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Fashion in the Eighteenth Century - ENG00077H

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Chloe Wigston Smith
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22
    • See module specification for other years: 2022-23

Module summary

In this module, we’ll take a deep dive into fashion, style and commercial culture in the eighteenth century. You will discover the literary, historical and cultural contexts of dress in the eighteenth century, a period of significant growth for the fashion and textiles industries in Britain, with important connections to the global eighteenth century, empire and colonization. Then as now, fashion was a vital aspect of culture and central to perceptions of national identity, race, gender and social mobility. Eighteenth-century fashion was undeniably modern: seasonal trends marked the passage of time and fashion was deeply embedded in the era’s celebrity culture. Across the period and across genres, fashion drew the interest and ire of cultural commentators and moralists, as well as attracted the imagination of artists and authors. We will examine crosscurrents between print culture and fashion in order to trace how and why fashion was theorized, attacked, and admired by a broad range of writers.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aim of this module is to explore textual, visual and cultural representations of fashion across several genres in the eighteenth century.

Module learning outcomes

Subject content

  • a strong knowledge of how eighteenth century authors engaged with the topic of fashion and the questions it raised about identity, gender, self-presentation, nationalism, class and empire
  • a good understanding of visual and aesthetic developments in the period
  • a deeper understanding of how fashion disrupted conventional social divisions and literary subjects
  • an awareness of how and why several genres addressed the cultural meanings of fashion
  • a stronger knowledge of how fashion was used to discuss a number of national, cultural and social concerns

Academic and graduate skills

  • an ability to bring together close reading skills with contextual analysis
  • an ability to develop interdisciplinary approaches to the period
  • an ability to bring together textual and visual analyses

Other learning outcomes

  • An ability to connect historical ideas about identity, aesthetics and gender with the contemporary moment

Module content

In the early eighteenth century, Bernard Mandeville bemoaned the values of appearance-obsessed Londoners, for whom ‘the contrivance of Fashions becomes all their Study.’ The module begins by investigating numerous early examples in prose and poetry of print culture’s resistance to fashion. Critics like Mandeville, Defoe, Addison, Steele, Pope and Swift approached fashion with skepticism, viewing it as a dangerous tool for concealing one’s social station or gender identity; a threat to literary standards and ideals; a potential corruption of the English language and the nation itself. Fashion was implicated in widespread literary debates about what constituted good and bad taste, and also central to Britain's colonial ambitions and its involvement in global eighteenth-century trade. At the same time fashion proved an attractive vehicle through which to contemplate changing gender ideals, social mobility and global aesthetics in a ‘nation of shopkeepers.’ As we advance roughly chronologically through the period we will discuss artistic, novelistic and dramatic approaches to fashion that critique its influence, while acknowledging its social, cultural and commercial roles. We'll pay careful attention to how fashion contributed to Orientalism and empire. Throughout we will consider why fashion drew so many varied attacks and how this affirmed its cultural capital. We will also consider how the circulation of fashion depended on the expansion of print culture and the emergence of celebrity culture. You will develop your skills in close reading and analysis of poetry, drama and prose, and will be encouraged to draw analytical connections between literary discourse and a broad range of other textual and visual expression. No prior knowledge of fashion is expected, and this module should appeal to English students interested in interdisciplinary approaches to the past, as well as students in joint degree programs with art history and history.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 3000 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

  • You will be given the opportunity to hand in a 1000 word formative essay in the term in which the module is taught (usually in the week 7 seminar).  Material from this essay may be re-visited in your summative essay and it is therefore an early chance to work through material that might be used in assessed work. This essay will be submitted in hard copy and your tutor will annotate it and return it two weeks later (usually in your week 9 seminar).  Summary feedback will be uploaded to your eVision account.  All students will have the opportunity to give an in-class individual presentation during a seminar in weeks 2-9.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 3000 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

  • Students are always welcome to use staff Open Office Hours to discuss essay feedback. Details of this can be found on the student homepage
  • For more information about the feedback you will receive, see the department's Guide to Assessment available on the student homepage.

Indicative reading

Addison and Steele, The Tatler and Spectator Papers

Bernard Mandeville, The fable of the bees

John Gay, The fan

Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, dressing room poems

Daniel Defoe, Roxana

Frances Burney, Evelina

Anonymous, The Woman of Colour

Anonymous, It-Narratives

Print satires by James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.