The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America

By Kate Haulman | Go to book overview
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Political Habits and Citizenship’s Corset

In the 1790s, the corset reentered the world of fashion. This is not to say that the midsections of women’s bodies had gone unsupported in the decades, even centuries, before. Stays, or “jumps,” and stomachers stiffened by whalebone shaped the forms of many women in the early modern period. But the word “corset,” from the Latin for “body” and dating to the late medieval period in reference to an outer garment, one also worn by men, had been out of use for some time. It reappeared in common usage in 1795 as a “closely fitting inner bodice worn chiefly by women to give shape and support to the figure.”1 Following this definition, the corset is an undergarment largely identified with mid- nineteenth- century women’s fashionable dress, the site of contests over women’s health, dress reform, and, for some, an emblem of women’s social, economic, and political subjection. So its emergence at a moment when the supposedly “natural,” short- waisted Grecian gown’s fashion star was on the rise in Europe and the United States is curious.2 The style (what we now refer to as “empire”) was sometimes touted and other times critiqued for its unrestraining, bodyskimming contours. Yet it was underpinned by a newly artificial shaping of certain female bodies into a more “natural” form at a time when Americans were defining the republican body politic in ways that increasingly relied on ideas of “natural” difference.

The Grecian gown is an interesting case in another, related respect; it was undeniably la mode, but in referencing the classical republics and the Age of Revolutions, the fashion was political in the state- oriented sense of the term. It thus expressly combined fashion’s cultural politics and republican political culture, focusing the intersection of bodies and the body politic.3 The paradox is that as expressly “political” modes of dress became a visual and material form of participation and inclusion in the realm of the state, fashion itself, and the traits it supposedly symbolized and signified,


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