountered in medical tracts on venereal disease.

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LM, VII (1776). Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

‘[. . .] women’s lacing themselves up, in order to make what has been heretofore called fine shapes, I cannot help asking why, in the name of nature and reason, they cannot appear with the shape which their Creator has been pleased to give them? Why, for the sake of a capricious whim, must they entail diseases and deformity upon their successors? It is a known fact, that the health and strength of many thousands have been utterly destroyed, even before they were born’ (LM, IX [Jan 1778]: 17). The letter writer’s concern is not only with the defiance of ‘nature and reason’ occasioned by wearing stays, but also with their destructive effects on women’s bodies and the health and strength of the children they bear. Anxieties about female bodies and their productivity are returned to in relation to dress in a variety of contexts.

 

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LM, I (1770). Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

A reader who signs his letter to the magazine’s long-running agony aunt column ‘A Single Man’ laments women’s unproductive activities. Stating that ‘the more domestic women can be made, the better companions they will be for us’ (LM, IX [Jan 1778]: 35) he locates this desired domesticity in necessary and useful work that does not waste time: ‘I generally find the girls about some trifling piece of work, such a knotting, netting, or twisting purses [. . .] the time taken up in the making of it is misspent; it might certainly be disposed of in a more advantageous manner, in the performance of some works of indisputable usefulness’ (LM, IX [Jan 1778]: 35). Such productive, rather than trifling work, stops women from being ‘drawn to the card table’ and allows them to keep the hearts of their husbands by demonstrating ‘a constant attention to every species of domestic oeconomy, which ought never to be neglected for the pursuit of trifles’ (LM, IX [Jan 1778]: 36). Domestic economy, then, correlates directly to women working in useful, necessary, and productive ways.

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LM, VII (1776). Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

The maintenance of ‘decency’ is the purported impetus behind the letter from a ‘Friend to Decency, Delicacy, and Decorum’ who requests that the Matron side with him regarding the female fashion of jackets. The letter writer, however, is clearly more concerned with appearance than morality. ‘A Friend’ argues about the trend: ‘If these jackets can be at all allowable, they must be so only in the young: an old shepherdess, a Pastorella beyond her prime is past endurance’ (LM, IX [Aug 1778]: 412). The dig at women’s age elicits a response from ‘Patient Grizzle’ who states ‘But what provokes me more than all is his postscript: Can there be anything more ridiculous than for a man to pretend to say at what age a woman shall leave off a jacket [. . .] but then I would not be prescribed by any one of the male sex – no, so far from it, that I would put on a jacket at three-score if I liked it’ (LM, IX [Oct 1778]: 527). This reader’s reply demonstrates that although ‘A Friend’ may have dressed his argument in the language of decency, she understands it as an attack on women’s freedom of choice.

The correspondents’ engagement with the magazine and each other reveals the range of discourses embedded within unexpected items, underscoring the complexity and breadth of the archive.

 

Dr Jenny DiPlacidi

University of Kent

 

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