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Eighteenth century fashion and literature

There are a multitude of scholarly books and monographs written by Franklin College faculty each year and one of the things we’d like to do on the blog is talk with some of these scholar/authors and learn a little more about their new works, which are such a big part of their research.

Chloe Wigston Smith is an assistant professor in the department of English who specializes in the literature and culture of the eighteenth century. She is the author of Women, Work, and Clothes in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, August 2013). The book was recently shortlisted for the Milia Davenport Publication Award (Costume Society of America), a prestigious national award. Wigston Smith and I recently had for a short conversation about the book.


Franklin Chronicles: Your book explores novels that engage the representation of women’s work with clothing and material culture. What do you mean by material culture?

Chloe Wigston Smith: I’m interested in novels that represent women’s labor. Much of women’s work in the 18th century was associated with clothing, whether or not women were seamstresses, milliners, laundresses. So if you were an actress on the stage, your profession was connected to dress – the stage costuming that you wore, for example. Let’s say you were involved in more illicit activities, such as shoplifting or pocket picking, most of the objects that you were stealing were clothing items or accessories. Clothes were extremely expensive in the period – the materials that were used to make clothes were very valuable and they were seen as moveable goods. Wills in the 18th century commonly included clothing, jewelry, watches and accessories. So it’s quite different from the way most of us think of clothes today. In general, 18th century people owned fewer items and dress was viewed as less expendable and mass-market.

My book looks at women’s labor in novels, as well as the perceptions of their labor, fashions, and bodies. The novels represent a more progressive vision of the possibilities of women’s work in the eighteenth century, that I see as being distinctive from perceptions of clothing and women’s sexuality that circulated in the culture at large, as reflected in non-fiction writing, in trade debates, in court trials and testimony, in visual culture, and other genres in the period.

FC: So this material culture and the novels you discuss are all British?

CWS: Yes. I’m interested in the works of widely known authors like Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding, as well as writers like Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, John Cleland, Frances Burney and Mary Robinson. It groups together respectable novels about moral heroines with racier tales of seduction and crime.

FC: Why do you think novelists include information about fashion and dress?

The representation of material culture in the eighteenth-century novel is generally seen as being quite crucial to its development. This has been especially true in the wealth of studies devoted to the tradition of the realist novel that have examined

the stuff of novels, how authors fill in the homes of their characters,  how those rooms, furnishings, dress, jewelry, and even hair come to shed particular light on a character’s traits. Scholars have often looked at the relationship between the novel and material culture as one that is reciprocal, such that the novel reflects the world around it and turns that world into prose.

However, I’m more interested in thinking about how the novel is engaged in resisting the conventional depictions of material objects.  What I found is that the relationship between the novel and material culture is one that’s quite tense and vexed.  Rather than collapsing or conflating the novel with material culture, I’m more interested in charting the distance between those two realms.

One example of this would be the perception of shoplifters and pickpockets, an area of crime where you see a greater number of women participating than other types, like violent crime. Pickpockets were almost universally sexualized at their court hearings. Male prosecutors and witnesses would make all manner of innuendo and direct allegations about their sexual misconduct in the court records. Whether or not the women were prostitutes or walking the streets, they are associated with promiscuity. So I juxtapose that with Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders, an electrifying story about a woman born in London’s notorious Newgate Prison to a shoplifting mother. Against all odds Moll manages to amass a fortune, partially by becoming a successful pickpocket I talk about how Defoe separates Moll’s sexuality from her illicit work as a pickpocket and a shoplifter. In essence, the novel very much resists the conventional stereotypes of women in circulation at the time.

FC: How do you think your research for the book has changed your view of the eighteenth century or perhaps how you present the era to your students?

CWS: I think that access to museum objects has made me feel much closer to the lives of eighteenth-century women and men. In addition to the extensive literary research I completed for the book, I was fortunate enough to visit a number of dress and textile collections in England and the US. Because my book discusses working women, I was able to study the kind of non-elite artifacts that rarely get displayed or exhibited, or even reproduced in books, ones with holes and stains, gowns that were obviously recycled for different owners. Overall these collections made me feel connected to the past—and really opened up what I was trying to document in the novels. In my classes, I have tried to include a wider range of the lived experiences of people from the period than perhaps I would done have before the book and it has made me more interested in incorporating interdisciplinary conversations in my courses.

For more on Women, Work and Clothes in the Eighteenth Century Novel.



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