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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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of style, and as fashion texts circulated and obsolesced, Britons were forced to confront the material persistence of out-of-date fashions.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.

Excerpt

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.” 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 sat-

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