Printer Friendly

Lady credit and the strange case of the hoop-petticoat.

O Garment, heavenly wide! thy spacious Round Does my astonish'd Thoughts almost confound. (The Hoop-Petticoat)

The hoop-petticoat is a rich icon of eighteenth-century life and, more importantly, of the distance between that life and our own. Huge, complex, expensive, immuring the body, the hoop seems a kind of cage that traps women. Navigating the contraption through doors, in and out of chairs and coaches, up stairs, and down narrow streets demanded considerable skill and work. Clearly the hoop got in the way; yet the fashion endured throughout the century, waxing and waning in various permutations of breadth and dimension. Epitomizing the quixotic tenacity of fashion itself, neither convenient, comfortable, cheap, nor by many accounts even attractive, the hoop held on in the face of practical difficulty and outright attack to become a sartorial symbol central to the iconography of the eighteenth century. Why the hoop? becomes a core question in the study of eighteenth-century culture.

Why the hoop? is a question eighteenth-century cultural critics themselves asked. Though to us it may serve as a perfectly integral emblem for the high artifice of the ancien regime, the hoop was never naturalized, never completely acculturated. A stranger in its own land, from its first appearance in England around 1708 the hoop was decried by some, including Addison and Steele, as a perverse interloper. Or perhaps it was acculturated in a way, but only as a sign of the alien. Identified with the feminine, most specifically with illicit female reproduction, with the excessive and the fantastic, with the most uncurbed onslaught of fashion's flood, the hoop is often represented as a kind of exoticism in the midst of eighteenth-century life.

It is easy to find the hoop in a place as strange as paradise. Off in the South Pacific, on tropical islands far from the hue and cry of fashion, Captain Cook and his crew stop in Tahiti on their third voyage. At their departure they are presented with gifts. Wrapped in yards and yards of bark-cloth, a young Tahitian woman, a walking bolt of fabric, comes to the ships in the traditional gift-giving costume depicted in figure 1 (Collection 1552). A remarkable sight to Western eyes, yet they had all seen something like it before: Cook's journalist can give readers back home a good idea of this exotic costume by comparing it to the familiar "circular hoop-peticoat |sic~" (1552). The 1790 edition supplies an engraving that confirms the likeness. Its hoop-like form reaching high up above the waist, the Tahitian outfit bears a close resemblance to the last phases of the hoop in English court-dress at the turn of the nineteenth century. In these oddly hybrid costumes, the high waist of the new, classically allusive empire fashion was awkwardly combined with the formal hoop. Constructed by a great quantity of cloth wrapped and folded around the woman, the Tahitian gift-costume is actually hoopless; yet it is hoop-like. The hoop is evoked to clarify the image of the exotic native in the minds of British readers. Precisely because it was an alien in their midst, the hoop is useful to the writer as he tries to establish a connection between home and the unknown, between Europeans in hoops and Tahitians in bark-cloth.

Similarly, I suggest that the exoticism of the hoop does not so much measure our distance from the eighteenth century as confirm our relation to it. This relation is based not on any empathetic understanding of the hoop we may cultivate but on that very lack of sympathy for and understanding of the hoop that we share with its contemporaries. Any distance that the hoop measures between the eighteenth century and the present is also a gap that estranged eighteenth-century culture from itself. Far from obscuring the eighteenth century's perception of itself, these distances of estrangement are critical distances that foster specifically modern forms of self-consciousness and cultural self-awareness.

In Addison's Tatler 116 for January 5, 1709/10, the central persona of the paper, Isaac Bickerstaff, as judge, both arbiter of elegance and adjudicator of property, hears the case of a woman and her hoop-petticoat. This "court," a satiric legal conceit established in Tatler 110, serves as a tribunal for the interrogation of fashionable people and things. Filling the void left by the abolition of sumptuary laws, the court advocates the order of reason in contemporary life: "as other courts were often called to demand the execution of persons dead in law, so this was held to give the last orders relating to those who were dead in reason" (Tatler 110). Condemned as irrational and unnatural, the petticoat is found guilty and executed by dismemberment. The woman--just another fashion victim--is stripped of her hoop, pardoned and released; the avuncular Bickerstaff "always give|s~ great allowances to the fair sex upon account of the fashion." He appropriates the hoop frame and incorporates it into the architecture of his "court" as a kind of canopy tent over his judicial bench. The hoop becomes a dramatic decorative accent that enshrines his position in its resemblance to "the cupola of St. Paul's." The quilted petticoat that covers the hoop is cut up and redistributed according to Bickerstaff's orders, which include, in addition to some charitable projects, designs for his own "Stomachers, Caps, Facings of |his~ Wastcoat-Sleeves, and other Garnitures suitable to |his~ Age and Quality." The hoop, commodity on the irrational and unstable fashion market, is thus reduced and rationalized in this directed redistribution of its body. The woman's body, in turn, is diminished, deprived of its "unnatural" extension and returned to its "natural" form. Thus Addison as Bickerstaff, Censor of Britain, dramatically legislates woman's body in conformity with the observation from Ovid's Remedia Amoris that serves as epigraph to this paper: pars minima est ipsa puella sui, a woman is the least part of herself (line 344).

Within its modest frame, this mock trial brings together strands of ideas that can be traced out to a more complex network of financial and social issues. And in all of these issues, as in the trial itself, the feminine is a dominant figure in patterns of conceptualization and representation. What constitutes female "nature," and so what features of social, domestic, and economic life can be portioned off as "feminine"--these questions, more and less directly, are implicated in Bickerstaff's disputation with the hoop-petticoat. The construction of femininity that supports the condemnation of the hoop is graphically represented in contemporary allegories of credit. These representations help us understand the hopes and fears behind this verdict and so the ideological constructions it participates in. The hoop and credit are connected by a discursive proximity: representations of both draw on and feed back into heavily gendered symbolic structures that lie at the base of early modern British culture.

In the early eighteenth century, credit--the instrument of the most significant financial developments of the period--is explicitly female and commonly allegorized as Lady Credit.(1) The nationalization of the credit economy through the establishment of the Bank of England and the Public Debt in the 1690s drew to credit considerable attention from those concerned about its sociocultural, as well as its more discretely economic, effects.(2) This nationalization of credit, however, is only one aspect of an entirely credit-saturated economy where, due in part to the specie shortage that was aggravated by the 1696 decision to keep the silver standard, the bulk of business was transacted through extensive networks of debt.(3) Everyone worth anything was in debt. The financial instruments so crucial to the proliferation of capitalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries carved out markets based on the intangible, fertile, profitable, and potentially empty "phantom" of credit.

A whalebone- and hemp-supported bubble raised on the baseless foundation of woman, the hoop itself can stand as a sartorial allegory of credit-based speculation, of the Project. In a single quatrain of his "Upon the South Sea Project" (1721), Swift draws together images of inflated hoops, speculative bubbles, and the perverse femininity of lady gamblers, warriors, and witches:

Undone at play, the female troops Come here their losses to retrieve; Ride o'er the waves in spacious hoops, Like Lapland witches in a sieve. (Lines 97-100)

Kept afloat on the hollow orbs of their hoops, these Amazonian mermaids ("the female troops") are icons of the South-Sea Bubble itself: empty, illegitimate, hazardous, and feminine. And although Addison does not explicitly construct an allegory between hoops and credit, a comparison of the terms in which both are represented calls up homology after homology. Both are desire-enslaving, fashion-driven and fashion-driving, empty, jerry-built structures supported only by all-too-manipulable markets where rumor, taste, and opinion are retailed along with stocks, bonds, and petticoats. Of course, representations of credit vary in accordance with their authors' views on political economy. Swift relentlessly refuses to acknowledge credit's virtues, but Addison's picture of credit is more ambivalent. He sees credit as a necessary and desirable, yet nonetheless a hazardous and innately unstable, financial instrument. In Spectator 3, Addison paints Lady Credit as a virtuous but infirm woman:

She was . . . a greater Valetudinarian than any I had ever met with, even in her own Sex, and subject to such Momentary Consumptions, that in the twinkling of an Eye, she would fall away from the most florid Complexion, and the most healthful State of Body, and wither into a Skeleton. Her Recoveries were often as sudden as her Decays.

So while Addison's Lady Credit is undeniably amiable and virtuous, she is also an hysteric, a passive victim of a specifically female malady.(4)

Enraptured by adventurist fantasies of financial speculation, Defoe invested ample funds of rhetoric, imagination, and passion in his portraits of credit. Emphasizing even more strongly than Addison Credit's equivocal instability, Defoe graphically evokes her intense fertility, mystery, and danger--"this Mother of Great designs," "the great Mystery of this Age," this "phantom," "this invisible je ne scay quoi, this non-natural, this emblem of something, though in itself nothing" (Review 3: no. 5; 6: no. 31, 32). Like woman, credit, "in itself nothing," can only be the least part of herself. The very contradictions that construct her foreclose her purchase on any stable identity.(5) Credit exalts individuals and nations to profit zeniths and plunges them into the hells of debt. The emblem of an unrealizable future where all will pay off and be repaid, credit is the fantasy on which men erect their projects--honest, fraudulent, or simply preposterous--and woman is the fantasy on which Addison erects his projects--paternalistic, transformative, and sanguinely rational.

The "feminine" instability of credit, fashion, and women makes them at once threatening sites of anarchic menace and fertile fields of possibility, undefined and so susceptible to regulative demarcation. This ambivalence is clear in the difficulty Defoe has describing and evaluating credit and the projects she engenders. Credit may be the nonpareil of financial innovation, the wheel that drives the wheels of commerce; yet she is easily violated, perilously open to abuse. Defoe laments the emergence of phenomenally preposterous ventures, flimsily backed by a conjectural credit. These

have rais'd the Fancies of Credulous People to such height, that meerly on the shadow of Expectation, they have form'd Companies, chose Committees, appointed Officers, Shares, and Books, rais'd great Stocks, and cri'd up an empty Notion to that degree, that people have been betray'd to part with their Money for Shares in a NEW-NOTHING. (Projects 12)

Credit may be "Nothing," but this nothing proves to be both a quite real threat and an actual promise. For as Defoe also emphasizes in this Essay upon Projects, credit backs trading ventures, technological advancements, manufacturing expansion, and land improvements that he considers "without question as great benefit as any Discoveries made in the Works of Nature by all the Academies and Royal Societies in the World" (15). Women, fashion, and credit share a dimly paradoxical nature: they can become anything and everything because they are in themselves nothing. It is this disturbing potential for emptiness in female nature, credit, and hoop-petticoats that threatens domestic, financial, and social stability.

The problem Defoe has pinning credit down, and the profuseness of speculation generated around her, are echoed in the stories of the hoop-petticoat told by a female "correspondent" in Spectator 127.(6) Posing the question, "Why the hoop?" and finding herself "wonderfully at a loss" about the use, origins, and moral implications of the hoop, this "lady" relates the conjectures that have grown up around it:

there are Men of Superstitious Tempers, who look upon the Hoop-Petticoat as a kind of Prodigy. Some will have it that it portends the Downfall of the French King, and observe that the Farthingale appeared in England a little before the Ruin of the Spanish Monarchy. Others are of Opinion that it foretells Battel and Bloodshed, and believe it of the same Prognostication as the Tail of a Blazing Star.

Like credit, the hoop is hard to construe; like credit, its significance rests in the future, on an outcome about which one can only speculate. But these prophetic speculations are soon dismissed, and the final figuration of the hoop in this letter recalls both Defoe's depiction of the fantastic castles raised on ethereal credit in his Essay on Projects, and the epigraph to Tatler 116--a woman is the least part of herself:

When I survey this new-fashioned Rotunda |the hoop~ in all its Parts, I cannot but think of the old Philosopher, who after having entered into an Egyptian Temple, and looked about for the Idol of the Place, at length discovered a little Black Monkey enshrined in the midst of it, upon which he could not forbear crying out . . . What a magnificent Palace is here for such a Ridiculous Inhabitant. (Spectator 127)

The "little Black Monkey" inside the structure of the hoop/rotunda is woman herself, humanoid but not quite human, mischievous and troublesome, the "zoon philokosmon, an Animal that delights in Finery," as Addison puts it in Spectator 265. Yet while Defoe often registers dismay in his analyses of credit and projects, acknowledging without quite resolving the perplexities encountered in this new financial market that seems impervious to conventional ethical categorization, Addison is more positive, confidently submitting fashion to moral judgment and steady regulation at the hands of satire and the law. The ideology of moderation followed in the Tatler and Spectator does not require an abandonment of credit, of women, the financial market, or even of fashionable clothes, but a pursuit of these objects directed by rational criteria.

As he attempts to establish the rule of reason over fashion, Bickerstaff's case against the hoop-petticoat dramatizes two related fissures within the social system. First, there is a rift between the practice of fashion, here represented by the hoop, and the practice of reason, manifest in the "law" handed down by Bickerstaff at this "trial."(7) This conflict then unfolds as one between fashion and nature. That fashion is irrational is a general and perennial complaint, but the form its rationalization takes here is specifically satiric and ties into contemporary trends to keep women at home and so out of public places of resort and debate. Although fashion is often directed toward the grooming of women for their roles as objects of male desire, this is not its only, nor always its dominant use. Sometimes, this aesthetic and erotic intent is entirely absent and that is exactly what irritates Addison in Spectator 81 and 265. Fashion, as Addison's anxiety about the voluminous hoop shows, can be used like satire to secure space in the public domain. Among other things, satire is a tactic for staking out discursive territory in ideological conflicts. Fashion in the early eighteenth century, as now, shared many of the positioning, dissenting, and aligning functions of satiric discourse. So although textual disputes over social issues were not generally open to them, women could and did claim ideological positions through an explicit semantics of fashion. The wearing of "party patches" to signal affiliation with either the Whigs or the Tories is well known (Spectator 81). These women cosmetically asserting their political identity are represented by Addison as aggressively unfeminine--a "Body of Amazons" drawn up in "Battle-Array against one another." Participation in public party disputes by women is divisive and unnatural: "It only serves to aggravate the Hatred and Animosities that reign among Men, and in a great measure deprives the Fair Sex of those peculiar Charms with which Nature has endowed them" (Spectator 81).

Less celebrated but equally interesting is the new fashion in women's caps reported in Spectator 265. These eighteenth-century ladies are wearing colors: "I am informed that this Fashion spreads daily, insomuch that the Whig and Tory Ladies begin already to hang out different Colours, and to shew their Principles in their Head-dress." Addison dismisses this report, as well as his friend Will Honeycomb's notion that the caps signify the variously colored moods of the women wearing them: "For my own part, I impute this diversity of Colours in the Hoods to the diversity of Complection in the Faces of my pretty Country Women." Addison simply refuses to recognize either the public or personal uses that women have made of their fashionable caps. By formalizing and aestheticizing these signs, he saps them of content--political and psychological. Apparently, if they want to make anything more than a fashion statement, women should leave their colors at home.(8)

Addison sets the horizons of meaning and dictates how one may get access to it. His role as judge of irrational fashion supports his right as a satirist and as a man to legislate not simply what women wear, but also what access women may have to territory--both ideological and material--in the public sphere. Women use fashion to take up public space, symbolically and materially. Inasmuch as this is a confrontation between satire and fashion, Addison is not merely prosecuting the hoop-petticoat but also defending his own case as a satirist. Satire, not fashion, it is decreed, is to be the legitimate procedure for claiming one's ground, and is here figuratively legalized in all the trappings of Bickerstaff's "court." This is tantamount to saying that men alone, not women, are allowed to occupy and allocate social space. A satiric woman is no lady; she forfeits her social standing by the very act of claiming it.

The hoop, the patch, the parti-colored caps, are tokens that furnish women with access to public discourse and social territory out of the bounds of the legitimately feminine. In his trial Addison participates in an ongoing definition of the legitimate sphere for female activity. Specifically, he is at work in the construction of a private world of naturalized, feminized domesticity, a sane asylum from the fraudulent public world with its commercial ethics and its consuming passions. The alignment women/nature/home makes it possible to think about an edenic domestic sphere that precedes (nature before culture) the fall into the world, the corruptions of the marketplace. In its pure ideological formulation, the domestic sphere, the family nest, is immune from contamination by the toxins of commodification, interest, and instability that pollute the worldly world. Women must stay at home in order to fulfill their "natural" function and so insure the value and stability of the home. Just as crucially, the home insures the cultivation of the right kind of women and the right sort of femininity--complacent, retiring, oriented entirely around the family.

Of course, there is nothing new in this command for women to stay home; the domestic propaganda of the early eighteenth century rests on a long tradition. What is remarkable is the need to rearticulate and reinforce this command. The creation of the bourgeois private sphere is an ongoing, centuries-old project that reformulates its responses in the face of shifting pressures and goals. One set of pressures is economic; this was intensified around the turn of the century by the sheer growth--intensive and extensive--of commercial and industrial expansion. Not completely at ease with new commercial and financial conditions, men demonize the sources of their anxieties as threateningly feminine, and both symbolically and literally sequester them out of harm's way. Both the need to banish, or at least stabilize, the "bad" feminine forces at work in the world, and the need for a private, domestic sphere immune from the perils of that world and vitalized by "good" feminine forces, bear witness to anxieties about control and dominance. The consolidation of a naturalized, emphatically bourgeois domestic culture achieves not merely control over the hazards of the capitalized world, but even dominance within that world largely through an ongoing, strenuous, and highly adaptive manipulation of those bodies, concepts, and practices marked as feminine.

Bickerstaff's trial matches this larger cultural pattern in its advocacy of a pure and natural woman, at odds with the hollow artifice of the world. In order to serve as an emblem of a natural domestic realm, women must be divested of the emphatically artificial hoop-petticoat. The hoop is at odds with a conception of woman's body as "natural," as unconstructed, and it is hostile to the masculine desire that assumes unchallenged control of this body. Insofar as woman's "natural" function is procreation, her appearance should signal sexual desirability and, related to this, sexual availability--though only, of course, within the limits of decency. Yet, the fashion of the hoop aggressively counters respectable conventions of sexual desirability. It does so in an apparently--but only apparently--contradictory, double-faceted manner.

First and most obviously, the social space claimed by the hoop is an anti-sexual space: the hoop blocks sexual advances, inconveniencing masculine desire. As the epistolary lady of Spectator 127 writes: "I find several Speculative Persons are of Opinion that our Sex has of late Years been very Saucy, and that the Hoop-Petticoat is made use of to keep us at a distance." Yet while this use of the hoop as body barricade is objectionable both because of the bad attitude--this "sauciness"--that it expresses and the overt impediment it presents to masculine sexual desire--it could also be positively regarded as a shield that protects women's chastity. This would make the hoop congenial to at least one set of masculine desires--for the preservation of reproductive property and of the legitimacy of the patriline. And this is the argument of the "counsel for the petticoat," who defends the hoop as a kind of whale-bone and hemp chastity belt "of great use to preserve the honour of families." It is a conventional, even stock satiric argument. In The Rape of the Lock these virtue-preserving qualities are assumed only to be questioned by Pope, who stations "fifty chosen Sylphs" to guard Belinda's petticoat: "Oft have we known that seven-fold fence to fail, / Tho's stiff with hoops, and arm'd with ribs of whale" (2.117-22).

But this argument from chastity is rejected by Bickerstaff, not because he, like Pope, doubts the strength of the hoop's Ajax-like shield, but because he fears that women, rather than men, control this body armor. Anxious to establish once and for all that the hoop is without excuse, Addison counters this argument by citing the dangerous, sexually empowering potential of the hoop: "the great temptation it might give to virgins, of acting in security like married women, and by that means give a check to matrimony, an institution always encouraged by wise societies" (Tatler 116). Chaperoned by the hoop, repelling well-intentioned beaux with their brazen self-assurance, even virgins get fresh. And so we return to the objectionable sauciness that the correspondent to Spectator 127 cites as one bad effect of the hoop.

Further, as the speculation on the origins of the hoop in Spectator 127 makes clear, the hoop, far from preserving chastity, may actually encourage promiscuity by allowing women to control the signs of illegitimate maternity. The history of the hoop tells the tale of women's exploitation of fashion for their own bad ends: it is a history of sartorial abuse and sexual autonomy. Female use of the hoop results in a confounding of the conventional signs of sexual status, experience, and availability. This symbolic, as well as practical and material, disorder points to the instability of the function and nature of the hoop-petticoat and, in fact, the hoop has its mythic origins in just such confusion. It perplexes the signs of maternity in an ambivalent dynamic that may both conceal and reveal pregnancy, either hiding illegitimate pregnancy and so disguising scandal or making everyone look pregnant. The conjectures about the origins of the hoop in Spectator 127 center on this duplicitous dynamic and here the contradictory ambivalence--hiding pregnancy and revealing it--is rationalized in the narrative of a subversive fashion plot: "It is generally thought some crafty Women have thus betrayed their Companions into Hoops, that they might make them accessory to their own Concealments, and by that means escape the Censure of the World." This fashion hoax levels those hierarchies that define women by smoothing "all Distinctions" setting mother and daughter, maid and matron, wife and widow "upon the same bottom."

And this is not just a paranoid satirical fantasy of Addison's. No one seems to have any exact idea of how the hoop came into fashion. The story offered here still appears in histories of dress. This account is not so much an explanation, either in the Spectator or elsewhere, as a cover-up for the absence of an explanation. Thus in The Encyclopedia of World Costume, the irrecoverable origins of the Spanish farthingale, the hoop's great-great grandmother, are narrated by the tale of the pregnancy hoax: "nearly all attribute |the introduction of this structure~ to different members of the royal houses of Europe who wished to conceal an unwanted, embarrassing pregnancy." As Boucher notes, "the origin of paniers |hoops~ is still a subject of controversy" (273).(9) It is difficult to pin down the origins of the hoop and the hoop makes it hard to determine the social standing of the women who wear it. Like her contemporary, credit, who "makes honest Women Whores, and Whores honest women," the hoop conceals the true adulteress and makes "well-shaped Virgins" bloat up and waddle "like big-bellied Women" (Defoe, Review 6: no. 31; Spectator 127). So, while the representation of the hoop in Tatler 116 as an obstacle to (legitimate) sex and in Spectator 127 as an incitement to promiscuity at first may seem contradictory, in the logic of patriarchal erotics they are complementary: both evade the jurisdiction of masculine desire that Addison presents as legitimating and benevolent. The feminine control of sexuality that the hoop provides women is the psychological analog to the material barricade it erects around their bodies: both are repulsive to masculine desire.

Like the adulteress whose illegitimate pregnancy violates the patriline, a woman in a hoop is a kind of fraudulent monster, an unsightly imposition on contemporary social space and even, we see in Spectator 127, on the future. Here classical precedent is cited to predict posterity's reading of the hoop. Alexander the Great is said to have buried huge suits of armor in India "in order to give Posterity an extraordinary Idea of him, and make them believe he had commanded an Army of Giants." Similarly, it is conjectured, if a hoop is preserved "in any Repository of Curiosities, it will lead into the same Error . . . unless we can believe our Posterity will think so disrespectfully of their Great-Grandmothers, that they made themselves Monstrous to appear Amiable."(10)

Seeking to restore woman's body to nature by removing it from the monstrous armor of the hoop, Addison does not abandon a system of social signification and relation based on commodity consumption. Rather, he advocates the use of things in a mode that fabricates from commodities themselves an image of a "natural" order, apparently beyond the reach of the arbitrary, mercurial fluctuations in the fashion market. He does this, appropriately, in a simulation of jurisprudence that, as John Pocock says, is "concerned with the administration of things and with human relations conducted through the mediation of things" (Virtue 44). We see then how the conflict between fashion and reason staged in this paper mutates into a conflict between fashion and nature, especially where, as here, nature is being legally defined and instituted through commodity regulation. As we have seen, Bickerstaff is of the opinion that the hoop-petticoat is disruptive to human relations, especially relations between the sexes, and (connected to this) that it perverts woman's own relation to her natural body. Exploiting the power of commodities to transform social relations, Addison seeks to reform these relations.

First of all, this involves a change of clothes, in fact a change into clothes from the hoop, which is figured not as clothing but as an architectural structure--a thing occupied rather than worn: "My pretty Maid |says Bickerstaff~ do you own your self to have been the Inhabitant of the Garment before us?" By mistaking the hoop for clothing, Addison implies, women misuse this particular commodity. This erroneous use of the hoop results from its misidentification, and both are part of the violation of nature Addison assigns to the hoop. The hoop violates the structures of domestic architecture and transgresses the limits of propriety. A woman in a hoop cannot be domesticated, for, quite literally, she cannot get into the court where that domestication is adjudicated. She must "be stripped of her encumbrances, till she became little enough to enter |Bickerstaff's~ house." The woman in the hoop cannot come into the courthouse because she is already an "Inhabitant" of a kind of hoop-house of her own. Women may own clothes but they are not entitled to real property. By representing the hoop as a house Addison puts it out of the established legal bounds of female possession.

Stripping woman of her hoop, Bickerstaff's reduction of the territory of the feminine is couched in the rhetoric of restoration. Tutelary and benevolent, he promises to liberate the lady from the ungracious obstacle of the hoop. He will rescue women from fashion's tyranny. But, as always, liberation comes with an agenda. While the hoop suggests with its "saucy" resistance to men that there is something in male desire that merits this resistance, Bickerstaff's liberation of woman from the hoop returns her to the "natural" order of a sexuality that does not elude male control and so does not tinge masculine desire with a suggestion that its dominance may warrant resistance. In order to accomplish this restoration, Bickerstaff, acting as prosecutor as well as judge, appeals to a nature that has been violated by the arbitrary and irrational tyranny of fashion. That fashion has imposed upon and even replaced Nature becomes clear in the woman's defense: "That if she laid |the hoop~ aside, People would think that she was not made like other Women." Social practice has replaced woman as the least part of herself with something bigger, and has done this so effectively that the very paltriness of woman has been effaced by fashion's supplements. The problem with returning to nature, as becomes clear from the abundant attempts to restore it, is that nature itself is unavailable before it is constructed. The apparent contradiction between nature as the determining origin of cultural limits and nature as cultural production is in full play here. In his domestic court, where, as the Censor of Britain, he legislates the realm of the public from the legitimizing ground of the private and natural, Addison goes to the bar to contest the unnatural nature asserted by fashion in order to make a claim for nature as defined by law.

Divested of her hoop, woman must masquerade in self-identity. Her nature must parade as nature. Yet Addison's attack on the hoop is emphatically not a simple condemnation of luxury and extravagance. A fervent admirer of trade, Addison does not condemn female indulgence in the luxury market supported by England's international commerce.(11) Indeed, he is willing to deck woman out in all the precious gems and textiles carried by British commerce from the furthest reaches of the globe. But this adornment is normative; it takes the stylization of female appearance out of the hands of women and fashion and submits it to the control of a "nature" that serves as handmaid to a paternalist patriarchy. Expressed as good taste, there is a harmonious identity between Addison's desires and those of the nature he promotes, and so they share an agenda: "as the hand of nature has poured on |women~ such a profusion of charms and graces . . . so I would have them bestow on themselves all the additional beauties that art can supply them with, provided it does not interfere with, disguise, or pervert, those of nature." Woman is herself "a beautiful romantic animal," and so, as part of the natural, it is only fitting that she "be adorned with furs and feathers, pearls and diamonds, ores and silks . . . and every part of nature furnish its share towards the embellishment of a creature that is the most consummate work of it. All this I shall indulge them in; but as for the petticoat I have been speaking of, I neither can, nor will allow it" (Tatler 116).

Yet, there is a contradiction between this easy admission of expenditure in the luxury market and Bickerstaff's initial rejection of arguments that defend expenditure on the hoop as a great boon to the trade and industry that serve this market. From the highly rationalized contradictions embodied in this shifting argument first against, then in favor of lavish expenditure, the hoop-petticoat rises as the signpost that guides this apparently inconsistent turn-around. Bickerstaff confesses that arguments for the hoop as a booster of trade and industry would be convincing, except for the great expense it imposes on families. Outlay on such luxury, at least on the hoop, is "by no means to be thought of till some years after a peace." Writing a little more than three years before the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, Bickerstaff calls for war-time austerity, urging furthermore that expenditure on hoops "would be a prejudice to the ladies themselves, who could never expect to have any money in the pocket." Behind the immediate rationalization of his argument for domestic thrift in uncertain times we might see an anxiety about the "unnatural" transformations that the commodity is prey to. The hoop becomes here a sign of the wild card in the game of capitalist commodity exchange, and Addison won't play the game unless he can stack the deck. Importantly, the call for frugality is abandoned as soon as the hoop is rejected: expenditure is excusable after all, as long as it is on commodities whose value and form seem to Addison fixed by nature. The hoop cannot be pinned down. It is blatantly destabilizing; its origins are either scandalous or irrecoverable; and it is quite dramatically displaceable, undergoing transfigurations from garment to architectural structure and back again, with interest. Divested of its status as woman's garment, the hoop is exposed as an architectural structure and as such it is appropriated by the court. Finally, disengaged from its infrastructure, the petticoat is returned to garment form in a rationalized redistribution of the commodity that is both charitable and remunerative: Bickerstaff gives orders to cut up the petticoat into clothes for the deserving poor and for himself. The progress of the hoop exemplifies the way that commodities are prone to unsettling and restabilizing appropriations, subversive and normative transformations that highlight interests and expose contradictions in the social practices through which nature, gender, meaning, and power are negotiated.

Woman and fashion, objects of man's passion, are naturalized in a mode that returns them to masculine sexual access and socio-legal regulation. Insofar as this is a victory over a controlling and irrational fancy, the text of this "trial" and the epigraph offered as a commentary on it are in accord. In Remedia Amoris, Ovid, like Addison, promotes a program for the mastery of feminine wiles; he recommends that a man who wants to cure his fancy take a long hard look at his beloved stripped of all cosmetics and ornaments. Ovid's is a plan to dissolve the cathexis of the fetish. When one sees what woman really is--the least part of herself--desire for her will evaporate.(12) In Remedia Amoris, woman becomes sexually remote not because she is immured within her hoop but because man has engineered her undesirability.

From this perspective Ovid's purpose is opposed to Addison's. Addison strips the woman of her cumbersome hoop in order to restore her sexual proximity. So although Addison shares in a general way Ovid's goal of regulating desire, he directs this regulation differently. The complete rationalization of desire, as Ovid demonstrates, is its death. Addison calls for not an abdication of passion but a rechanneling, a cathexis onto a different set of fetish objects: not hoops, but "furs and feathers, pearls and diamonds, ores and silks"--those commodities that signify woman as natural, supplements to the commodity woman that render her transparent and tautological--nature signifying itself as nature. In marked contrast with the hooped woman, the natural woman is comfortingly easy to read. The domineering woman in her insolent hoop controls masculine sexuality and is an embodiment of the force of the feminine in the public exchange; she must be replaced by the natural woman--stabilized, governable, readable, divested of social magnitude.

So women do not in this essay remain stripped and reduced to the least parts of themselves; rather they are reconstructed by, and as, "natural" commodities. This refashioning of woman in the mode of the natural protects masculine desire by fixing it on an object that appears innocent of perversion by the market. Thus Addison's project promotes masculine desire as it is directed at both financial and sexual speculation because it asserts mastery over obstacles raised by feminine perversity in both spheres. Of course, Addison's project of naturalization is threatened by the logic of gender which underwrites it. The very meagerness of woman as the least part of herself leaves very little material evidence of woman's essential nature. This nothingness of essential femininity is both the motivational anxiety and the enabling condition of Addison's project. This lack in the feminine other, the space that threatens absence of definition, of stability, of grounded essence, is the same manipulable space that makes the feminine vulnerable to masculine construction and control. It is this perverse logic--I would call it the irreducible logic of the feminine in Western culture--that marks the deeply structured similarities between credit, fashion, and woman herself.

So when we, like the lady "correspondent" in Spectator 127, ask "Why the hoop?" not so much in regard to origins that may be irrecoverable as in relation to Addison's fixation on it for his exemplary prosecution, the choice seems richly overdetermined. The hoop is culpable as the most extravagant novelty in a fashion system that encourages novelty as an end in itself. It poses as an article of clothing, but its ruse is blasted when it is exposed as a building, a "Rotunda" inhabited and possessed by women. It offends by extending woman's domain into areas closed to her by law and convention--entitlement to property, access to public space and social discourse, control of the signs of sexual status. It is damned as a monstrosity that goes against the grain of nature. And, finally, as a disguise for the lack, the absence, the nothing that woman must be if she is to be accessible to masculine management, the hoop-petticoat is guilty of a subversive fashion hoax against the metaphysics of the subject that underwrites the patriarchy.


1 Daniel Defoe, for example, allegorizes the character and biography of Lady Credit at length (Review 3: no. 5; 6: no. 32, 33; 8: no. 134). See also his Essay upon the Public Credit. He explores the issues of credit-financed projects (speculations, ventures) in An Essay upon Projects. For a bibliographical note on the figure of Lady Credit see Backscheider.

2 For the history of nationalized credit in England see Dickson, esp. chapters 1-6.

3 For the intense dependency on private credit/debt see Brewer. Also see Braudel, who follows Defoe's accounts of the saturation of credit/debt in the commercial networks of the day and emphasizes that "this was a kind of credit inherent in the commercial system, generated by it -- an internal form of credit which was interest-free" (385).

4 Pocock argues that from Defoe to Addison the figure of Lady Credit shifts from an allegory of Fortuna to one of Virtue (Machiavellian 452-56). In his later "Mobility of Property" essay in Virtue, Commerce, and History, Pocock discusses at length the hysteria of eighteenth-century economic man in its connection to the feminine Credit; however, he does not point out Credit's own transformation into the very picture of a contemporary hysteric. Perhaps Pocock assumes, but he never makes explicit Credit's hysteria. Rather than looking at how early eighteenth-century pictures of Credit draw on the contemporary medical profile of the hysteric, Pocock, in both discussions, emphasizes her genealogy from conventional allegories of Fortune and Luxury. Likewise, while Backscheider recognizes Addison's Lady Credit as a "vaporish" woman, she emphasizes the traditional allegorical character of the figure, and makes no reference to the popular, contemporary case histories of hysteria from which I think the representation of Credit also drew. See, for instance, the pseudonymous Sir John Midriff's account of the epidemic of credit-induced hysteria in his volume of "case-studies" (Observations on the Spleens and Vapours). See also Mandeville. For a discussion of the evolution of sensibility from medical accounts of hysteria and hypochondria, see Mullan.

5 For another example of exactly this construction of female nature, see Pope's "Epistle to a Lady."

6 I think this "correspondent" is a fiction written by Addison in order to provide female support for his own anti-hoop policies; so I use quotation marks when referring to her. Addison admits that he gives himself considerable editorial latitude even when printing actual letters, taking the liberty "to change the Language or Thought into my own way of speaking and thinking" (Spectator 271). Even if this once was a real letter, it has been so perfectly adapted to Addison's own style and argument that only an empty distinction could be made between it and something entirely from Addison's own hand. As Michael Ketcham points out, the letters in the Spectator, although they ostensibly represent an exchange of diverse opinions, "are mirrors of The Spectator that reflect its ideas and its vocabulary as transposed into other hands. . . . the published Spectator may be seen as an actual dialectic of opinions. . . . or it may be seen as a fabrication, where all responses to The Spectator are The Spectator" (132).

7 For the conflict between fashion and reason see also Spectator 27, where a reader writes of the contest "between Reason and Fashion" in his "Own Mind" and asks for advice on how to "live in the World, and out of it, at the same time," a discipline that Mr. Spectator claims to have mastered. The way of the World is the way of fashion, and conflicts with the dictates of reason that require retirement, or at least detachment from the World.

8 At the conclusion of the same paper, Addison advises women to give more thought to what goes into than what goes onto their heads. This injunction to give more attention to weighty matters seems at odds with his dismissal of the hoods as serious political statements. Basically, Addison trivializes the fashion practices of women and then rebukes them for being so frivolous.

9 Boucher takes no final stand on the issue of the hoop's exact origin (295-96). However, he proposes with some certainty that hoops were introduced, probably in England before France, between 1690 and 1714. This makes the hoop an exact contemporary with the introduction of public credit and the financial revolution in England. See Diana de Marly who places the introduction of the English hoop in the context of the ongoing fashion war between France and England: "As the Press commented on hoops in January 1709, they must have come out in 1708. . . . Despite the hostilities, hoops a la Britannique crossed the Channel and appeared at Versailles. The Duc de Saint Simon was astounded. . . . Louis XIV was even more horrified--British hoops at court, when Britannia was leading the Grand Alliance against him!" (111). See also the entries for "Farthingale" and "Panier" in Yarwood. On the subsequent incarnation of the hoop in the steel-framed crinoline, see Laver (59-71) and Gernsheim (25-59).

10 In Spectator 478, September 8, 1712, a project for just such a repository of fashion is offered, and although the hoop is not mentioned specifically here, the farthingale is. One purpose of this repository is to provide material data for the research into the history of fashion and so to free future scholars from reliance on textual sources and philological methodologies. Such faulty research guides can lead historians down the crooked paths of false etymology to the conclusions "that the Farthingale was worn for cheapness, or the Furbeloe |flounced, ruffled trim~ for warmth."

11 See Spectator 69 for Addison's panegyric on trade. The passions that are inseparable from the interests of men are unabashedly affirmed as Addison gushes over the spectacle of the Royal Exchange. Of course, the sunny view of this paper assumes a quite unreal, edenic state of trade balance--an harmonious system benefiting all. Here Addison echoes the utopian views of British trade expressed in literature, for example, by John Denham's Coopers Hill (1642, 1655, 1668) and Alexander Pope's Windsor Forest (1713). In a reading applicable to this Spectator paper as well, Laura Brown explicates the rhetoric of commodity fetishism in these poems (28-45). But the views expressed in Spectator 69 are at odds with those of a paper Addison had written only a few weeks earlier. Here in Spectator 45 he registers apprehensions about what trade might admit to English shores, advocating even peacetime embargoes against the importation of "French Fopperies." This earlier paper suggests that feminine fashions should be controlled by legislation that limits the provision of their materials. Focusing specifically on feminine access to the market of French fashion, trade becomes a topic for anxiety rather than celebration.

12 In his satiric poems, such as "A Lady's Dressing Room," Swift aggressively redirects this logic of desire against his sentimental male protagonists.


Backscheider, Paula R. "Defoe's Lady Credit." The Huntington Library Quarterly 44 (1981): 89-100.

Boucher, Francois. 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. Expanded, with a chapter by Yvonne Deslandres. New York: Harry Abrams, 1987.

Braudel, Fernand. The Wheels of Commerce. Vol. 2 of Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Centuries. Trans. Sian Reynolds. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Brewer, John. "Commercialization and Politics." The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England. Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982. 199-216.

Brown, Laura. Alexander Pope. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.

A Collection of Voyages round the World performed by Royal Authority. Containing a complete Historical Account of Captain Cook's First, Second, Third and Last Voyages. London, 1790. 5 vols.

Defoe, Daniel. An Essay upon Projects. London, 1710.

-----. Essay upon the Public Credit. London, 1710.

-----. Review of the State of the British Nation. Ed. Arthur Wellesley Secord. Facsimile Text Society. New York: Columbia UP, 1938. 22 vols.

de Marly, Diana. Costume and Civilization: Louis XIV and Versailles. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1987.

Dickson, P. G. M. The Financial Revolution in England: A Study in the Development of Public Credit. London: MacMillan; New York: St. Martin's, 1967.

Gernsheim, Alison. Fashion and Reality. London: Faber and Faber, 1963.

The Hoop-Petticoat. A Poem. Occasion'd by the Late Alteration of the Hoop-Petticoat. Dublin, 1736.

Ketcham, Michael. Transparent Designs: Reading, Performance, and Form in the Spectator Papers. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.

Laver, James. Taste and Fashion from the French Revolution until Today. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1938.

Mandeville, Bernard. A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions Vulgarly call'd the Hypo in Men and Vapours in Women. London, 1711.

Mullan, John. Sentiment and Sensibility: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

Observations on the Spleens and Vapours: Containing Remarkable CASES of Persons . . . who have been afflicted with those melancholy Disorders since the Fall of SOUTH-SEA, and other Publick Stocks. Sir John Midriff (pseud). London, 1721.

Ovid. Remedia Amoris. Trans. J.H. Mozley. The Art of Love and Other Poems. Vol. 2 of Ovid in Six Volumes. Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.

-----. Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Pope, Alexander. Pope: Poetical Works. Ed. Herbert Davis. London: Oxford UP, 1966.

The Spectator. Ed. Donald F. Bond. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965. 5 vols.

Swift, Jonathan. Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems. Ed. Pat Rogers. New York: Penguin, 1983.

The Tatler. Ed. George Aitken. London: Duckworth, 1898. 4 vols.

Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.

Mackie is writing her dissertation (Princeton) on the treatment of fashion and taste in the Tatler and the Spectator papers, and has published essays on Swift's poetry and on the autobiography and novels of Charlotte Charke (ELH). She is an editor of Critical Matrix: The Princeton Journal of Women, Gender, and Culture. In the fall of 1993 she will began an assistant professorship at Washington University.
COPYRIGHT 1993 West Chester University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Mackie, Erin
Publication:College Literature
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Disturbing the peace: writing in the cultural studies classroom.
Next Article:(De)forming the Romantic canon: the case of women writers.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters