Artful Nature: Fashion and Theatricality 1770-1830

Theatre of Everyday Life

Robert Thew, after John Hoppner

Cymbeline, Act III, Scene IV, ca. 1801

Stipple engraving, trial proof

Published by J. & J. Boydell

This dramatic image of Cymbeline from Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery depicts the princess Imogen discovering that her exiled husband believes her to be unfaithful and has demanded her death. Imogen’s dress of floating white fabric, suggestively blowing off her shoulders to reveal her ivory bosom, evokes both neoclassical style and erotic theatrical presence. By moving the scene outdoors, Hoppner’s original composition translates Shakespeare’s world into a romanticized outdoor landscape. Yet the blurring of costume and action between onstage and offstage created a great deal of anxiety and opportunity.

Spectators often found it difficult to discern who was acting the part of a lady and who was an authentic aristocrat. Actresses capitalized on this confusion, fashioning their celebrity according to available modes of acceptable femininity.

G.M. Woodward

Art of Fainting in Company

London: Printed for the author and sold by W. Clarke..., [1797]

Etching with hand coloring

Published May 27, 1797, by G.M. Woodward

In this satiric print a fashionable young woman appears dramatically stretched out on a chair, carefully posed to show off her stylish printed gown accessorized with a necklace featuring a large miniature portrait. The act of fainting features prominently in eighteenth-century literature and theatrical history. From Lady Macbeth’s pivotal feigned fainting moment performed to turn attention away from her guilty husband, to Samuel Richardson’s heroines Pamela and Clarissa, whose insensibility characterizes the seduction plots in both books (one with a tragic outcome), fainting becomes a signifier for female oppression, deception, passion, and desire. The artist emphasizes the constructed and artificial expectations of female behavior apparent in contemporary life—no matter how “natural” they might look.

James Gillray

A Lady Putting on Her Cap


Published June 30, 1795, by Hannah Humphrey 

In this satire on the laborious construction of modern neoclassical fashion, a woman sits facing a grand mirror attempting to wind a long piece of muslin around her head, assisted by two ladies. A dog tugs at the end of the material, threatening to pull apart the whole turban. The juxtaposition of the mirror and the window in the image balances the idea of the dressing room as both a theatrical and a domestic space. The woman’s act of gazing at herself in the performance of dressing (with complicated and unwieldy accessories) suggests the extremes of female vanity, while at the same time the mirror facing the audience may also be a reflection of the spectator herself.


Portland Vase, early 19th century Jasperware

Josiah Wedgwood’s copy of the famous Portland Vase, “one of the most admired works of antiquity,” became a coveted and fashionable item of neoclassical decor.

Wedgwood’s ceramics brought images of women in antique dress into the household, creating links between art, fashion, and domestic practices, and staging the home as a set for the modern living statues who moved through it.


La Mère à la Mode. La Mère telle que Toutes Devraient Être

Etching and engraving with hand coloring

Published ca. 1800, Chez Bance

In a detailed two-part scene, a French artist provides dual portraits of contemporary mothers. In the first, an elaborately dressed woman is oblivious to the scene behind her of a servant severely beating her children with a switch. In the other, a more demurely costumed mother is adored by her delightful children. The juxtaposition of “La Mère à la Mode” (the mother of fashion) with “La Mère telle que Toutes Devraient Etre” (the mother that everyone should be) has a clear message about the deceptive value of luxury and appearances. Fashion and theatricality can corrupt women, who should be paying attention to their natural roles as wives and mothers. Both women wear neoclassical dress, but the bad  mother does so in an immodest, overly ornamented, and artificial way, while the good mother’s costume draws on classicism’s association with nature and virtue.

Charles Williams

Fat and Lean

Etching and stipple with hand coloring

Published April 1806, by William Holland 

A very large man sits with an emaciated woman in a stylish gown perched on his lap. The contrast suggests the extremes of au courant fashion trends as well as anxieties about the inappropriateness of lightweight unstructured garments on women. Neoclassical fashion seemed to invite scandalous behavior because the garments allowed easy access to the female body.