Têtes to tails: eighteenth-century underwear and accessories in Britain and Colonial America
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Gernerd, Elisabeth Brooks
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Over the past thirty years, the study of dress has flourished as a field of interdisciplinary enquiry, emerging from consumer studies by economic historians and artefact-based research. More recent scholarship has addressed clothing in terms of material culture and as a marker of identity, adopting approaches from anthropology, cultural studies, history of art, material culture studies and history. However, despite these advances in understandings of eighteenth-century dress, the social and cultural consequence of many garments has yet to be fully teased out. This thesis aims to amend that oversight and shed light on the significance of underwear and accessories in Britain and, to a lesser extent, colonial America from the period of 1666 to 1819. Five garments, each stemming from a different region of the body, form the chapters of this thesis: banyans, cork rumps, calashes, muffs, and stays. As structural undergarments, accessories and undress, these objects were auxiliary to the main garments of eighteenth-century dress, a man’s three-piece suit and woman’s mantua or polonaise gown. However, they were fashionable necessities, required to give the essential shape to the silhouette, complete an ensemble, or sartorially facilitate the expression of politeness and sociability. This discussion looks beyond these items as articles of fashion to establish their cultural currency through the study, where possible, of surviving material artefacts and their visual and discursive representations in painted portraiture, graphic satire, archival manuscripts, and published newspapers and magazines. Marrying aspects of artefact-based approaches with visual analysis exposes the discourses between the material artefacts and their representational constructions. First, the thesis discusses the banyan’s relation to time, exposing it as an agent of time that thwarted the chrononormative paths of the male sex. Issues of evidence, or the lack thereof, are addressed in Chapter Two, through an examination of the cork rump in satirical prints. The third chapter charts the material, spatial and social mobility of the calash and its wearer. Addressing embroidered and satin print silk muffs, the fourth chapter positions the silk muff as a haptic receptacle of expression, as well as portable canvas of female art and patronage. The final chapter examines the divergent associations of the stay, both as a mediator of gender normativity, and as an iconographic vessel of gender, class and national anxiety. Through the close analysis of these previously overlooked articles of dress, this thesis reveals the charged and weighted associations embedded within and ascribed to underwear and accessories in the long eighteenth century.