Dressing for Success

Erin Mackie
University of Canterbury, New Zealand

These days, professional women often lament that they really do not have anything to wear to work. Professional clothing is masculine; feminine clothing is too “sexy” to be professional. The problem, indeed the near impossibility, of dressing in a way both professional and feminine ultimately resides, not in the limitations of clothing design or of our style sense, but in centuries-old gendered double binds. These restrict anything distinctly feminine against anything serious and professional. They are attended by equally entrenched mystifications that posit masculinity as gender neutral in much the same way that whiteness is understood as ethnically neutral, or invisible. So, conventionally, the man in a suit is understood not to be parading in an overtly masculine—that is gendered—mode, but simply to be dressing “professionally.” That this mode actually is not gender neutral, but rather aggressively masculine, becomes apparent only when a woman adopts it and incurs criticism for dressing “like a man.” If a woman foregoes the masculine sartorial codes associated with professionalism in favor of a fully feminine mode, then, likely as not, she risks undermining her status as a professional even as she celebrates her identity as a woman.

Faced with this sorry state of affairs, many women, perhaps especially women academics, adopt a default mode that seems a reversion to a sort of modified monasticism. Dressed as a kind of late modern secular nun in clothes that adhere to gendered prescriptions of dress even as they—through the studied erasure of any distinction (“excess”) of cut, color, texture, or style—cancel out any suggestion of the conspicuously feminine, many of us seek to escape the penalty of being professional women. This perhaps is our attempt at the inconspicuous consumption Jennie Batchelor discusses in her book on eighteenth-century dress and sensibility.

Whereas women today register sartorial double binds most immediately around the issue of professional competence and dressing for work, for eighteenth-century women they clustered around moral fitness and dressing for virtue. In Dress, Distress and Desire: Clothing and the Female Body in Eighteenth-Century Literature (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), Batchelor provides a precise, learned, and ably sustained examination of how the paradoxes of sartorial codes and of the ideology of sensibility merge to create the maddening double binds that ensnare women who would make claims to legitimacy. Both dress and sensibility involve modes of self-representation always under suspicion of disguise and deceit. During the eighteenth century, Batchelor argues, dress becomes a way to represent the hazards that attend the heavily embodied self-disclosure understood within the tenets of sensibility as virtuous authenticity: “Dress metaphorises sensibility’s paradoxical status as both a genuine moral response externally expressed . . . and a cultivated, possibly fictitious, mode of display” (3). The very pressure to produce a morally legible female body exacerbates anxieties about its counterfeit—for, as the signs of virtue are increasingly identified and catalogued so do they become increasingly autonomous, stylized, and available for sham appropriation. The sartorial metaphors of dress and fashioning become indispensable for mid- and late-century writers grappling with the problem of female virtue especially as it is encoded, some such as Wollstonecraft would say ensnared, in the discourse of sensibility.

In the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth centuries, as Laura Brown and Felicity Nussbaum have analyzed and as Batchelor remarks, sartorial metaphors had been used by writers such as John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope both to express a misogynist gender ideology and to explore more abstract issues concerning the epistemology of language and the maintenance of cultural value.[1] Always attentive to contradiction and paradox, Batchelor shows how the misogynist tenor of these metaphors undermines efforts to employ them more positively as Pope does with the “drest/exprest” ideal he forwards in the Essay on Criticism (5). From start to finish in Dress, Distress and Desire, Batchelor is concerned with how this misogynist suspicion of an “inevitable disjunction between surface sartorial beauty and an underlying moral and corporeal corruption” (5) emerges to disrupt standards of authenticity and representation throughout the century, from Pope’s Essay through to Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda. Batchelor analyzes how author after author tries to come to terms with, and often to evade, conventions of representation that seem to prescribe moral failure for women. Summing up her review of the mid-century Pamela and anti-Pamela contests in which female virtue is always held hostage to suspicions of feminine wiles, Batchelor remarks starkly: “Clothing, it seems, can be read as a signifier of character, so long as it only communicates female immorality” (51, my emphasis).

Focusing on the intersection of sartorial metaphors and sensibility, Batchelor analyzes the manifestations and logic of those increasingly influential modes of representation that eschew artifice and ostentation. Such styles had been advocated by Addison and Steele earlier in the century but obtain greater ideological purchase with the further consolidation of bourgeois cultural norms especially as these are embodied in the sentimental and domestic woman. Nancy Armstrong has characterized one such mode as “inconspicuous consumption,” and, in her discussion of the refashioning of the prostitutes at Magdalene House, Batchelor examines the paradoxes involved in showing that one’s style is not showing off (134).[2] In addition to the problems of being overtly inconspicuous, here, as with every style of female virtue, there always lurks the suspicion that the guise of virtue is really a disguise, that underneath every modestly dressed Magdalene festers a corrupt whore. Another, more overtly sentimental mode used to legitimate female virtue is one of absolute transparency, a style of full disclosure that Batchelor refers to as the “diaphanous veil”: “a symbolic ‘Want of Drapery’ which analogizes body, soul and mind by rendering the heroine’s [here Pamela] and the novel’s virtue unequivocally transparent” (21). Yet Samuel Richardson’s efforts to signal the moral transparency created by such perfect analogies run foul of misogynist suspicion and perhaps of the very premise of Richardson’s project. For, after all, both Richardson and his detractors seem to be claiming the same thing: Pamela is not what she seems.

The dense discursive and material associations between women and clothing are explored by Batchelor in a satisfying and ingenious array of contexts. Having laid out the conceptual ground of her study, the author deals first with the issues of female virtue at stake in the Pamela and anti-Pamela debates. While looking at some of the more or less predictable sources of this cultural context, such as Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela and John Kelly’s Pamela’s Conduct in High Life, Batchelor also brings to bear some lesser-known texts, such as the modernized story of patient Griselda published a year before Pamela in Gualtherus and Griselda (39). Next, outlining their representation in popular literature as well as, briefly, their place in social history, Batchelor examines the figures of mantua makers and milliners. Drawing characteristically careful distinctions, Batchelor argues that “unlike Pamela, who sought to define herself through her clothing, mantua makers and milliners were frequently presented as metaphoric equivalents of dress and fashion” (53). As such, these women laborers embody all the deceit and frivolity associated with (feminine) dress and fashion, and can serve as scapegoats. So, Batchelor argues, Haywood deflects criticism from her properly bourgeois, if frivolous, heroine Miss Betsy onto the mantua maker Modely (70). Likewise, Burney’s The Wanderer is ultimately limited in its advocacy of female dressmakers by its allegiance to bourgeois values and interests: “Burney cannot make Juliet a successful or even exemplary working woman without impugning the gentility the novel will ultimately reward. Throughout the novel, therefore, Juliet is presented as the virtuous exception that proves the rule of widespread self-interest and dissipation among female labourers” (79).

One of Batchelor’s central observations is that “reconciling an appropriate attachment to dress to conceptions of virtuous femininity was to prove one of eighteenth-century literature’s most difficult tasks” (82). In the next chapters, she examines attempts at such reconciliation in three related contexts: the eighteenth-century lady’s magazine; James Fordyce’s sentimental sermons and the institutionalized refashioning offered by the Magdalene House; and, finally, Edgeworth’s attempt in Belinda “to wrest sentiment from its trappings and reclaim true sensibility” (173).

Throughout Dress, Distress and Desire, Batchelor shows an admirable mastery of the eighteenth-century canon and, more impressively, the eighteenth-century archive, especially the archive of women’s writing. One of her most interesting pieces of evidence appears in chapter 3 where she includes the lady’s “pocket book,” or diary-cum-account-cum-memorandum book, in her discussion of lady’s magazines. The pocket book is interesting because, as Batchelor points out, its “emphasis on oeconomy, propriety and display places it on the same ideological continuum as the conduct book” (101). Like the conduct books discussed by Armstrong, the pocket book is quite graphically structured around tensions between frugality and fashion, economy and display, and encapsulates neatly the logic of “inconspicuous consumption.” Here, as occasionally elsewhere in this book, I wished that the author had explored the contexts and implications of her findings more thoroughly. Surely there is more to say about the credit and debit daily accounting so graphically realized in these pocket books. I was surprised to find in this context, for instance, that no reference was made to Stuart Sherman’s account of diurnal forms, Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785.[3] Likewise, I feel that the treatment of Quaker and Methodist dress which Batchelor discusses in relation to the sartorial codes of the Magdalene House could have been given a more leisurely treatment. Very little work has been done on gender and ideology in those contexts and it would have been rewarding to hear more about it from Batchelor.

That said, this is an extremely worthwhile book. It synthesizes current scholarship on sensibility and on fashion and female consumption in a pointed and powerful manner. The main lines of her argument follow the concerns of eighteenth-century scholars interested in gender, fashion, and consumption, and Batchelor’s reading of prominent texts such as Pamela, The Wanderer, Belinda, and Fordyce’s Sermons have much to offer students and scholars of eighteenth-century literature. The argument throughout is precise and tight—perhaps, as I suggest above, a bit too tight. The only fault I find with the book is that it is almost too frugal in the presentation of its material. But shorter books have become the trend in a hard-pressed publication market. Dress, Distress and Desire provides a convincing, illuminating, and resourceful look at the often insoluble binds eighteenth-century women faced as they strived to dress for success.


[1] Felicity Nussbaum, The Brink of All We Hate: English Satire on Women, 1660–1750 (Lexington, 1984); Laura Brown, Alexander Pope (Oxford and New York, 1985); and see also Ellen Pollak, The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope (Chicago, 1985).

Nancy Armstrong, “The Rise of the Domestic Woman,” The Ideology of Conduct: Essays on Literature and the History of Sexuality, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (London, 1987), 110–111.

[3] Stuart Sherman, Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785 (Chicago, 1996).