Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture

Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture

Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture

Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture

Synopsis

Dressing rooms, introduced into English domestic architecture during the seventeenth century provided elite women with imprecedented private space at home and in so doing promised them an equally unprecedented autonomy by providing a space for self-fashioning, eroticism and contemplation. Tita Chico's Designing Women argues that the dressing room becomes a powerful metaphor in late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature for both progressive and conservative satirists and novelists. These writers use the trope to represent competing notions of women's independence and their objectification indicating that the dressing room occupies a central (if neglected) place in the history of private life, postmodern theories of the closet and the development of literary forms.

Excerpt

From the late seventeenth century to the late eighteenth, the lady’s dressing room changed from being a site of lasciviousness and secrecy for aristocratic women to an emblem for good and virtuous mothers. This transformation reflects the changing roles available to women over this time, from the sense that women improperly used eroticism to claim independence and autonomy to the model of ideal maternity that was impressed upon them. the dressing room captured the collective imagination of eighteenth-century England because it represented the possibility that women could act independently and selfishly, a fear that was ultimately reshaped into a celebration of the belief that women would not act independently or selfishly if they were good mothers. As a central feature of the eighteenth-century literary landscape, the dressing room was found with much greater frequency in poems and novels than it ever was in actual homes. the disparity between the imagined prevalence of the dressing room and its limited availability to upper-class women indicates the magnitude of this concern about the privileges and independence that women could assert in their dressing rooms, suggesting a widespread cultural preoccupation with the possibility that women would challenge patriarchal prerogative.

The dressing room encapsulates the history of gender roles in the eighteenth century, moving from women of a certain class having the ability to claim greater privilege to the widespread development of a submissive, maternal ideal. Throughout this book, I use the dressing room to think about gender. But gender also functions as a vehicle for writers to express other ideas as well; in this sense, I assume that gender always has a context—gendered subjects do things—and that this approach to gender offers a diachronic slice of eighteenth-century literary culture. the dressing room allows us to understand debates about privacy, theatricality, aesthetics, epistemology, education, and literature. When writers use the dressing room to voice a particular view, it may end up seeming normal or even natural. But it is not necessarily so. When Swift writes his dressing room poems, they are “about” women, beauty, and the body, but they are also “about” empiricism, experimen-

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