The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

Letter to His Son (1750)

LORD CHESTERFIELD

Philip Dormer Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, was born in 1694 in London. From 1726 onward he was a member of the House of Lords. He served the government as the viceroy of Ireland and then state secretary, but then in 1748 retired to private life. Letters to His Son appeared one year after his death in 1773.

Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son touring through Europe stands in sharp contrast to the encouragement that other bourgeois fathers would later send their sons. Chesterfield praises his son for all that he has already learned, but he makes the strong point that he cannot truly become a man until he has adopted the manners, appearances, and ideas of the French fashion elite. Manliness, according to Chesterfield, can be acquired only by surrounding oneself with the most well-bred and luxurious company. Young men abroad are particularly required to dress elegantly in rich clothes without regard to their cost.

Gentility was an art that went far beyond being polite and knowing how to navigate a dinner party. The highest accomplishments of aristocratic manhood—especially the ability to lead others gracefully—were learned in Parisian salons. Taking one's pleasure was important in attaining manhood not because it brought sexual maturity and self-knowledge, but because it lent confidence in society. Chesterfield had little interest in raising a son who would be “normal” by modern psychological standards; instead, he wanted his son to be exceptional, and thus to learn gaining gratification from the most refined company.

Chesterfield's advice was written the same year as Rousseau's “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” and with the opposite intention. Like Voltaire, Chesterfield exalted the artistry of Parisian life and wanted his son to live up to its highest accomplishments. His idea of manliness was far removed from Rousseau's naked Spartan wrestler; he preferred a nuanced masquerade in which opulence was tempered by grace, luxury by strength of character. Modesty was always understood as a guise within which one could pursue personal interests more effectively.

-28-

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