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Historical Style: Fashion and the New Mode of History, 1740-1830

Historical Style: Fashion and the New Mode of History, 1740-1830

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Historical Style: Fashion and the New Mode of History, 1740-1830

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Jun 21, 2016


Historical Style connects the birth of eighteenth-century British consumer society to the rise of historical self-consciousness. Prior to the eighteenth century, British style was slow to change and followed the cultural and economic imperatives of monarchical regimes. By the 1750s, however, a growing fashion press extolled, in writing and illustration, the new phenomenon of periodized fashion trends. As fashion fads came in and out of style, and as fashion texts circulated and obsolesced, Britons were forced to confront the material persistence of out-of-date fashions. Timothy Campbell argues that these fashion texts and objects shaped British perception of time and history by producing new curiosity about the very recent past, as well as a new self-consciousness about the means by which the past could be understood.

In a panoptic sweep, Historical Style brings together art history, philosophy, and literary history to portray an era increasingly aware of itself. Burgeoning consumer society, Campbell contends, highlighted the distinction between the past and the present, created an expectation of continual change, and forged a sense of history as something that could be tracked through material objects. Campbell assembles a wide range of writings, images, and objects to render this eighteenth-century landscape: commercial dress displays and David Hume's ideas of novelty as historical form; popular illustrations of recent fashion trends and Sir Joshua Reynolds's aesthetic precepts; fashion periodicals and Sir Walter Scott's costume-saturated historical fiction. In foregrounding fashion to trace eighteenth-century historicism, Historical Style draws upon the interdisciplinary, multimedia archival impressions that fashionable dress has left behind, as well as the historical and conceptual resources within the field of fashion studies that literary and cultural historians of eighteenth-century and Romantic Britain have often neglected.

Jun 21, 2016

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Historical Style - Timothy Campbell

Historical Style


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Historical Style

Fashion and the New Mode of History, 1740–1830

Timothy Campbell



Copyright © 2016 University of Pennsylvania Press

All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations used for purposes of review or scholarly citation, none of this book may be reproduced in any form by any means without written permission from the publisher.

Published by

University of Pennsylvania Press

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4112

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

1  3  5  7  9  10  8  6  4  2

A catalogue record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.

ISBN 978-0-8122-4832-6

For Melissa and Charlie

Again, wert not thou, at one period of life, a Buck, or Blood,

or Macaroni, or Incroyable, or Dandy,

or by whatever name, according to year and place,

such phenomenon is distinguished?

—Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus





CHAPTER 1 Modern Fashion and Comparative Contemporaneity

CHAPTER 2 Portrait Historicism and the Dress of the Times


CHAPTER 3 Hume, Historical Succession, and the Dress of Rousseau

CHAPTER 4 Historical Novelty and Serial Form

CHAPTER 5 Walter Scott’s Fashion Systems

CHAPTER 6 William Godwin and the Objects of Historical Fiction

CODA Beautiful Historical Experience







Fashions Past

When the landmark volume The Birth of a Consumer Society (1982) first went looking for signs of a familiarly modern consumerism in eighteenth-century Britain, it found them at a glance in the period’s fashionable styles. Neil McKendrick observes how, in contrast to the composite image of the Tudors that will suffice for historians of the sixteenth century, the accelerating pace of fashion change [in the eighteenth century] can only be accommodated by referring to the styles of George I, George II, the 1760s, the 1770s, the 1780s and 1790s, and with many fashion goods even that is insufficient and anyone with scholarship worthy of the name would have to refer to individual years.¹ But remarkably, thirty years after the multidisciplinary turn toward material culture that The Birth of a Consumer Society helped inspire (shaping thing theory, the new history of the book, object-oriented ontology, and so on), we have yet to grapple fully with the way these changing styles were almost equally visible to eighteenth-century Britons themselves, and within the revolutionary practices of historical representation they were simultaneously elaborating.

In Historical Style, I focus on this convergence of fashion, commerce, and historical specificity to trace the extraordinary implications of fashionable dress for a new mode of history. This history probed the distinctive contours of individual decades and years; comprehended the social and material lives of ordinary persons, past and present; and finally found definitive expression in the Romantic historical fiction of Walter Scott, whose novels outsold those of all his contemporaries combined. This history’s practices and presumptions, I argue, consolidated the inchoate lessons of a novel, print-cultural record of fashionable life that proliferated from the mid-eighteenth century, especially in the form of precisely dated illustrations that fostered new alertness to the location of all dress in time. At the instigation of fashion plates, graphic satires, periodical prose and illustrations, and portrait reproductions—and often in self-consciously paradoxical ways—Britons reinvented the material life of the past as a source of novelty for the present.

Writing in the 1950s (at the last high moment of the hundred years’ fashion),² Roland Barthes described the implacably annual procession of a print-cultural fashion system that was fundamentally new each year, in a way that made fashionable dress peculiarly autonomous from history and its causes.³ In this book I foreground instead an earlier moment of systematic fashion, starting in the mid-eighteenth century, when the visual and textual genre of the dress of the year first became iconic. For Barthes (writing at the height of structuralism), A state of fashion can never be explained analytically, there is no analogical relation between the Napoleonic period and high waistlines. In short, he claims, History does not produce forms.⁴ But the story I tell of this earlier fashion moment is one in which the changing forms of dress in eighteenth- century Britain nevertheless produced a distinctive history. By retracing Britons’ increased sensitivity to cycles of fashion—and to now-familiar dynamics of currency and obsolescence in everyday commercial life—I account for the complex ways in which this sensitivity both shaped and vexed the period’s projects of historical representation.

While I stage my inquiry alongside existing accounts of a rise of historical consciousness in the period, I set out less to offer a developmental narrative than to describe the proliferating effects of a structure of change.⁵ In the process, I emphasize the contingency of Britons’ impulse to envision cultural life as ongoing history and to shape that history in fashion’s image. As the idea of historicism dawned, eighteenth-century Britons built an enduring practice of historicism from the materials they found all around them amidst the birth of a consumer society—not the dry, sapless, mouldering, and disjointed bones that had long fixated antiquaries, but the vivid images of passing styles that were remaking the substance and methods of memory.⁶ In the form of print-cultural fashion, which left behind a record that could be consulted years hence, the regular rhythms sustained by commercial life became a generative matrix for historical reflection.

Ultimately, attending to the remarkable convergences between the historical vision of the long eighteenth century and its fashions reveals an early moment of historicism that was more complex, and more riven with productive tension, than we have so far recognized. In the way fashion texts endured and accumulated, Britons confronted the novel persistence of old fashions, which produced new curiosity about the very recent past as well as new self-consciousness about the means by which the past could be known. And in the course of appreciating not only the historical exceptionality of the material abundance of their age, but also the partialness and anachronism of their own consumerist vision of history, eighteenth-century Britons turned the significations of dress into an organizing contradiction of the first historicist age.

Old English Dresses

To evoke the surprising provocations of the protean historical vision that resided in the somewhat unlikely domain of dress, I begin with an eighteenth- century visual text that I take as an icon for my own project: a remarkable illustration from Thomas Jefferys’s early costume history A Collection of the Dresses of Different Nations, Antient and Modern, Particularly Old English Dresses (1757) (Figure 1).⁷ The subtitle of this collection, Particularly Old English Dresses, aptly announces the subsidiary program that is the project’s real innovation: not its geographical or ethnographic assemblage of global costume, as would have been more familiar, but instead its assemblage in place of the changing styles of Britons.⁸ Most remarkably, in a way that offers a glimpse of the horizon of historical self-consciousness I am describing, the Collection’s unique plate depicting the Habits of English Gentlemen in 1735, 1745, 1755 stages a dynamic scene of cultural interaction across time that is in important ways new.

In the image what immediately becomes an open question is the precise relation of each of the three times identified by these men’s dress (1735, 1745, and 1755) to the other times with which they coincide on the page. The force of this question grows evident in these gentlemen’s strikingly active gazes—which insist, I think, upon the various permutations of comparison that might emerge here. What the most current figure of 1755 might ask of his counterpart of 1735 (or vice versa) would presumably differ in kind from what their fellow of 1745 might ask of the other two. And crucially, the question of whether we are looking backward to the past or forward to the future (or both) is up in the air depending upon the permutation of comparison that we choose. Some possibilities of contemplation seem intriguingly foreclosed in ways we might interpret—as in the case of the gentleman of 1735, in his inability to see his future counterpart from 1755, at least in this frozen moment. The art of this image, nevertheless, is to force a viewer to confront the full range of comparative possibilities, visually realized and otherwise.

FIGURE 1. From Thomas Jefferys, A Collection of the Dresses of Different Nations, Antient and Modern, vol. 2 (1757). Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

At the same time, we might wonder about the claim this dress is making to dated representativeness in the first place. Notably, the dates of 1735, 1745, and 1755 form a standardized sequence, set apart at regularized intervals of ten years each. The dress might seem specifically to commemorate the styles of the individual years designated and so to leave gaps between those years. But the regular sequence might also suggest that this dress distills the general contours of the complete decades of style for which it also seems to stand—at intervals just long enough for distillation to resolve into clear distinctions. Viewers are asked to scrutinize the differences between these respective dress habits; but they are also invited to contemplate the conspicuous, formal means by which this image underscores difference, or makes that difference visually apparent, and even pushes such difference to the point of motivating narrative.

In the context of the larger Collection, the remarkable qualities of this particular plate grow clearer still. Together with a complementary rendering of the Habits of English Ladies in 1735, 1745, 1755, this image is highly unusual among the many illustrations contained within these volumes (Figure 2).⁹ First, these plates approach uniquely near (chronologically) to the Collection’s own day of 1757. Second, among the hundreds of historical and ethnographic costume plates contained in the Collection, these two singularly modern images are the only two examples that assemble dressed figures from multiple times on the same page, to cohabit the same visual plane—gathered at intervals that make comparison almost inevitable. In this way, the Habits of English Gentlemen in 1735, 1745, 1755 posits the historical exceptionality of its mid-eighteenth century present through an implicit claim about the habits of vision arising at the same moment, in life and in print.

For the Collection, modern Britons have fashion—here a kind of liberty with form—that stands in contrast to the customary dress of traditional cultures around the globe. As Jefferys’s prefatory text observes, "At present indeed the Europeans are so much at Liberty to follow their own Fancy in the Figure and Materials of their Dress, that the Habit is become a kind of Index to the Mind, and the Character is in some Particulars as easily discovered by a Man’s Dress as by his Conversation."¹⁰ This profusion of possibilities for the figure and materials of dress points to a broadly transformed consumer marketplace in which material life promised to express individual and collective human aspiration with unprecedented nuance. Britons could follow their own Fancy in dress, in the straightforward sense of selecting a style that suited them, but also via dress, in the stronger sense of pursuing desire as such through clothing (and through the collective fancy of fashion) rather than some other avenue.

As Jefferys’s figures of 1735, 1745, and 1755 contemplate fellow Britons of times quite proximate to their own, they regard each other with a mix of surprise, curiosity, and pleasure. This is a response provoked not by alienation from a distant time or place but by an uncanny—and, it seems, heretofore unrecognized—difference from one another over these relatively short intervals of social life. Notably, the most recent fashions of 1755 are not privileged over or separated from the earlier dress of 1735 and 1745. In the way that all three figures are represented as equivalent objects of inquiry for the others, they bespeak the irreducible particularity of each of the three times that stand as provenance for their costumes. As an assertion about the distinctness of commercial modernity, the unique proximity of these habits in time suggests how the increasingly regular changes of dress fashions at midcentury, made apparent by their print-cultural reproduction, allowed for the incremental alterations of fashion to signify in new ways—and thus for different times to enter into new kinds of relations.

FIGURE 2. From Thomas Jefferys, A Collection of the Dresses of Different Nations, Antient and Modern, vol. 2 (1757). Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

In all these ways, the Habits of English Gentlemen in 1735, 1745, 1755 intimates the consciousness of the nascent print-cultural fashion system that I describe in this book. This system functioned through a complex set of procedures that labored to discern and reproduce compelling alterations in cultural forms, and to do so with the kind of regularity that made the expectation of change integral to the experience of those forms. Yet as the Collection also suggests, the distinctness of each moment had always to be produced or recognized in relationship to what just had been and was no longer, in a way that heightened the importance of the past to the present. By presenting the discreteness but also the equivalence of these three times, Jefferys’s rendering of dress reflects how fashion approximated and induced a new attunement to the temporal specificity of cultural interactions that was requisite to modern historicism. And as an aid or prompt to memory, fashion henceforth anchored a wider range of meaningful associations about the peculiarity of each moment of social life.

The Collection’s confidence in recalling these recent dates as distinctive times of their own stemmed from the revolutionary promise of its constituent visual sources to attend to the immanent history of social life via precise attention to passing styles of dress. The figures for 1735 and 1745 are directly copied from a pair of designs that were themselves quite unusual in their original moment, L. P. Boitard’s Taste A-La-Mode, 1745 (1745) and Taste A-La-Mode as in the Year 1735 (1749) (Figures 3 and 4). As I show in Chapter 1, Boitard’s designs—precisely because of their almost unique vantage upon the year during the 1740s moment of their production—led an extraordinary afterlife within the visual print culture of fashion that succeeded them over the course of the eighteenth century. Taste A-La-Mode, 1745 in particular became a kind of urtext for a specifically citational tradition, one that brought this dress from 1745 into continual comparison and contrast with the dress of the future. After reappearing in Jefferys’s Collection in 1757, the same design and costume were directly copied and updated for most of the next century in examples I have located in 1772, 1776, 1784, 1790 (twice), 1809, 1823, 1834, and elsewhere.

The conspicuous repetition of Boitard’s design in the future brings home the indispensability of this illustration at an early moment in the history of fashion in print. But while costume historians (along with Romantic-era Britons themselves) have long registered and lamented the dearth of fashion images in the early to mid-eighteenth century, this problem of historical visuality has not much permeated the awareness of literary and cultural historians. As the fashion historian John L. Nevison notes, there were at this time dated portraits of English ladies which can be used [today] as fashion illustrations; Boitard’s isolated caricature scenes … also may serve as records of fashion. There was, however, no journal of fashion in England before the reign of George III. Indeed, there seems to have been no publication or series of prints to give guidance to the fashion trade in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century—at which point it was British publications, at a generative distance from France, that took the lead in serializing fashion in print.¹¹ For those Britons (in 1757 and after) seeking to recover the earlier moments of 1735 or 1745 in all their temporal specificity, fashionable and otherwise—and who therefore sought contemporaneous representations sharing their own commitment to trace the precise lines of a cultural moment—Boitard’s designs remained an almost necessary point of origin.¹²

FIGURE 3. L. P. Boitard, Taste A-La-Mode, 1745 (top) and details alongside figures from the Collection of Dresses for 1745 (bottom). © Trustees of the British Museum.

FIGURE 4. L. P. Boitard, Taste A-La-Mode as in the Year 1735 (top) and details alongside figures from the Collection of Dresses for 1735 (bottom). courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale university.

It was only from the late 1750s onward, in the wake of the Collection of Dresses, that a regular provision of fashion images became available to Britons in accessible print forms—most emblematically in the numerous pocketbook annuals for women where the visual and textual genre of the dress of the year first became iconic. These pocketbook fashion plates supplied direct archival resources to future historical projects, but they also disseminated a concise, formal apprehension of the wider fashion system that was reordering modern commercial society in elusive yet fundamental ways (Figure 5). For us they also point to a deep archive of the pleasures and dangers of commercial repetition, or to an early scene of modern periodicity and seriality (long preceding the Victorian novel) that has profoundly influenced our patterns of historical self-reflexivity ever since.¹³

FIGURE 5. Women’s pocketbook fashion plate from The Ladies Mirror, or Mental Companion for the Year 1785 (containing a title-page genre scene with Ladies in the Dress of the Year as well as a fold-out depiction of The most Fashionable and Elegant Head dresses for the Year).

Immanent Distance and Modern Life

In the period from roughly 1740 to 1830, an emergent historicism was at the root of a remarkable series of intellectual remakings, as ordinary Britons for the first time began to recognize and to care about the precise ways in which their culture had changed over time. They began to see how they themselves, in their subjective and social being, were present-day products of contingent historical circumstances. A nascent practice of social history renewed traditional historiography (heretofore dominated by lessons on politics and warfare for elites) with scenes of private life.¹⁴ The progressive historical philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment theorized how stages of economic development shaped the social character of disparate cultures in homologous ways. In a Gothic revival that signaled the dawn of a modern poetic canon in English, literary critics reappraised the aesthetic value of the rude texts of Britain’s past and insisted that these texts be understood on their own terms rather than those of classical antiquity.¹⁵ And at century’s end, in a development that extended the same insights before a broad audience, the historical novel emerged as a formal (and marketplace) culmination of these trends. In the hands of Walter Scott, the genre achieved world-historical importance not just for its momentous popularity or for its global influence on the history of literature (especially via the European novel of realism), but also for the profound shadow historical fiction cast upon the historiography of the century to come.¹⁶ After the epochal novels of Scott, the historian always had to reckon with the power Scott’s fiction displayed (as the historian Thomas Macaulay observed) to make the past present, to bring the distant near in unprecedentedly compelling ways.¹⁷

And through a fashion system, Britons coordinated this new awareness of the historical past with an unprecedentedly abundant material world—from the London retail scene that was the envy of Europe to the proliferating representations of fashionable life that fostered conviction about this new state of abundance and scrutinized its character. The fuller context of Macaulay’s praise of the historical novel overtly suggests how the newfound immediacy of the past connected directly with renewed attention to the history of material life. Scott’s fiction, Macaulay wrote, was most distinctly admirable in its capacity to call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of language, manners, and garb, to show us over their houses, to seat us at their tables, to rummage their old-fashioned wardrobes, to explain the uses of their ponderous furniture.¹⁸ Macaulay identifies a vision of history—cluttered with home goods and tableware, dress and furniture—that, for better or worse, became indispensable after Scott, as much in the lavish material worlds of realist novels as in historiography. But as I will show, an exaggerated sense of Scott’s originality has obscured how much Scott’s reenvisioning of history was also a knowing retrospect on the long eighteenth century that preceded him. Scott remade history by means of the unfolding materialization of time that he found ready-made in the earlier period, most of all in the print-cultural world of fashionable dress.

While scholars of eighteenth-century Britain have exhaustively documented and debated the evidence for and implications of a birth of a consumer society in the period,¹⁹ relatively little work has connected this development in a sustained way to the simultaneous revolution in historical mentality—especially because fashion has not been sufficiently in view. Presumptions about fashion’s frivolity and eliteness have always limited serious attention to the phenomenon of dress. The neglect of the particular archive of fashionable dress that I foreground in this book, however, was also a feature of the contingent path of intellectual history as compounded by fashion’s elusive situation between image, text, and object. Much of the most remarkable historical work embedded in my own archive inheres in pictures, in ostensibly ephemeral images that have remained off the map not only of most art historians (whose accounts of the period’s historical representation have been preoccupied with more academic ideas of historical painting) and literary critics (whose accounts of largely unillustrated novels have fairly general ideas about the meaningfulness of characters’ dress), but also of the history of history itself. In the last case, this is especially in consequence of the irreconcilability of images with the influential textualist methods of the political school of historiography (including J. G. A. Pocock and others) that has provided the foundational account of the age’s historical thought in recent decades.²⁰ At the same time, fashion’s forceful and creative mediations of the past have remained mostly opaque to a scholarly historiography of consumer revolution, for which consumption has often been a problem known in advance. Presuming a radical break in British culture after the birth of consumption, this historiography has been more at pains to pursue the sudden familiarity (to us) of eighteenth-century habits of consumption than to observe the complex reappraisal of prior moments that a temporally portable enthusiasm for a world of goods simultaneously helped to inspire (for them).²¹

Although I keep the actual dress and material culture of the long eighteenth century in mind, I do not offer an account of the origins of eighteenth-century fashion per se, neither in the sense of the relationship of this period’s looks to the styles of prior epochs nor in the sense of the recent economic developments in textile production and retail that sustained this fashion culture at its base. Just prior to this moment, the rise of cotton and the resulting flood of cheap prints and colorful fabrics had suddenly and vastly multiplied the aesthetic possibilities and social reach of regular variation in dress so that the very substance of dress was permanently altered.²² Thus rather than trace fashion’s emergence over time, I describe the internal complexities of a particular order of fashion that had already begun to assume systematic form. Within this order, I stress, the materiality of consumption especially inhered in the print-cultural mediation of dress. The visual and textual forms of fashionable life in print gave (sometimes wishful) life to a material culture in process, altering with the regularity suggested by the dress of the year; and the same visual and textual forms also gave that material culture wide imaginative circulation, together with a uniform reproducibility that the dress objects themselves often lacked.²³

In this book, then, I assign to fashion and its cycles a privileged place in the experience of acceleration that Reinhart Koselleck has influentially attributed to the eighteenth-century beginning of modernity. Koselleck particularly notes how the historical epochs used to conceptualize human culture grew shorter and shorter in this moment: There is every reason to believe that more and more new experiences had actually accumulated in shorter and shorter amounts of time, so that with such shortened as well as more quickly established determinations of periods, a new experience of time seems also to have announced itself.²⁴ The sense of historical time’s elasticity here is persuasive, but Koselleck’s suggestion that this new experience would simply have announced itself falls short, especially in failing to account for the dress that so often did this announcing. There was an objective acceleration of material life during the eighteenth century, but widespread conviction about and intensified perception of cultural acceleration was a special consequence of the rhythmic representations of fashion within print culture²⁵—by century’s end, more metronomic than steadily accelerating—which made the status of fashion’s periods in relation to periods of other kinds a consistently provocative problem.²⁶

Especially through fashionable dress, eighteenth-century texts like periodicals, annuals, portraits, and topical prints arranged the eternal mutability of culture in a way that made acceleration legible—but also visible. And more broadly, as Peter de Bolla argues, "Something recognizable as precisely a culture based on the visual, on modalities of visualization, the production and consumption of visual matter emerged in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. De Bolla limits his own inquiry to the artworks subject to formal aesthetic procedures, and for that reason explicitly excludes fashion from his account of visual culture. Yet as I will show, it was precisely through fashion that Britons of this moment gained for themselves an early appreciation of the very problem that de Bolla articulates for his present-day readers—of how one might begin to look in history, as it were, how we might look from our own contemporaneity with eyes belonging to a past era."²⁷ In print-cultural fashion, especially through the perceptual shock produced by outdated dress, Britons saw firsthand the contingency of visual custom.

The midcentury visualization of contemporaneity I am describing here may be thought of as the second act of the earlier production of contemporaneity that J. Paul Hunter locates in early eighteenth-century news culture, where he notes the sense that the moment … was in itself a kind of art object—to be adored, meditated upon, fondled, and contemplated again and again.²⁸ But whereas the news (as a straightforward serial form) ultimately conformed events to the homogeneous empty time that was the stuff of one kind of historical modernity, the visualization of contemporaneity at midcentury proved more fundamentally interruptive of straightforward, temporal procession. New fashions, in other words, summoned a present; but old fashions hanging on, or purposefully resurrected, shaped a synchronic order more precisely alert to the many times it encompassed. What Koselleck calls the simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous was peculiarly characteristic of dress, especially as print-cultural images assertively fixed dress in time, in a way that made the temporal provenance of clothing readily perceptible. Whether in the residual objects of old dress that filled up closets and attics, or in the proliferating reproductions of fashions that, while soon enough outmoded, nevertheless lived on in print, obsolete styles could be brought forth to jar the eye habituated to the present, or to be reassembled on the same printed page with the looks of other moments.²⁹

As against the late nineteenth-century moment when mass production was achieved before its explicit conceptualization, in this eighteenth-century moment the fantastical extension of a system of fashion long preceded its surefooted establishment as material condition.³⁰ Print disseminated and enacted a distinctly modern mode of desire just as likely to be perfected in the absence of possession—as in the exemplary case of the unconsummated longing of window shopping, but also in the much wider virtual sphere of material longing that print culture made possible. Barthes observed in the twentieth century how the photograph in a fashion magazine makes the purchase unnecessary, it replaces it; we can intoxicate ourselves on images, identify ourselves oneirically with the model. And in a way that makes fashion more accessible than at first appears, we can in reality, follow Fashion merely by purchasing a few boutique accessories.³¹ As eighteenth-century Britons contemplated similar periodical images of objects unpossessed, their fantasies of possession grew all the more intense in consequence. Colin Campbell, for instance, describes an emergent ethos of modern consumerism that built its serial daydreams upon a steady succession of fashionable enticements. Britons drew a new kind of pleasure from imaginative use of the objects seen (e.g., from mentally ‘trying on’ the clothes examined, or ‘seeing’ the furniture arranged within one’s room).³² In this way fashion, for which dress was always the leading edge, was at the center of an extension of the pleasure of objects via increasingly elaborate fictions of their uses—staged in innovative showrooms, prints, and periodicals, but also, I argue, in the imaginative histories that eighteenth-century Britons likewise built in fashion’s image.

In a related way, fashionable dress also mattered distinctly because of the way its cycles extended, in mediated ways, even to the working poor.³³ In material life as well as in print, increasingly affordable and efficient dissemination allowed fashion to reach not only beyond the elite but also beyond the urbane middle classes as it penetrated even into the villages and farmhouses of Georgian Britain.³⁴ Despite our present-day presumptions about the period, John Styles finds among the working poor in late eighteenth-century Britain a set of expectations profoundly influenced by the operation of the fashion system in the commercial marketplace.³⁵ Unlike every other area of consumer culture, in clothing relative abundance prevailed[,] and the exercise of discrimination was a possibility. As a consequence, even plebeian dress … broadly follow[ed] the trends of high fashion—at least in their best clothes, or in the accessories (hats, neckcloths, handkerchiefs) they might have purchased once per year in the latest colors and patterns.³⁶ (These laborers are perhaps the surprising ancestors of Barthes’s fashion-magazine readers, who follow fashion through accessories.) Thus as against E. P. Thompson’s classic account of a reassertion of traditional popular culture in the period that resisted the incursions of capitalist commerce,³⁷ Styles makes clear how customary practices often flourished precisely because they provided opportunities and legitimising excuses to participate in attractive forms of commercialized consumption.³⁸ In all these ways, the specific dynamics of fashion in time and fashion as time are more at the root of modern historicism than we have yet realized.

Fashioning Historicism, Old and New

In the spirit of the fashion it surveys, Historical Style begins in a moment just before historicism’s hegemony, amid a range of eighteenth-century texts that convincingly exposed the precarious status of history amid the circulations of commerce. By recovering the neglected affinities between historical sophistication and material abundance, I underscore a discomfiting paradox that became apparent to eighteenth-century Britons themselves: that the ascendant knowledge of history was in some ways only the most profound symptom of the rise of a fashion system and of the broader consequences of that system for culture. Throughout this book, I am alert to what Claude Rawson calls contexts of defeated aspiration, to figures like the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the novelist Sophia Lee, and the radical philosopher William Godwin—figures whose varying disappointments with the commercial conditions for historiography during the long eighteenth century can serve to clarify those conditions for us.³⁹ Yet rather than endorse their respective disappointments, I mean for their resistance to commercialized history to stand alongside contemporaneous enthusiasm for the genuinely productive historical effects of the fashion system in the period.

The peculiar historicism that is my object was finally as much a commercial ethos as a genuine knowledge; and in a strong sense, the new mode of history I describe could only have been articulated alongside commerce and its fictions. During the eighteenth century, their convergence made a historiography that would extricate its methods and procedures from market ways of knowing something of a contradiction in terms. Pocock, for instance, has drawn attention to the capacity for sympathy that early eighteenth-century theorists discovered to be enhanced by the widespread practice of commerce, which refines and moderates the passions by making us aware of what we share with others.⁴⁰ As James Chandler recapitulates, The fundamental virtue to be refined or ‘polished’ in a commercial society … is a capacity for putting ourselves in the place or ‘case’ of another. This modern vision of virtue addresses the fundamental psychological necessity of commercial translations: two agents keen to strike a bargain must each, in order to serve his or her own interests, be able to imagine what it might be in the interest of the other to do or have done.⁴¹ While practiced and polished for the commercial present, such enhanced sympathy proved, somewhat paradoxically, invaluably applicable to the construction and examination of a past that was understood to be different.

In a sign of the presentist impetus for the eighteenth-century historical impulse, over and again the age’s most revolutionary ground of historical sympathy was a commercialized attention to material life that had to be invented on behalf of the past—by attaching to the past’s subjects a desire for, and to its objects the allure of, contemporary fashions. In this sense, we should consider how a new historiography, factual and fictional, supplied compensatory public forms to private consumption. Pocock’s noteworthy account paints a commercial world perilously lacking in publicity in which the real world of economy and polity rested on a myriad fantasy worlds maintained by private egos.⁴² Taken en masse, a new historiography promised to remedy this situation by staging individuals’ relationships to consumer-commerce within a larger social field and across numerous temporal locations, thereby bridging the gaps between the hyperindividuated fantasy worlds of commercial subjects.

A widely resonant historicism also required the serialization that commercial cycles offered (that is, a regular sequence of material change that could coincide with datedness), because the cultural objects that underwrote the practices of modern social history had to be made to bear the imprint of a precise time in order to do this underwriting. For much of the eighteenth century, literary texts willingly gave objects of commerce expansively diachronic existences (like Joseph Addison’s picaresque shilling in the Tatler that traversed hundreds of years of English history). But by the end of this period, commodity artifacts were more normatively bound to a time of origin that they proclaimed with great exactness. This phenomenon owed a substantial debt to the parallel temporal precision demanded by a growing commercial sensitivity to the limited shelf life of products.⁴³ As Erin Mackie observes, The very materiality of culture is what opens it to historical change: consumption is a process that continually produces and redefines social categories.⁴⁴ The new investment in a very prominent moment of initial consumption allowed eighteenth-century commodity artifacts to stage and to preserve the processual redefinition of the social over time.

To the extent that dress became fashion, clothes were tellingly cut apart from their longstanding reflection of a longue durée, or from those customary practices and long processes of habituation to which etymology continued to tie dress (as costume and habit). This sense was obliquely reflected in Edmund Burke’s histrionic lament that the decent drapery of life [was] to be rudely torn off at Versailles, and the moral wardrobe of the imagination … exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.⁴⁵ Indeed, by the latter half of the eighteenth century, as T. H. Breen demonstrates, even in the frontier outposts of the British empire in North America, dress and any number of other commodities had for many people already escaped local culture. These commodities signaled the way the present moment moved in accord with commercial ties that transcended traditional constraints of time and place.

As the market, in Breen’s terms, standardized everyday experience, shoppers throughout British territories had to learn an unfamiliar vocabulary—queen’s ware, not china; Wilton carpets, not rugs; maid’s lamb gloves, not gloves—that defined an expanding consumer culture. Breen’s peculiar case of America (in which colonists uniquely struggled to abandon their ties to an imperial market at the behest of political considerations) finally only underscores how every locality of the British Empire was being transformed by goods from elsewhere.⁴⁶ Likewise, Leora Auslander (thinking comparatively of England, France, and America) shows how the idea "that ordinary people’s possessions could carry symbolic and affective meaning and could be connected through shared style and taste led to new recognition of the potential place of material culture in political transformation" in a revolutionary age.⁴⁷ I emphasize how the encounter with everyday material life as a common ground also had consequences different from these more immediate political events.

In a way that transformed historical attitudes as much as political sensibility, Britons extended the sympathetic project of connecting through the categories of style and taste to times other than their own, and thereby transferred the same mode of connection to the ordinary possessions of the past. During a period when Josiah Wedgwood made a fortune remanufacturing and alluding to classical vases, and when Britons excavated Roman ruins amid the fashionable scene at Bath, the modern antique became a persistent pun. The pun emphasized the peculiarly promiscuous ways in which fashionable material life crossed the boundaries between past and present, in much more irreverent ways than austere ideas of neoclassical style might suggest.⁴⁸ In numerous invocations of the modern antique, the rapid contemporary evolutions of dress, hair, and cosmetics elicited the paradoxically novel modernity of the past, whether in the artist Thomas Rowlandson’s prurient caricature of British Egyptomania (which referenced the celebrity mistress Emma Hamilton’s scandalously revealing, pseudoclassical poses in diaphanous gowns that brought ancient life into erotic proximity with modern undress),⁴⁹ or in a prominent jest about the cosmetics of an older woman in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal (whose copious facial makeup cannot conceal her aged neck, and so makes clear at once that the head’s modern, though the trunk’s antique). William Hazlitt criticized the poetry of Walter Scott himself (in contrast to Scott’s novels) on the grounds that Scott’s "Muse is a Modern Antique who takes away any appearance of heaviness or harshness from the body of local traditions and obsolete costume.⁵⁰ Hazlitt tied Scott not only to the refinement of modern dress, but also to the ephemeral periodicals that conveyed dress styles alongside poetic verse: We see grim knights and iron armour, he complains, but then they are woven in silk with a careless, delicate hand, all executed much upon a par with the more ephemeral effusions of the press.⁵¹ Here Hazlitt hesitates before a particular mode of history that Scott emblematized, one that brought the past too close to the material and print-cultural fashions of the present. Hazlitt’s is a fundamentally rough past incommensurable with the soft ethos of style and taste, in need of gusto. Scott himself, though, celebrated precisely this contiguity of past and present fashion when he observed the modern antiques and antiquated moderns of his own novels in a self-deprecating, fashion-inflected account of a fictional meeting to form a Joint-Stock Company, united for the purpose of writing and publishing the class of works called the Waverley Novels"—the age’s great commercial venture in historical representation.⁵²

At the core of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments offers a final, extended example of the historical extension of modern style and taste. Here Smith grounds his assertion about the arbitrary nature of all taste upon more direct encounters with present-day cycles of fashionable dress. Architecture, music, and poetry reflect the fashion of their make and give the vogue to their particular stile in just the way clothes do. If many fail to recognize how the dominion of custom and fashion fully extends to the more enduring arts, that is because few men have an opportunity of seeing in their own times the fashion in any of these arts change very considerably. Yet because dress is not so durable (a well fancied coat is done in a twelve month), every man in his own time sees the fashion in this respect change many different ways.⁵³ The logic justifies greater sympathy for the cultural production of the past, albeit at the price of the diminution of ideals of artistic transcendence. Strikingly, Smith paints the implications of the problem in explicitly historicizing terms: Few men have so much experience and acquaintance with the different modes which have obtained in remote ages and nations, as to be thoroughly reconciled to them, or to judge with impartiality between them, and what takes place in their own age and country.⁵⁴ In part this seems an implicit recommendation of a project (like Scott’s own) to promote greater acquaintance with the different modes of remote ages. But more explicitly, Smith calls for his contemporaries to allow their close encounters with fashionable dress to

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