Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 19, 2020
Amelia Rauser The Age of Undress: Art, Fashion, and the Classical Ideal in the 1790s New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. 216 pp.; 180 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300241204)

Amelia Rauser’s book The Age of Undress: Art, Fashion, and the Classical Ideal in the 1790s traces the transformation of the iconic robe à la grecque (or Empire line dress) from a fanciful, archaeologically inspired costume to an international, semantically fraught fashion trend in the last turbulent decade of the eighteenth century. Her erudite, engaging new study presents the reader with an impressively interdisciplinary analysis of this cultural phenomenon, which she sees as closely interwoven with contemporary debates on sensory perception, the emotions, race, and the role of women in modern society. Her approach, combining an intellectual history of the period with a close investigation of the materiality of women’s clothing, allows her to tie a delicate thread between the dresses themselves and their visual and literary representations, which (depending on the artist or author) portrayed this new vogue either as an innovative, more natural type of garment or as a sign of scandalous immorality.

As she argues in the introduction, Rauser sees the rise of neoclassical fashion not as an outgrowth of the French Revolution and a general late eighteenth-century interest in antiquity but rather as a feminine response to hotly contested aesthetic and philosophical questions. In her view, European creative circles in the 1790s were self-consciously homosocial. Although Enlightenment philosophers frequently praised women for their closeness to nature, sensitivity, and nurturing instincts, there was little space for women artists and intellectuals in their midst. For women eager to participate in the artistic movements and philosophical debates of the period, neoclassical fashion became a powerful expressive medium that communicated their own embodied engagement with the classical past and their ambitions for the present. Far from being a frivolous pursuit, neoclassical fashion constituted a manifesto on the part of women who wished to present themselves as aesthetic agents in their own right (16–17).

The book is organized into five thematic units, each of which pairs a short formal study of the material qualities of neoclassical dress with a longer chapter that situates key aspects of late eighteenth-century women’s fashion in a broader historical context. “Drape” and chapter 1 (“Naples: Modern Bacchantes”) consider women’s conscious emulation of ancient sculptures in their sartorial transformations into “living statues.” Cotton muslin, the preferred textile for neoclassical dress, clung to the wearer’s body, highlighting its form and lending it a sculpted look. Already popular in the 1790s as studio costumes for patrons wishing to be portrayed as mythological figures, muslin en chemise dresses were finally accepted as a type of formal attire through the influence of Emma Hart, later known as Lady Hamilton, who wore the same revealing ensembles to perform her “Attitudes” (a series of classicizing tableaux vivants) and to dine with her aristocratic guests (45). “Transparency” and chapter 2 (“The Sensate Statue”) explore the translucent quality of muslin and the metaphorical associations it evoked. As Rauser remarks, its transparency drew attention to the skin not as a surface to be decorated but as a permeable boundary between the self and the world that was also a conduit to cognition (66). From the perspective of contemporary sensationist thought, the skin-like, see-through appearance of cotton muslin thematized the relation between knowledge and perception that was also the subject of numerous contemporary works of art and literature. “High-Waistedness” and chapter 3 (“London: Sculptural Contour”) bring us to London and the reception of neoclassical fashion among the British elite. Lady Charlotte Campbell, who had visited Naples with her mother and attended Hart’s performances, emerges as a principal instigator of the “pad fad” of 1793. Wishing to accentuate the contours of their columnar, high-waisted neoclassical dresses, Lady Campbell and her fashion-conscious friends began wearing pillow-like stuffed linen bags under their clothes. Although their goal was to re-create the fluid, full-bodied appearance of classical statues, these pads together with the high waists and plunging necklines of their dresses lent them a fecund, maternal look. As contemporary critics were quick to point out, pregnancy was both “the scandalous by-product of the pad and its visual effect” (102). But while satirists emphasized the deceptive quality of these designs, which could easily conceal an unintended pregnancy, for the women who championed this new fashion, neoclassical dress (Rauser argues) allowed them to reimagine and resignify their bodies through clothing: by transforming themselves into Juno-like figures, Lady Campbell and her companions presented themselves as emblems of virtuous desirability and intellectual refinement (121–23).

In “Whiteness” and chapter 4 (“Muslin’s Materiality”), Rauser turns her attention to how the material qualities of cotton muslin enmeshed neoclassical dress with contemporary debates on race, freedom, nature, and primitivism. Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s love of ancient marbles and his well-known dislike of color and ornament exemplify the importance of whiteness in neoclassical aesthetics. Yet Rauser argues that this fascination with the purported whiteness of classical art did not straightforwardly map onto emerging notions of racialized whiteness (130). Instead, she contends that the intensification of the transatlantic trade in the eighteenth century led to a crisis of meaning for neoclassical fashion. Although neoclassical dress came to emblematize enlightened liberal values and a simpler, more natural way of life (eloquently illustrated in Daniel Chodowiecki’s Natur und Affektation of 1777), it was also the product of exploitative, imperialist endeavors much criticized by European abolitionists. At the same time in France, the Merveilleuses, women who were themselves Creoles from the West Indies, openly cultivated neoclassical fashion’s associations with slave culture by accessorizing their robes à la grecque with plaid madras headwraps and large gold hoop earrings that recalled Afro-Caribbean dress practices (139ff.).

The semantic volatility of neoclassical dress is also explored in “Lightness” and chapter 5 (“Paris: Savage Neoclassicism”). As neoclassical dress grew progressively lighter, women abandoned petticoats, sleeves, and even proper shoes, choosing instead to venture out in simple slippers that allowed them to display their bejeweled toes. This form of (un)dress shocked contemporary onlookers, who saw it simply as a form of immoral nakedness. Yet nakedness itself, Jean-Jacques Rousseau counterargued, could have a positive moral effect, since frequent exposure to women’s disrobed flesh might lead men from interest in sensual pleasure to indifference, and finally disgust (157). But regardless of one’s opinion of the current fashion, the fact remained that neoclassical dress called attention to women’s bodies and their physical presence. It is no surprise, then, that the tensions around neoclassical fashion reached a peak in late eighteenth-century Paris, where women sought to claim a public role for themselves in post-Thermidor France. Over the course of a decade, the meaning of white cotton muslin dresses shifted rapidly from being seen as the prison garment of condemned individuals, to the sartorial embodiment of Republican virtues, to the derided primitivism of the dress à la sauvage, which (according to critics of neoclassical dress) turned European women into uncivilized, unruly savages (183).

Rauser concludes her book by briefly analyzing a hand-colored etching by an unknown artist of Joséphine Bonaparte drawing a portrait of her husband (fig. 167, p. 188). Joséphine, who was herself one of the Merveilleuses discussed in chapter 4, is shown here bedecked in neoclassical fashion and sporting several stylish adornments: a gold necklace, arm bands, hoop earrings, a turban, and an aigrette. The model for her portrait, however, is not Napoleon himself, but rather a marble bust set on a neoclassical pedestal under a laurel tree. Since the artist has reserved their use of color mostly for the image of Napoleon that Joséphine holds in her hand, she also appears to be (like) a statue. But as Rauser perceptively points out, in this drawing Joséphine is more than just a neoclassical “living statue”: she is an active creator, a Pygmalion figure, who brings her beloved to life through art (189). This image is a fitting endpoint for Rauser’s work: on one hand, it is a concise representation of the trajectory of neoclassical fashion from the fringes of polite society to the heart of imperial iconography. On the other hand, it highlights the unresolved tensions ingrained in neoclassical fashion—its mix of old and new, of high and low culture, of subversive radicalism and aestheticizing morality. Yet Rauser’s final statement, that neoclassical dress “provided a means for women to participate in shaping the aesthetic meaning of their time” (189), is too neat and ultimately unsatisfactory. Did women really shape the aesthetic meaning of their time through dress? And which women beyond some of the book’s heroines (e.g., Emma Hart, Lady Charlotte Campbell, and Thérésa Tallien) saw fashion as a liberating, creative medium? Were there not less intellectually astute consumers of this new fashion for whom a pretty dress was no more than that? The Age of Undress is a sumptuously illustrated volume, so full of wonderful ideas and insights that it bursts at the seams. By calling our attention to neoclassical fashion’s many conflicting threads, Rauser makes an eloquent case for the complex polysemy of eighteenth-century dress practices. She has given us an important model for this kind of inquiry. Let us hope that others will follow suit.

Hérica Valladares
Assistant Professor, Department of Classics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill