Artful Nature: Fashion and Theatricality 1770-1830

Neoclassical Dress (Nature & Artifice)

Clinging, sheer white gowns likened the women who wore them to the classically draped white marble sculptures—or their copies in the decorative arts—that were the most prestigious aesthetic objects of the late eighteenth century. Yet they also reminded viewers of the “undress” of chemises (shifts of plain muslin worn as underwear) and other informal or country costume. Thus, white muslin dresses signified both “art” and “nature.” But the double meaning of “artful,” as both artistic and cunning, meant that fashionable women in this era were vulnerable to being lampooned for using a great deal of artifice to look so natural.


Muslin dress, 1790s

Cotton, plain weave textile

RISD Museum, Mary B. Jackson Fund

This 1790s dress retains the fullness and flounces common to 1780s gowns, but also exhibits elements of the neoclassical style that would dominate the ensuing decade. Made in white muslin, the most fashionable textile of the era, the dress features a high waist, which altered the silhouette. The plainness and lack of ornament connoted simplicity and drew attention to the three-dimensional form of the body rather than its surface. Women embraced the “anti-fashion” of neoclassical dress as a way to represent their own artistic agency and to deflect traditional criticisms of women as flighty, unserious, or deceptive.

Robert Thew, after William Hamilton

Winter’s Tale. Act V. Scene III, 1791

Stipple engraving

Published November 9, 1791, by J. & J. Boydell

In this dramatic final scene of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Paulina draws back the curtain to reveal the statue of Queen Hermione (long presumed dead) miraculously coming back to life. King Leontes reacts in the archetypal pose of a late-eighteenth-century tragic actor, lunging forward with his hands stretched outward, while his daughter, Perdita, highlighted in the front right corner, swoons in the arms of her lover, Florizel. The figure of Hermione, dressed in a stylish neoclassical gown, is simultaneously sculptural and theatrical, blurring the boundaries between animate and inanimate, art and life.

William Greatbach, after G.P. Harding

Miss Mary Berry. From a Bust by the Honorable Anne Seymour Damer

Steel engraving

Published 1840, by Richard Bentley

The writer Mary Berry (1763–1852), a great favorite of Horace Walpole’s, became passionately connected to the sculptor, author, and actress Anne Seymour Damer (1749–1828), Walpole’s cousin. This engraving copies a bronze portrait bust by Damer of Mary Berry now at the National Portrait Gallery, London; the original terracotta was made around 1793 for Horace Walpole and displayed at Strawberry Hill. Modeled after antique sculpture, Damer’s busts of women emulate the intricacy of classical hairstyles as well as the drape and placement of pleated garments, layering the prestige of antiquity over the modern bodies of her subjects. Although her bronze version features a contained, blank expression and downcast eyes, in the print image of the bust, the engraver has filled in Berry’s eyes to create a more realistic effect, as if the sculpture has now come to life on the page.

J. Brett

Nature. Art

Etching with hand coloring

Published March 18, 1795, by Laurie & Whittle

In this satire, the printmaker aligned color with “art” and fashion as a way to comment on women’s falseness and vanity. With a rake over her shoulder and a sensible hat on her head, the lovely young woman on the left appears to be a country girl of modest origins, unfashionable but naturally beautiful. By contrast, the lady on the right sits indoors at her dressing table, staring at her reflection in a mirror in an age-old trope of vanity. Sharp-featured and homely, she applies cosmetic color to her face, and it is noteworthy the degree to which the designer has associated not only “art,” but color itself, with deception. Not only does the lady deceptively apply color to her face in the form of cosmetics, she is also hand-colored in watercolor in vivid shades of blue, green, pink, and yellow; meanwhile the country girl remains in the austere black and white of etching alone. Neither woman wears the white neoclassical dress that was becoming the fashionable standard, and which would purport to solve this paradox.

James Gillray

Progress of the Toilet: The Stays. The Wig. Dress Completed

Etching and stipple with hand coloring

Published February 26, 1810, by Hannah Humphrey

These three prints satirize the effort and expense required to create the full ensemble of a seemingly simple and natural neoclassical dress. In the first, a maid laces her mistress into a long-line set of stays to artificially create the slim, columnar silhouette favored by the new style. In the second, the lady is dressed in plain white muslin and is about to don the short, curly wig that will artificially give her the cropped, unpowdered, “natural” look then in style. In the final print, the lady is dressed for evening in a sprigged muslin dress and hoop earrings. The lavish dressing room filled with potions, accessories, tools, and mirrors suggests that despite her pretentions to art and nature, the neoclassical lady was just as frivolous, vain, and artificial as any other fashionable woman.

Isaac Cruikshank

A Maiden Ewe, Drest Lamb Fashion

Etching and engraving

Published September 15, 1796, by Laurie & Whittle

This print surfaces an ancient trope of satire: the ridicule of older women. A somewhat wizened lady, covered with beauty patches and missing her front teeth, gleefully looks at herself in the mirror as her maid is about to crown her with wig, turban, and chic ostrich plume. Neoclassical fashion was particularly difficult for older women to wear, as it privileged a slim, flat-chested body and minimal cosmetics and ornament. All the fashion trends of 1796 are exaggerated here: high waists, hoop earrings, ostrich plumes, and ornamental clocks and miniature paintings, all spoofing a woman’s fashionable vanity.