The Age of Undress: Art, fashion and the classical ideal in the 1790s 
by Amelia Rauser.
Yale, 215 pp., £35, March, 978 0 300 24120 4
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Emma Hart, on the right, dancing the tarantella with a friend (1796).

In​ the 1770s, Ann Frankland Lewis began producing watercolour paintings of fashionable women’s dress. She continued creating these images for more than thirty years, charting the extraordinary changes that were taking place. They meticulously chronicle the demise of the early 18th-century mantua dress: the stretching of skirts out over hoops, and the hard stomacher fitted inside the bodice. As the old receded, the new could already be seen in the kind of ‘undress’ that became popular in artists’ studios and on the stage: the loosely draped outfits, falling from high waistbands, that characterise the portraits of Joshua Reynolds. When Mary Isabella, Duchess of Rutland, sat for Reynolds in the late 1770s, she recorded her frustration at being required to try on 11 different outfits, before he finally settled on what she referred to as ‘that bedgown’. One of the reasons that Reynolds favoured such dress, he wrote in his Discourses on Art, was because it conveyed ‘the general air of the antique’, liberating his female portraits from the whims and vagaries of ‘temporary fashion’. By the time of Reynolds’s death in 1792, ‘that bedgown’ had become the very height of fashion. The ‘robe à la grecque’, ‘empire style’, ‘neoclassical dress’ swept away the remnants of panniers and stomachers. Frankland’s watercolour for 1793 captured the vogue for long folds of white fabric and a body beneath that was clearly no longer tightly corseted.

In The Age of Undress, Amelia Rauser examines the fashion that burned brightly, if briefly, at the end of the 18th century. The trend was highly revealing. Breasts had already been on display, pushed up and accentuated by those earlier stomachers, but now backs and arms were also uncovered. Waists became very high – or ‘short’, in what was then the common term. Indeed, the busts of these dresses could measure as little as one and a half inches above the waist. With the loss of hoops, the fine muslin would cling to the body, accentuating the stomach and thighs. And the material could be sheer to the point of transparency, strategically revealing where it was thinly swathed, more modestly concealing where it was layered several times. A reporter for the Gazette des Deux-Ponts described it as ‘gauzy nudity’.

The preferred colour was white (sometimes alleviated by white-on-white embroidery), in line with Winckelmann’s statement in the History of Ancient Art (1764) that ‘a beautiful body will … be the more beautiful the whiter it is.’ The racial implications are clear. The whiteness of neoclassical dress was closely tied to the belief in European cultural superiority. Rauser reminds us that the cotton used to make these gowns was heavily implicated in slavery. Exports of cotton from the West Indies quadrupled between 1781 and 1791, shipped across to factories in Liverpool and Manchester. By the 1780s, the majority of the cotton sold in markets around the world was produced by African slaves. The connection with the plantations was sometimes explicitly evoked. Juliette Récamier, the Parisian salon hostess, liked to sport the headwrap favoured in the West Indies. Plaid madras – Indian cloth used to barter slaves in West Africa, and to clothe them in the Caribbean – was used for accessories. The ‘whiteness’ of the look was enhanced by the ‘darkness’ of the other, but that ‘other’ was also evoked to bestow a touch of the exotic.

The appeal of this form of dress is evident in portraits of the period, including self-portraits, such as Constance Mayer’s near monochrome painting of 1799. Mayer’s simple, high-waisted dress is set off by the sombre browns and greys of the interior. Her melancholic pose – one hand to her head as she gazes out towards the viewer – complements the tonal suggestion of purity, sobriety and learnedness. Rauser goes beyond portraits and fashion plates also to consider surviving costumes, contemporary accounts and critiques, not least in the form of visual satire. In one image, of ‘Parisian Ladies in their Winter Dress for 1800’, the faces of the women are nearly covered by floriated caps and brown curls while the rest of them is almost completely exposed. In case this wasn’t enough, each of the women dangles a reticule from her wrist, labelled with its alternative name: ‘ridicule’.

Rauser is largely concerned with what neoclassical dress meant for the women who wore it, and she structures a considerable part of the book around three case studies. The first is Emma Hart. Around a year after her arrival in Naples in 1786, passed from her lover, Charles Greville, to his uncle William Hamilton – she began to perform her ‘Attitudes’, looking very much like a figure from an ancient wall painting or one of Hamilton’s Greek vases (then thought to be Etruscan). Wearing sheer, draped dresses, with shawls as accessories, she would strike various poses, often taken from antiquity, creating a series of tableaux vivants to entertain her guests. The Attitudes were memorialised in prints, most notably in the series of 12 Drawings Faithfully Copied from Nature, at Naples, executed by Friedrich Rehberg and engraved by Tommaso Piroli in 1794.

Emma divided opinion. Johann Gottfried Herder, initially entranced, became repulsed, dismissing her as ‘Hamilton’s whore’, cavorting about and mimicking the antique like an ‘ape’. Others found the Attitudes deeply erotic, and the Comte d’Espinchal was surely not the only audience member to fantasise about what it must be like to be Hamilton. Others were deeply moved: accounts abound of weeping, sighing and swooning. Marianne Kraus described her fellow artist Angelica Kauffman as having ‘sobbed loud enough to move stones’, while Johann Friedrich Reiffenstein apparently ‘cried so tenderly, one could count the slow-falling antique tears’. Kraus herself found the whole business decidedly silly: ‘From the beginning, it took an effort to hide my laughter over the howling.’

The Attitudes, and the associated costumes, were expressions of the popular concept of the ‘living statue’. By wearing these dresses, women were styling themselves as figures from antiquity – cold marble transformed into warm flesh. The vitalism in Frankenstein can be traced back to Pygmalion and Galatea (‘she who is milk white’) in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Psyche is struck inanimate as punishment for looking into Persephone’s box of beauty, but revived by her lover, Cupid. John Philip Kemble revived Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in 1802 with his sister, Sarah Siddons, in the role of Hermione. At the end of the play, when Leontes is introduced to a statue of the wife whom he believes to be long dead, Siddons, draped in neoclassical muslin and dramatically backlit, would suddenly turn her head and the ‘statue’ would come to life. The idea of the ‘living statue’ also inspired new narratives, including the strange story of Louisa Winstone in a little-known play by Samuel Jackson Pratt: The New Cosmetic; or, the Triumph of Beauty (1790). Louisa has turned as ‘brown as a gipsy’ on her father’s sugar plantation in Antigua, to the distaste of her would-be suitor Mr Lovemore, but uses a marvellous (if painful) lotion to slough off the tan, and restore her previous ‘rosy and lily-like’ complexion. She then assumes the guise of a white waxwork statue in a gallery. Lovemore is duly entranced, Pygmalion-like, before Louisa reveals herself to be a living woman, stepping down from her pedestal.

The ideal of the living statue was also, Rauser argues, behind a curious fashion spearheaded in London between 1793 and 1794 by the second of her case studies, Lady Charlotte Campbell, another veteran of Naples. Campbell introduced a vogue for wearing ‘belly pads’, a stuffed linen bag worn under the dress to create the appearance of a fuller, rounded stomach. The spectacularly short-lived nature of this fashion is unsurprising when one considers that the majority of the surviving evidence for it takes the form of spoofs and satires, largely focused on the fact that the pads made women appear several months pregnant. Critics also suggested that an illicit pregnancy could be hidden beneath a pad. Both the pad and a shameful pregnancy were known as a ‘faux pas’, and ‘An Epistle from Mrs Bustle to Mrs Pad’, printed in the Times in May 1793, ends with the lines: ‘A projection much better, behind than before,/Because it make virgins now look like a ——.’ Rauser wants us to see this strange fad as part of the broader drive to transform women into living statues. Sir Gilbert Elliot, describing Campbell arriving at a ball with pad in place, believed the ‘original idea … to have been an imitation of the drapery of statues and pictures, which fastens the dress immediately below the bosom, and leaves no waist’. This, Rauser argues, was about an emphasis on a strong outline: the sinuous contour characteristic of neoclassicism. The problem was that the belly pad, in its three-dimensionality, failed miserably.

Rauser’s third subject, Thérésa Tallien, a Spanish-born salon hostess and later princesse de Chimay, was one of the women called on to personify a goddess during the Feast of Reason ceremonies held in France in 1793, appearing as Liberty at a large parade in Bordeaux. She is illustrated here in an extraordinary portrait by Jean-Louis Laneuville, exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1796 as Citizen Tallien in a Prison Cell at La Force. It shows Thérésa in the wake of her imprisonment on Robespierre’s orders in May 1794, sitting by a broken pitcher and clutching her freshly shorn hair in readiness to meet the guillotine. She wears a simple white dress, her arms bare, a knotted scarf just below her bosom. Prison garb, the chemise and fashionable neoclassical costume could, it appears, merge seamlessly. Following Thérésa’s release in July, she gained the epithet of ‘Our Lady of Thermidor’ and became a society trendsetter. When she married Jean-Lambert Tallien at the end of that year, her white muslin tunic put her pregnancy on full display. One contemporary anecdote about the lightness of muslin dresses claims that Thérésa bet a man that her entire outfit weighed no more than two six-franc pieces, taking it off to resolve the issue. She enhanced the whiteness of the look by wearing blonde wigs and in 1797 was involved in a dramatic new fashion: going à la sauvage. This had less to do with Greek and Roman statuary, and more to do with the appearance of ‘primitive’ peoples. The principle of ‘gauzy nudity’ remained, but was taken much further. Transparent fabric was draped over flesh-coloured silk body stockings, to create as near an appearance of nudity as sartorially possible – an extreme look that provoked extreme reactions and was as short-lived as the belly pad in London.

Rauser wants us to take even the most faddish aspects of neoclassical dress seriously. She argues that it was an empowering fashion for women. Those who adopted it didn’t merely serve as ideals and allegories, but as artists and patrons, and, more broadly, as aesthetic innovators. Despite the satire of Parisian ladies in ‘full dress’ in 1800, or the hysteria engendered in 1797 when Fortunée Hamelin, a mixed-race Creole woman, emerged from a Parisian carriage, pregnant and dressed only in gauze and flesh-coloured underclothes, Rauser’s conclusions are relentlessly upbeat. The belly pad craze was really a sophisticated engagement with the linearity of neoclassicism. The figure of the Bacchante may have been associated with base sensuality but was, Rauser claims, a ‘liberating template for female self-presentation and self-conception’.

The circle is squared partly by the argument that women gained access to high status aesthetic realms via ‘lower’ points of access. Rauser portrays this access as transformative: women turned their ‘objectified and essentialised role’ to their advantage. But a more balanced perspective would also engage fully with the problematic associations of neoclassical dress, which, as she notes, include the aesthetics of sickliness as well as issues of race. Thin, skimpy dresses left women cold and more susceptible to illness (flu was ‘muslin disease’), perhaps even to consumption, which was believed to bring women to the peak of beauty before an untimely death: ‘consumptive chic’. And despite emphasising fertility, neoclassical dress also implied a state of infancy, bearing as it did a strong resemblance to the outfits worn by children. Rauser celebrates the potential of neoclassical dress to render its wearers ‘desiring subjects’ as well as ‘desirable objects’, but downplays the extent to which women had to consider the male gaze. In Johan Zoffany’s Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-77), a group of young men on the Grand Tour goggle at the posterior of the Venus de Medici, one of them even producing an eye glass in order to get a better view. The idea of the ‘living statue’ offered opportunities to enjoy real women in the same way. Emma Hart was an extraordinary woman, but she lived a precarious existence, more artist’s model (or artwork) than artist. Angelica Kauffman, who had to disclaim the challenge she posed to male artists, constantly emphasised her own femininity in her self-portraits. Her dress – white and flowing – illustrates the delicacy of her position.

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Vol. 43 No. 1 · 7 January 2021

I was thrilled to learn, reading Kate Retford’s description of neoclassical dress, that my rather matronly figure conforms to the late 18th century ideal (LRB, 3 December 2020). It only struck me later that, although my bust is indeed ‘one and a half inches’ above my waist, both would have needed to be rather higher, relative to my chin.

Rachel Ware
Honiton, Devon

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