Luke Limner, Madre Natura versus the Moloch of Fashion (1847)

Cover

Madre

Summary

This ‘social essay’, published in 1874, documents the author’s views about the dangers of following fashion. The author, Luke Limner, starts by condemning the luxury and excess of fashion, and criticizing the wealthy classes’ taste when choosing to wear the latest styles.

Limner’s main concern is fashion’s utter disregard of, and attempt to better, nature. He comments that modern dress is becoming increasingly independent of climate or season, stating that ‘the English lady suffers in her corset and tight bottines in the tropical heat of Calcutta.’

Corset

The bulk of the essay charts his disapproval of modifications of the body. He comments that clothing, instead of fitting itself to the human form, demands that the body adapt itself to fit the garments. He feels that this ‘authority of fashion is a gross imposition on mankind,’ and specifically focuses on the corset. He believes that fashion is deforming natural bodies, with great health risks, that he outlines in detail. He is very knowledgeable about human anatomy, commenting on the impact of the corset on the lungs and liver, which serves to provide epistemological evidence and support to his claims, which may otherwise seem somewhat empty. He urges modern women to ‘aid Mother Nature to abolish that type of body bondage and cursed contrivance.’

Corset 2

Response

Limner’s concerns about the dangers of the excess of fashion, as well as attempts to modify the natural forms of the body are common themes in fashion writing. Particularly during this period, but even as late as the twentieth century, there is a concern about the frivolity of fashion and the impact, both physical and moral, that it has on women.  As is the case with a lot of fashion writing, there is a somewhat sexist tone to Limner’s essay. He expresses a concern that women’s heads are filled with ‘flounces and furbelows, ribbons and gauze’ and that female vanity is ultimately leading to the downfall of society. However, there also seems to be a genuine concern about the risks to women’s health as a result of following fashion too strictly, and he appears to blame the fashion industry more than the women themselves. He sympathises that fashion’s ever-changing demands make it increasingly difficult for women to adhere to trends. That is the main contradiction of this essay: Limner accepts that the fashion industry makes unrealistic demands of women’s bodies, but then also seems to blame female vanity for accepting these demands.

Spine

It is very telling of attitudes of the period that, despite the fact that women were generally accepted as the main consumers of fashion, it is men who are trusted to write about fashion in a critical way. There is much debate in dress history, about whether fashion is a liberating or enslaving force. When reading essays such as Limner’s, it is hard to imagine that it can be anything other than a subjugating, oppressive industry.  However, in the twentieth century, when women started to be respected as designers and later writers and curators, the tables turned and fashion became a means of female emancipation and expression of creativity.

Back

‘A Good Old-fashioned Head Lock’: Sport and Slimming Aids Battle it out in the Pages of Vogue

Wrestling Sept 1925

‘Wrestling,’ from ‘Daily Dozens for Debutantes’, Vogue, September 1925.

As I was buried in old issues of British Vogue at the British Library this week, I came across an illustrated column called ‘Daily Dozens for Débutantes’ in a September issue from 1925. The column covered the topic of sports under the title ‘Hygienic Hints for Our Sweet and Strenuous Ones’. The series of mock-advisory illustrations by Charles Martin (a fashion designer, graphic artist, costume designer and illustrator) are a spot-on satire of the drastic reinvention of the female silhouette in the 1920s. The emancipated climate of post-war London led to an increase in sport and leisure activities, which in turn ushered in a new look that prioritized freedom of movement for liberated women. The modern aesthetic – streamlined, flat and tubular – demanded a leaner body. This posed a problem for some, and a proliferation of adverts in Vogue for quick-fix slimming products and regimes bears witness to this. Although this column precedes the first use of the term ‘keep-fit’ by about four years, Martin’s illustrations resemble commentators’ mild mockery of groups such as the Women’s League of Health and Beauty and the Legion of Health and Happiness in the thirties.

The sketches show women engaged in extreme sporting activities usually associated with men such as wrestling and boxing, accompanied by farcical counsel:

One of the best ways to do anything is to do it involuntarily. For instance, Yvonne, who is here seen volplaning through the ether, had no idea of going in for high jumping until her bicycle tactlessly wound itself about a telegraph pole.

These captions humorously allude to the incompatibility of women and sport, whilst others highlight their newfound right to inclusion:

Women are no longer content with ring-side seats at boxing entertainments, but must themselves be equipped to enter the arena and take on all corners.

Boxing Sept 1925

‘Boxing,’ from ‘Daily Dozens for Debutantes’, Vogue, September 1925.

It is rather amusing – and suspicious – that Vogue published these sketches mocking the popularity of sport alongside advertisements for ridiculous weight-loss products – my personal favourites being ‘thinning bath salts’ which promise to dissolve excess fatty deposits, and a magical ‘reducing paste’ to ‘slenderize thick ankles’. (The same advert also warns against ‘violent exercise’).

Clarks Sept 1925

Clark’s advertisement, Vogue, September 1925.

Were the new attitudes in health and hygiene a threat to the beauty industry, and by association the fashion magazines? The battle between sport, dieting and quick-fix beauty products is one that would continue to play out across the pages of women’s publications throughout the interwar years.

Slenderise Sept 1925

Clark’s advertisement, Vogue, September 1925.

Sources:

Martin,Charles, ‘Daily Dozens for Débutantes: Hygienic Hints for Our Sweet and Strenuous Ones’ Vogue. Late September, 1925

Matthews, Jill Julius, ‘They had Such a lot of Fun: The Women’s League of Health and Beauty Between the Wars,’ History Workshop Journal, 30 (1), 1990, p.23