Fashion, attacks on

While fashions in furniture and architecture have not generally been perceived as a problem, fashionable dress has been frequently criticized by clergy, philosophers, moralists, and academics for centuries. The condemnations have been numerous and varying; fashionable clothes are attacked for encouraging vanity, loose sexual morality, conspicuous consumption, and effeminacy (in men), and thus blamed for all manner of social breakdown and sexual and gender confusion. Further, the very idea of discarding clothes once they are no longer fashionable (rather than “worn out”) has been seen by some as wasteful, frivolous, and irrational. The reasons fashion has been singled out for such condemnation are important and illustrative of the way in which fashionable dress intersects with wider social debates concerning gender, class, and sexuality. Perhaps the problem has to do with the close relationship of dress to the body, which bears the weight of considerable social, moral, sexual pressure, and prohibition (see Barcan 2004 and Ribeiro 2003). Further, given the close cultural associations between a woman’s identity and her body, it is no surprise that fashion is subjected to such an onslaught of criticism: As feminists have argued, the things associated with women are likely to carry a lower social status than the things of men. This is not to say that men are exempt from criticisms concerning fashionable dress (indeed, they sometimes are), but such criticisms are less frequent in history and when they occur, it is the inappropriate nature of male interest in clothes, and fears about masculinity, that prompt such attacks.

Gender, Sexuality, and Morality

Understanding the historical condemnations of fashionable dress therefore necessitates an examination of attitudes toward gender, sexuality, and clothes. At the same time that women have long been associated with the making of clothes, with textiles, and with consumption, there has existed also a metaphorical association of femininity and the very idea of fashion. According to Jones (1996, p. 35), “women had for centuries been associated with inconstancy and change,” characteristics that also describe fashion. It is also the case that as Breward (1994) and Tseëlon (1997) note, up until the eighteenth century, fashion had been considered a sign of the weakness and moral laxity of “wicked” women. Tseëlon (1997) examines how ancient myths about femininity have informed Western attitudes toward women. She points out (1997, p. 12) that between them, archetypal figures, such as Eve, inform Western moral attitudes toward women. Within Judeo-Christian teachings, from the tales of the Old Testament through the writings of the apostle St. Paul, woman has been associated with temptations of the flesh and decoration. At the heart of this attitude toward women was a fear of the body that, in Christian teachings, is the location of desires and “wicked” temptations to be disavowed for the sake of the soul. Thus the decorated (female) body is inherently problematic to Judeo-Christian morality, as Ribieiro has also argued. So too, however, is the naked or unadorned body. As Tseëlon (1997, p. 14) notes, in Judeo-Christian teachings, nakedness became a shameful thing after the Fall and, since the Fall is blamed on woman, then “the links between sin, the body, woman, and clothes are easily forged” (see also Barcan 2004).

Given its associations with sexuality and sin, it is not surprising that female clothing is the subject of heated debate amongst moralists and clergy, and that feminine dress is the object of quite vitriolic attacks. One can find particularly misogynistic diatribes on femininity and dress in the medieval writings of clergymen, as well as in the writings of later moralists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, Edward Cooke in 1678 wrote,

a double crime for a woman to be fashion’d after the mode of this world, and so to bring her innocence into disrepute through her immodest nakedness; because she her self not only sins against shame, but causes others to sin against purity, and at the same time, renders her self suspect. (Tseëlon 1997, p. 635)

To counter fears as to female sexuality and dress, Christianity produced “a discourse of modesty and chastity in dress” which became encoded into female sexuality (Tseëlon 1997, p. 12). Christian teachings held that redemption lay in the renunciation of decoration and modesty in dress, a moral duty born of Eve’s guilt. Thus, while men’s fashions were often highly erotic, it was women’s immodest display that was the focus of religious and moral condemnation. Only a woman could be accused of seduction in dress. While such ideas may seem almost quaint by contemporary standards, where it seems all bodies can “shamelessly” flaunt bottoms, breasts, and bellies, in fact, evidence of the continuing associations between women, seduction, and morality today can be found in contemporary culture. In rape cases, for example, women are still implicitly and explicitly criticized for wearing “sexually revealing” clothes and what a woman wore at the time of attack can be given as evidence of her desires for sex and used as male defense in the form of “she was asking for it.” The ghost of the temptress Eve still haunts contemporary culture.

Class, Morality, and Social Order

While sumptuary laws remained in place, fears about the breakdown of class distinctions were another source of anxiety for moral and social writers, particularly over the course of the eighteenth century. Here again, women’s fashion exemplifies these concerns about class, along with familiar fears about female sexuality. Sumptuary laws attempted to regulate status but, in the case of women, they also attempted to differentiate between the good, gentile wealthy woman and her “fallen” sister, the prostitute. As Emberley (1998, p. 8) notes, the hierarchy of furs and social positions created by these regulatory acts also influenced notions of sexual propriety among different classes of women. At certain times prostitutes were forbidden to wear fur to differentiate them from “respectable women.” However, it was not just sexual morality that was at stake in discourses on women and fashion. Women’s supposed love of fashion, and all that glitters and shines, has been seen as problematic to the general social and moral order. This was true in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when particular fears about the spread of luxury sometimes focused on women’s supposed insatiable desires for such consumption and the threats they posed to the family, as this tract from 1740 illustrates: “although her children may be dying of hunger, she will take food from their bellies to feed her own insatiable desire for luxury, she will have her silk fashions at any cost” (Jones 1996, p. 37). Thus moral discourse gave way to other kinds of rhetoric: “sartorial offence moved from being defined as a moral transgression to being defined as a social transgression” (Tseëlon 1997, p. 16). While the former was considered indicative of character flaw, the latter indicates a lack of gentility and education and civility. Thus, while moral transgression through clothing was a matter for both sexes, a woman might transgress moral codes in more ways than a man. By being too highly decorated she might be seen to have fallen prey to the sin of vanity (Jones 1996, p. 36).

Masculinity and Morality

While men of aristocratic birth were at least as equally decorated as women, for much of the early modern period right through to the eighteenth century (and indeed, beyond, if one includes military dress), this simple fact did not dilute the association of fashion with femininity. Indeed, when male peacocks were criticized it was often on the grounds of “effeminacy,” for showing too great an interest in fashion was deemed “inappropriate” to masculinity. Sometimes this criticism was leveled on the grounds that male interest in fashion transgressed the rightful division of the genders. At other times, effeminacy was seen as problematic to the image of a nation. The equation of effeminacy in male attire with the diminution of national interests can be seen in Elizabethan England: In the sermon “Homily Against Excess,” which Queen Elizabeth I ordered to be read out in churches, such associations are described as follows, “yea, many men are become so effeminate, that they care not what they spend in disguising themselves, ever desiring new toys, and inventing new fashions…. Thus with our fantastical devices we make ourselves laughing-stocks to other nations” (Garber 1992, p. 27).

As Garber notes, effeminacy here does not mean homosexuality (as it often does) but “self-indulgent” or “voluptuous” and therefore close to “womanly” things. Criticism is leveled at the money, time, and energy devoted by the effeminate man to the “feminine” and “trivial” frivolities of fashion. Similar criticism was directed at the “Macaroni” style (as in the rhyme “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) that was popular among young aristocratic men of the eighteenth century. Macaronis appeared in the English lexicon of 1764 to describe ultra-fashionable young men of noble birth. It was a rather “foppish” style, Italianate and Frenchified, and was criticized on the grounds that this gentleman had “become so effeminate and weak, he became unable to resist foreign threats and might even admire European tyranny” (Steele 1988, p. 31). Men have, therefore, not been immune to sartorial criticism, because it was thought that they should be “above” fashion. However, while moralists and clergymen might hope to dissuade men from decoration, historical evidence illustrates that they, too, have been under the sway of fashion.

Fashion as Irrational

Over the nineteenth century, as fashionable clothing became more widespread, moving from the aristocracy to the new bourgeois classes as part of a more general opening up of consumption, other problems associated with fashion were singled out for criticism. For some, fashionable clothing was indicative of wastefulness associated with new forms of consumption. One key figure in this line of attack is Thorstein Vehlen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class, first published in 1899, has remained a classic study of fashionable dress in late Victorian times and whose central theoretical tenants are still very much alive in contemporary critiques of consumption. Vehlen argues that the newly emerging bourgeoisie express their wealth through conspicuous consumption, conspicuous waste, and conspicuous leisure. Dress is a supreme example of the expression of pecuniary culture, since “our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at the first glance” (Veblen 1953, p. 119). Fluctuating fashions demonstrate one’s wealth and transcendence from the realm of necessity. However, what motivates fashion change is that wastefulness is innately offensive and this makes the futility and expense of fashion abhorrent and ugly. He suggests that new fashions are adopted in our attempt to escape this futility and ugliness, with each new style welcomed as relief from the previous aberration until that too is rejected. According to Vehlen, women’s dress displays these dynamics more than men’s since the only role of the bourgeois lady of the house is to demonstrate her master’s ability to pay, his pecuniary strength to remove her entirely from the sphere of work. The Victorian woman’s dress was also an important indicator of vicarious leisure since she wore clothes that made her obviously incapable of work—elaborate bonnets, heavy and elaborate skirts, delicate shoes, and constraining corsets— testimony to her distance from productive work. Vehlen condemns all these traits of fashionable dress, not just because they characterize women as men’s chattel, but also because this fashionablity is inherently irrational and wasteful. He calls for dress that is based on rational, utilitarian principles, and his ideas are closely aligned to the principles of many dress reformers (Newton 1974).

Ugly, Futile, and Irrational: The Dress Reform Critiques of Fashion

Vehlen was not alone in his condemnation of the fashions of his day. Numerous dress-reform movements emerged in the nineteenth century attacking fashionable dress. These movements were diverse and motivated by different concerns—social, political, medical, moral, and artistic—with some more progressive than others (Newton 1974; Steele 1985). For feminist dress reformers, the way in which narrow shoulders, tight waists, and expansive and awkward petticoats constrained the locomotion of the female body was a real political problem. However, more conservative medical discourses similarly attacked the corset for the way it constrained the reproductive organs, thus damaging women’s reproductive capacities and preventing her from performing her “natural” duties. Indeed, the corset has excited considerable controversy, stimulating intense debate and outright condemnation: For some it is an instrument of physical oppression and sexual objectification (Roberts 1977; Vehlen 1953 {1899}), for others, it is a garment asserting sexual power (Kunzle 1982; see also Steele 1988).

While women’s dress, in particular, was singled out for criticism by these reform movements, men’s dress, with its tight collars, fitted waistcoats and jackets, was also criticized by those, such as Flügel, associated with the men’s dress reform movement. The dress of both men and women was seen by some to be “irrational” in that it contorted the body into “unnatural” shapes and was driven by the “crazy” rhythms of fashion considered to be not just archaic to a scientific age, but wasteful and unnecessary. For example, “aesthetic” dress of the late nineteenth century challenged the artificial constrictions of the fashions of the day with a new kind of dress for men and women that was free flowing and more “natural.” At the same time health and hygiene campaigns often singled out women’s dress as unhealthy or unhygienic: It was said that corsets damaged the spleen and internal organs, particularly the reproductive organs, and the long petticoats picked up the mud, debris, and horse manure that were a constant feature of city streets in the nineteenth century (Newton 1974).

While fashion may be subject to much less criticism today, and no equivalents to the health and hygiene campaigns of the nineteenth century can be found, remnants of some criticisms linger in contemporary commentaries. For example, fashionable dress is still sometimes considered irrational and ugly, especially among intellectuals. Like Veblen, the contemporary philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1981, p. 79) condemns fashion as irrational and ugly, arguing that

Beauty (“in itself) has nothing to do with the fashion cycle. In fact, it is inadmissible. Truly beautiful, definitely beautiful clothing would put an end to fashion. . . . Thus, fashion continually fabricates the “beautiful” on the basis of a radical denial of beauty, by reducing beauty to the logical equivalent of ugliness. It can impose the most eccentric, dysfunctional, ridiculous traits as eminently distinctive.

Wilson (1987) takes issue with Veblen and Baudrillard’s account of fashion as wasteful and futile since both assume the world should be organized around utilitarian values; “there is no place for the irrational or the nonutilitarian; it was a wholly rational realm” (Wilson 1987, p. 52). A further problem with Veblen’s and Baudrillard’s accounts, according to Wilson, concerns their causal account of fashion change. The idea that fashion is constantly changing in an attempt to get away from ugliness and find beauty is reductive and over-deterministic. Both fail to acknowledge its ambivalent and contradictory nature, as well as the pleasures it affords, and their critique “grants no role to contradiction, nor for that matter to pleasure” (1987, p. 53).


Dress is still, perhaps, accorded less status than furniture, architecture, and other decorative commodities, which are similarly driven by fashion. There is something so intimate, sexual, and moral about what we hang at the margins of our bodies that makes dress susceptible to a kind of criticism that does not accompany the other objects we use. However, despite the fact that men and women wear fashionable dress, it is not considered a matter of equal male and female concern. Associations of fashion with femininity linger, and women’s supposed “natural” disposition to decorate is still considered “trivial” and “silly,” thus leaving women open to greater moral condemnation. While such ideas seem to be less obvious today, the lower status accorded to fashionable dress is evident in the sorts of criticism leveled at women, such as “mutton dressed up as lamb” (of which there is no equivalent term for men), and “fashion victim,” (usually denoting the woman who is a “slave” to her wardrobe). As these phrases suggest, fashion still comes in for moral judgment and criticism.


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