Following the Fashions: A Basic American Pastime

AJ1Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Amy Sopcak-Joseph, a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Connecticut. She is working on her dissertation, “Fashioning American Women: Godey’s Lady’s Book, Female Consumers, and Periodical Publishing in the Nineteenth Century.” Follow her @AmySopcakJoseph.

It’s that time of year again: time to stash away all of your white pants and head to the nearest Starbucks for a PSL. Love it or hate it, that sugary “Pumpkin Spice Latte” is more than just a drink that allows us to ingest autumn. The PSL reached cultural-icon status when it became the trendy accessory of someone “basic”–a term encompassing a larger set of consumer choices linked to appearance, food, and leisure activities that signal an uncritical devotion to trends. Calling someone “basic” became a kind of epithet against people who like things that are mainstream or, as some writers have suggested, feminine.[1] Some women have taken ownership of “basic,” embracing it as an identity (see social media posts enthusiastically tagged #basic).

Is being “basic” really that bad? Is someone superior–morally or intellectually–for not liking things that are mainstream? Judging other people’s consumer choices and assigning them political or cultural meaning is as American as apple (or pumpkin?) pie. In the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, when the United States was transitioning from an agrarian economy to a capitalist one, considerable anxiety emerged about the consumer choices of the burgeoning middle class. Not unlike the criticisms of 21st-century women whose tastes and identity might be called “basic,” some found women’s purchases and self-fashioning to be particularly alarming. Ministers and reformers argued that these choices demonstrated women’s uncritical adherence to the “tyranny” or “evils” of fashion, a devotion that could negatively shape the future of the republic.

Moralists like American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson criticized women’s penchant for ornamentation, exhorting women to eschew fancy bonnets and jewelry and embrace plain dress (a style of ‘fashion’ itself). Judson was one of the first American missionaries in Burma, and he composed his “Letter on Dress” during his conversion efforts there. He was most concerned with American women’s spiritual health, claiming that the fine jewelry and expensive fashions that women wore were not what God intended. Judson argued that Christian women were to be the model for the rest of the world and that costly ornamentation fed women’s vanity. In his work in Burma, Judson sought to have the native peoples give up their traditional dress and ornamentation. He detailed their profusion of colorful necklaces, brass belts, rings, and bracelets. Judson made renouncing these worldly items part of the Christian conversion process. He encountered greater resistance from the native women, however, when female missionaries arrived wearing the same fashions that they had worn at home, including jewelry and bonnets. In response, Judson pointed his audience to 1 Timothy 2:9: “‘I will, also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broidered hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array.’”

Judson asked readers to consider whether their consumer choices served a purpose beyond vain pursuits of praise for their physical beauty.[2] Judson expanded the argument to fit his own ends, seeking not only to reshape how women presented themselves but how they spent the family budget. He proposed two fundamental principles for his readers to follow: “all ornaments and costly dress to be disused … the avails of such articles, and the savings resulting from the plain dress system, to be devoted to purposes of charity.”.[3]

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Fowler on Tight Lacing (courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Other critics targeted women who practiced “tight lacing” when emulating the latest fashions. “Tight lacing” meant the practice of wearing a corset tied as tightly as possible in order to achieve an extraordinarily slim waist. Medical treatises demonstrated the related dangers, and linked women’s deaths to corset-wearing. In his 1842 volume Fowler on Tight Lacing, Orson S. Fowler detailed in text and image the damage that tight corsets inflicted on the body. Fowler’s critique was tied to women’s consumer choices and the desire to appear fashionable. One set of images compared a figure typical of fashion plates in popular magazines, complete with a slim, corseted waist, to the figure of an average woman.[4] Fowler argued that fashionable women who tight-laced bore weak, unhealthy children. “If this pernicious practice continues through another generation to rage with as much violence as it has for the last and present, it will kill every fashionable and her child, and leave our square-formed, broad-shouldered, and full-breasted Irish and German women alone for wives and mothers. It has already alarmingly deteriorated our race in both physical and intellectual stature, and unless checked, will soon DESTROY it,” he warned. Fowler pushed readers to envision how the healthy frames of newer immigrants might bear the next generation of Americans. He encouraged Christian patriots to scorn these “fashionables” not only in the name of taste, but for the nation’s sake.[5]

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Fashion Plate, Godey’s Lady’s Book, Oct. 1842

A story in Godey’s Lady’s Book, T.S. Arthur’s “Following the Fashions,” pushed back on the idea that “fashionable” women were uncritical consumers. The story opens with siblings Henry and Mary Grove debating the merits of looking at fashion plates in popular magazines. Henry argues strongly against following the fashions, labeling the women who don the latest styles as “heartless,” “weak,” and “blind.” These adjectives indicate the problem is not so much fashion as it is vanity: the cult of domesticity demanded that 19th-century wives and mothers be self-sacrificing, not self-centered. Henry adds that it is “morally wrong to follow the fashions” because the rules change often and are “unreasonable and arbitrary.” Men like himself, on the other hand, do not care about and do not follow such shifts.[6] Mary counters that it is men who “blindly” adopt each new style, while she carefully selects looks that are becoming on her. She thinks critically about whether new styles “suit my structure, shape, and complexion,” adjusting them to complement her features. Mary cites Henry’s trips to his tailor. The buttons and cut of his frock, the color and material of his cravat–all have changed over the seasons so that Henry did not look “singular.” If Henry desires to look like other people, Mary wants nothing different.[7]

These few examples help us consider what critiques of fashionable women reveal of gender, self-fashioning, and consumer culture in the antebellum period. The middle class increasingly sought to differentiate itself through the acquisition of domestic goods and magazines that illustrated the newest styles. Women’s purchases and practices were imbued with national significance. Men like Judson and Fowler worried about–and tried to reshape –women’s selections, while women continued to use their consumer choices  to shape identity and social status. Their cultural conversation on fashionability and the merits of the maintream began long before PSL season.

[1] Dana Schwartz, “Why We Need to Stop Calling Other Women ‘Basic,’” Bustle, July 15, 2016, https://www.bustle.com/articles/168394-why-we-need-to-stop-calling-other-women-basic; Noreen Malone, “What Do You Really Mean When You Say ‘Basic Bitch’?,” The Cut, October 14, 2014, https://www.thecut.com/2014/10/what-do-you-really-mean-by-basic-bitch.html.

[2] Numerous editions of Judson’s letter were published starting in 1832. I consulted a copy at the Library Company of Philadelphia, which lacks covers that identify its publication information. Adoniram Judson, “Judson’s Letter on Dress. A Letter from Adoniram Judson, Missionary in Burmah. To the Female Members of Christian Churches in the United States of America,” 2.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Fowler, Fowler on Tight Lacing: Founded on Physiology and Phrenology; or The Evils Inflicted on Mind and Body by Compressing the organs of Animal Life and thereby Retarding and Enfeebling the Vital Functions (New York: O.S. and L.N. Fowler, 1842), 10.

[5] Ibid., 12.

[6] T. S. Arthur, “Following the Fashions,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, March 1843, 134.

[7] Ibid., 134, 137.

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  1. Pingback: New York History Around The Web This Week | The New York History Blog

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