Nineteenth-Century Fashion Trends and Streetwalker Stereotypes: Mistaken Identity and Male Pests

Hollie Geary-Jones is a second year PhD Candidate and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Chester. Her interdisciplinary thesis is titled ‘Dressing the Self: Infectious Performance and the Nineteenth-Century Prostitute’. Her research interests include Infection, Dress, and Prostitution in Nineteenth Century France and England. You can follow Hollie on Twitter @HollieGJ1 or contact her at h.gearyjones@chester.ac.uk

Streetwalker Stereotypes

In England, mid-century fashion trends were disrupting the process of social stereotyping. Previously, the bourgeoisie relied on dress as a means of identification. In 1847, the Quarterly Review articulated this established practice: ‘Dress becomes sort of a symbolic language-a kind of personal glossary-a species of body phrenology’.[1] The Review argued that dress meant ‘every woman walks about with a placard on which her leading qualities are advertised’.[2] Supposedly, individual dress exposed class status and personal morality. As a preventative social tool, clothing was used to preserve class borders. To categorize sexual ‘Others’, clothing stereotypes were thrust upon ‘deviant’ social groups. Garments were divided into two categories, ‘respectable’ and ‘immoral’. ‘Respectable’ clothing had to be understated, impeccably clean, and appropriate to social status. The term ‘finery’ indicated ‘immoral’ attire, ‘clothes that looked elegant and striking but were in some unspecified way cheap’.[3] Typically applied to the lower-class streetwalker, the phrase carried an accusatory tone. Stereotyped for bright colours, low necklines, and excessive trimmings, streetwalkers should be easily identifiable.

The Miss Cass Case

In1887, the case of Miss Elizabeth Cass garnered public outrage. On an errand from her employer, milliner Cass was accosted on Regent Street by Constable Endacott. Charged with streetwalking, she had to protest her innocence to the magistrate. Triggering debate surrounding police authority, the Pall Mall Gazette exposed the frequency of mistaken identity between ‘moral’ women and prostitutes: a ‘relation of mine was twice accosted […] at four o’clock in the afternoon. It will soon be a matter of running the gauntlet between police and these modern ogres for ladies who […] walk […] Regent-street even in broad daylight’.[4] The authors argued that ‘respectably’ dressed women, who appeared at appropriate times, should be left alone. In response, the paper released ‘What the Male Pests have to Say for Themselves’: ‘it is imprudent of them to go about alone, especially in that tailor-made dress, in which, as Madame X. said, they don’t look five and twenty’.[5] Allegedly, fashionable women who entered the public arena without a ‘moral’ guardian should expect harassment. By following the latest trends, ‘moral’ women were being mistaken for streetwalkers. Ultimately, the Cass case raised the issue that fashionable women and prostitutes lacked sufficient distinction.

‘Fashionable’ Developments

From mid-century onwards, clothing industry innovations contributed to cases of mistaken identity. Previously, only the wealthy could engage with the latest trends. In 1850, a monthly journal decided to expand this audience: ‘The World of Fashion pioneered a new venture-to issue a free paper pattern with each copy of the magazine’.[6] Prior to this initiative, patterns were expensive as they exclusively targeted professional dressmakers. For the first time, women from all classes could reproduce the season’s latest designs from the comfort of their homes. Despite the popularity of paper patterns, hand stitching garments was still a time-consuming process. Familial commitments and lack of skill limited the designs women could recreate. In 1856, Isaac M. Singer simplified this process when he launched the domestic sewing machine. For those with limited abilities, the product dramatically reduced construction time. Due to the expense, it was not widely purchased amongst the lower classes. To encourage sales, ‘manufacturers dropped prices, reduced down payments, and provided credit’.[7] As women could rent the machines, the product transformed the inclusivity of fashion.                                                                                                                  

Used industrially, the machines reduced costs of manufacturing and labour. Cheaper to construct, mass production sparked a revolution in clothing. As fashion became affordable throughout social hierarchies, the stage for mass consumption was set. In Paris in 1852, entrepreneur Aristide Boucicaut opened Le Bon Marché. The department store ‘was one of the first retail establishments to offer fixed prices and a policy of entrée libre, or ‘no obligation to buy’.[8] To compete with Le Bon Marché, English department stores incorporated French retail practices. With increased access to the latest trends, clothing became an unreliable means of identification. From low-cost paper patterns, rentable sewing machines, ready-to-wear garments, and department stores, innovations encouraged social ambiguity. The democratization of fashion meant that class borders were being confused.

Stereotypes Disrupted: Aniline Dyes

As the lower classes engaged with fashion, bourgeois trends began overlapping with streetwalker stereotypes. Previously, prostitutes had been distinguished by their bright colours. However, inventor William Perkins introduced vivid hues to ‘respectable’ society. In 1856, he discovered the first aniline dye which produced a vibrant shade of purple. In 1859, All The Year Round satirized the mania for this eye-catching tone: ‘As I look out of my window now, the apotheosis of Perkin’s purple seems at hand-purple hands wave from open carriages-purple hands shake each other at street doors-purple hands threaten each other from opposite sides of the street’.[9] With varying degrees of ‘respectability’, it appeared that all social groups were sporting this vivid shade. As bright garments flooded the streets, it was difficult to distinguish ‘respectable’ tones from the streetwalker’s gaudy palette. Although fashionable, many still associated bold colours with immorality. In an 1877 sketch in Punch (Figure One), a gentleman anxiously exclaims: ‘I weally couldn’t go down to suppah with a young lady who wears mauve twimmings in her skirt, and magenta wibbons in her hair!’.[10] Despite the gentleman’s misgivings, bright colours had firmly infiltrated ‘respectable’ fashion. During this period, dresses had also become ‘far more daring, with necklines cut low both in the front and, occasionally, in the back’.[11] As fashions favoured decolletage, the streetwalker’s low neckline became the cultural norm.

Punch, or the London Charivari, ‘True Artistic Refinement’, 1877 (Figure One)[12]

Excessive Adornments

With women from all social tiers wearing bright colours, ‘the middle classes sought to distinguish themselves from the newly fashionable masses’.[13] As trimmings were expensive, they could be used to signify personal status. Suddenly, gowns were decked ‘with lace, ostrich plumes, swansdown, [and] garlands of flowers’.[14] Visiting England, French commentator Hippolyte Taine argued that women ‘march past to advertise a magazine of novelties’.[15] To compliment these showy dresses, hats became increasingly elaborate. The 1860s ushered in a trend for taxidermy animals as stylish trimmings. As the craze for plumage mounted, rare breeds of bird were being threatened. In 1899, an illustration in Punch (Figure Two) denounced this dangerous trend.

Punch, or the London Charivari, ‘The “Extinction” of Species: or, The Fashionable Lady without Mercy and Egrets’, 1899(Figure Two)[16]

As exotic feathers had to be imported into England, they epitomized individual prosperity. Those with limited funds would opt for garlands or ribbons. Once again, Taine was appalled at ‘bonnets resembling piled-up bunches of rhododendrons’.[17] As a preventative social tool, streetwalker stereotypes were no longer effective. Whilst excessive trimmings filled the streets, the showy streetwalker blended in seamlessly with the fashionable bourgeois. From mid-century onwards, trends and the democratization of fashion blurred the ‘moral’ boundaries of clothing.

Works Cited

Coffin, Judith G., ‘Credit, Consumption, and Images of Women’s Desires: Selling the Sewing Machine in Late Nineteenth-Century France’, French Historical Studies, 18 (1994), 749-783 <https://doi.org/10.2307/286691&gt;

Dickens, Charles,  All The Year Round: A Weekly Journal (New York: J. M. Emerson & Co, 1859) <https://archive.org/details/allyearround01dick/page/n7/mode/2up?q=purple&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021]

Eastlake, Elizabeth, Music and the Art of Dress: Two Essays reprinted from the Quarterly Review (London: John Murray, 1852) <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31970033862647&view=2up&seq=10&q1=65&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021]

J, B. D, ‘The Police Outrage in Regent-Street’, Pall Mall Gazette, 5 July 1887 <https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BA3200404318/GDCS?u=chesterc&sid=GDCS&xid=0d81b6ab&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021]

Matthews, Mimi, A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion And Beauty (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2018)

Rose, Clare (ed.), Clothing, Society And Culture in Nineteenth-Century England: Volume 2 Abuses and Reforms (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011)

Stead, W. T., ‘What the Male Pests have to Say for Themselves’, 30 July 1887 <https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BB3200404798/GDCS?u=chesterc&sid=GDCS&xid=2dfa38cb&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021]

Taine, Hippolyte, Notes on England, trans. W. F. Rae (London: W. Ibister & Co, 1874) <https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=s8UpAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021]

Valverde, Mariana, ‘The Love of Finery: Fashion and the Fallen Woman in Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse’, Victorian Studies, 32 (1989), 168-188 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/3827615&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021]

Walkley, Christina, The Ghost in the Looking Glass: The Victorian Seamstress (London: Peter Owen, 1981)

Images

Punch, or the London Charivari, ‘The “Extinction” of Species: or, The Fashionable Lady without Mercy and Egrets’, 1899

Punch, or the London Charivari, ‘True Artistic Refinement’, 1877


[1] Elizabeth Eastlake, Music and the Art of Dress: Two Essays reprinted from the Quarterly Review (London: John Murray, 1852) <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31970033862647&view=2up&seq=10&q1=65&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021] (p. 68).

[2] Eastlake, pp. 68-69.

[3] Mariana Valverde, ‘The Love of Finery: Fashion and the Fallen Woman in Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse’, Victorian Studies, 32 (1989), 168-188 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/3827615&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021] (p. 168). 

[4] B.D.J, ‘The Police Outrage in Regent-Street’, Pall Mall Gazette, 5 July 1887 <https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BA3200404318/GDCS?u=chesterc&sid=GDCS&xid=0d81b6ab&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021] (p. 6).

[5] W.T. Stead, ‘What the Male Pests have to Say for Themselves’, 30 July 1887 <https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BB3200404798/GDCS?u=chesterc&sid=GDCS&xid=2dfa38cb&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021] (p. 2).

[6] Christina Walkley, The Ghost in the Looking Glass: The Victorian Seamstress (London: Peter Owen, 1981), p. 5.

[7] Judith G. Coffin, ‘Credit, Consumption, and Images of Women’s Desires: Selling the Sewing Machine in Late Nineteenth-Century France’, French Historical Studies, 18 (1994), 749-783 <https://doi.org/10.2307/286691&gt; (p. 752).

[8] Mimi Matthews, A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion And Beauty (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2018), p. 31.

[9] Charles Dickens, All The Year Round: A Weekly Journal (New York: J. M. Emerson & Co, 1859) <https://archive.org/details/allyearround01dick/page/n7/mode/2up?q=purple&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021] (p. 469).

[10] Anonymous, ‘True Artistic Refinement’, Punch, or the London Charivari, 17 February 1877 <https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/DX1901912768/GDCS?u=chesterc&sid=GDCS&xid=e3afb44a&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021] (p. 66).

[11] Matthews, pp. 35-36.

[12] Figure One, Punch, or the London Charivari, ‘True Artistic Refinement’, 1877 from <https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/DX1901912768/GDCS?u=chesterc&sid=GDCS&xid=e3afb44a&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021].

[13] Clare Rose (ed.), Clothing, Society And Culture in Nineteenth-Century England: Volume 2 Abuses and Reforms (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011), p. ix.

[14] Matthews, p. 36.

[15] Hippolyte Taine, Notes on England, trans. W. F. Rae (London: W. Ibister & Co, 1874) <https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=s8UpAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021] (p. 68).

[16] Figure Two, Punch, or the London Charivari, ‘The “Extinction” of Species: or, The Fashionable Lady without Mercy and Egrets’, 1899from <https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/DX1901950422/GDCS?u=chesterc&sid=GDCS&xid=8d514141&gt; [accessed 15 February 2021].

[17] Taine, p. 336.

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