tying together the threads on the Corsets and Permissiveness thread
Posted by Caroline on December 23, 1997 at 23:12:27:
I'd like to pull together some of the thoughts and ideas put out in the discussion started by Lesley about Corsets and Permissiveness, if only to get the ideas straight in my head. I hope you don't mind me sarting afresh, but I think it's hard to follow any kind of argument in the conversation below, as it's broken up into too many pieces. I'd love to know what you think about all this.
Here's Lesley's quote from Caffrey's book, shortened and annotated by me
".... The permissive society speaks its mind, brings out facts into the open, and discards its corsets. The
prostitutional society hides its true feelings, conceals the facts, and clings to tight lacings. one statement. (It is perhaps of added interest that tight lacing goes with an expanding economy and nonlacing with a static or variable economy or a slump.) "second , separate statement
Marie Bernadette quoted from the book " The Family, Sex and Marriage"again annotated in italics by me
"...a phase of permissiveness, even licence, that ran for over a century from 1670 to 1810. This was
followed by a new wave of repression that began in 1770, was spreading fast by 1810, and reached
its apogee in the mid-Victorian period."
And also from the same book:
"There are clear signs that during the middle years of the eighteenth century attitudes towards sex in
England, especially in London, were unusually relaxed.one statement It is an open question how far the attitude towards sexuality can be judged from the amount of sexual provocation or sexual concealment in women's clothes. Assuming that there is some correlation, it is noticable that in the mid-1780s the fashionable dress included grotesquely enlarged breasts and buttocks, the former created by
wirework and the latter by cork attachments... within a decade this fashion was replaced by the
flowing see through style in which women floated about in diaphanous veils with bosoms exposed or
lightly covered, the contours of their bodies fully displayed." a separate statement, which might or might not be used to prove or disprove the theory
This author, Lawrence Stone, seems to be saying the opposite of Caffrey, namely that in the time of corsets and hoop skirts, society was not non-permissive but permissive, and that a change in the fashion corresponds with a change towards a non-permissive society in Jana Austen's lifetime. The second statement seems to me to say that he isn't prepared to make a clear connection either way, and that description of first unnatural forms bolstered with cork and wire, then see-through, skimpy nature-shapes is a complete and utter red-herring, designed to titillate the reader but say very little. Since he gives no indication (in the quote, anyway) of what the "clear signs " of the "phase of permissiveness" are, it would be easy to think that he doesn't know what he's talking about. (Is it obvious that the quote irritates the heck out of me, too?) Unfortunately for me, I think of the two authors, and only in the context of this period, Stone is closer to the mark. There probably is more evidence that pre-1790 was permissive than there is that it was not permissive . I am no expert, but the plays of Richard Sheridan, the pictures of Hogarth, and Gainsborough, the traditional image of Georgian society, suggest that infidelity, prostitution, and similar subjects were considered as normal features of life at all levels,and not a matter for condemnation, whilst the literature of Scott, Burney, etc.suggest a more "moral" society. The lovely piece of primary evidence that H.C found a few months back about the "Covent Garden Ladies" was a picture of a pamphlet describing the various ladies who were for sale in that area pre- 1780, and , if I remember rightly, the man who wrote it did so as a public health service and was not punished for it.
So, I would say that Caffrey's first statement, that corsets=non-permissive society and that non-corsets=permissive society, doesn't hold water for Jane Austen's era. The second statement, as an aside, that tight lacings go with an expanding economy, and non-lacing with a static or slumping economy is quite a separate issue. My understanding is that the economy of both Britain and France was fairly ebullient up until the Revolution in 1793, at which point the British economy became very restricted by war, with some things kept at an inflationary level, others static, but generally speaking a "difficult" period for the economy. After 1815, the economy definitely slumped. I'm no expert on economic history as such, but it seems to me that the tight-lacings = boom, no-lacings=depression seems to fit quite neatly.
Tide's statement, about a book she had read in Danish was as follows
I find your comments on corsets and restriction very interesting. When younger, I read a book by a
Danish author on dress and culture (Body and Dress, I think it was called) and he compared the
relative wealth of western society with the prevailing fashions of womens wear.
One of the things he noted was, that the Wall-Street index and the length of womens gowns, more or
less tallied in the first half of this century. I think it's been done for the post-sixties era too Another thing he noted was, that when western society grows more poor (relatively speaking) the tendency is for fashion to grow more ostentatious.
If this is true, then the regency/ Empire period would be a realtively affluent society, with the
following restrictions and (relative) increased poverty over the ensuing years, where crinolies and
tournures became the fashion.
If my reading of the economics of the era are right, the wartime/Regency era is more difficult economically than before or after, and by his theory should be more ostentatious, not less so, than before or after the wars with France, and his theory doesn't hold water, either. What do the rest of you think?
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