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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: 2022-23
    • See module specification for other years: 2021-22

Module summary

This module explores a period in which writers, across a vibrant range of genres, engaged with fashion, material culture, and commodity culture. It examines the literary, historical and cultural contexts of dress and style in the eighteenth century, a period of significant growth for the fashion and textiles industries in Britain. Eighteenth-century dress, and its depiction in print culture, held important connections to the global eighteenth century.

Then as now, fashion was a vital aspect of culture and central to perceptions of national identity, race, gender and social mobility. Eighteenth-century fashions depended on Britain’s expanding trade with nations and regions around the world and also on the exploitation of enslaved labourers, when it came to the production, for example, of cotton textiles and indigo dyes. British writers wrote, in detail, about luxurious Indian textiles and the fashions of the Ottoman Empire, thinking through the complex connections between appearance and culture.

Fashion was implicated in widespread literary debates about what constituted good and bad taste. Its critics viewed 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. At the same time fashion proved an attractive vehicle through which to contemplate changing gender ideals, social mobility and global aesthetics in eighteenth-century Britain. Throughout we will consider why fashion drew so many varied attacks and how this affirmed its cultural and literary capital.

Eighteenth-century fashion was undeniably modern: seasonal trends marked the passage of time and fashion was deeply embedded in the era’s celebrity culture. We will examine crosscurrents between print culture and fashion in order to trace how and why fashion was theorised, attacked, and admired by a broad range of writers. We’ll consider how poets engaged the dressing room, how novelists described fashionable society, and how essayists debated the meanings of luxury goods. We’ll also look at visual culture and material objects to help contextualise our literary texts. A research workshop in the Special Collections library will familiarise you with handling and analysing eighteenth-century texts, prints, and fashion plates. No prior knowledge of fashion or material culture 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 History of Art and History.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2022-23

Module aims

The module aims to develop confidence and expertise in drawing analytical connections between literary texts and a broad range of visual and material forms.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with fashion and material culture in eighteenth-century literature, and its afterlives today.

  2. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with interdisciplinary approaches to the study of literature.

  3. Evaluate key debates within the relevant critical fields dealing with eighteenth-century literature’s engagement with gender, commodity culture and global trade.

  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas which demonstrate an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills.


Task Length % of module mark
3000 word essay
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
3000 word essay
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.