The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“The Pervasion of Rouge” (1896)

MAX BEERBOHM

Max Beerbohm was a renowned Edwardian aesthete and dandy who published his first collection of essays at the age of twenty-four with the grand title The Works of Max Beerbohm. His satirical novel Zuleika Dobson recounts the devastating impact that a beautiful lady magician has on the hearts of Oxford's young men. For lovers of England at the height of its power, Beerbohm's celebration of cosmetics invokes an era when small adjustments in an otherwise proper outfit could unleash a delightful scandal. As the excerpt from “The Pervasion of Rouge” shows, he believes that women exercise a vast control over society through their beauty alone. Of course, “society” is narrowly circumscribed in his writing to include the aristocratic and mercantile elite of England.

The role of wealthy women at the end of the nineteenth century was debated widely. Thorstein Veblen, for example, was venomous toward the ladies of American robber barons, whose appointed task in life, he said, was to reflect their husbands' capacity to buy luxury. Beerbohm, on the other hand, writes from inside England's elite as he celebrates the nuances of luxurious display. In his works women are granted considerable importance. They are hardly the puppets of class competition that Veblen makes them out to be, yet as Beerbohm's essay makes clear, elite women were bound by standards of dress as exacting as those applied to any dandy. He also makes clear that he considers feminism to be the enemy of women's fashion. Feminism's criticism of social constraints on women's lives directly threatens the assumptions that made Beerbohm's class seem beautiful to itself. He vents his own ire against “the horrific pioneers of womanhood” who “trespass upon men's grounds.” He attacks the trend for women to wear sporty clothes, and scorns the late nineteenth-century bicycle craze in particular. Citing the post-Victorian frivolity of the 1890s, Beerbohm claims that the allure fashion holds for both sexes guarantees that feminist reforms in women's attire were doomed to fail. Indeed, his effete aestheticism expects

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