Fashion and Extravagance

Published by Young Sin You

“[Clemenous] never yet found a frugal man, without Avarice or Necessity. And again, there are innumerable Spend-thrifts, lavish and extravagant to a high degree, who seem not to have the least Regard to Money, whilst they have any to fling away: but these Wretches are the least capable of bearing Poverty or any, and the Money once gone, hourly discover, how uneasy, impatient and miserable they are without it.”[1] Fashion and consumer culture in Europe changed the concept of individuality. People expressed their capacities to possess by their dress and fashion. However, like the old saying, ‘Drown the Miller,’ excessive spending on fashion brought sarcasm from the society.  Extravagance and pretentiousness of members of the high class became another consequence of the consumer culture.


Mercantilism triggered a revolutionary boom in consumption that first began in England in the eighteenth century. Trade brought new types of consumer products, created an expanding commercial society, and stimulated increased consumer demand. Especially after 1750, this consumer boom was characterized by new production and manufacturing techniques and enabled a greater portion of the population than even before to buy consumer goods.[2] In “The Commercial Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England,” Neil McKendrick suggested new concerns about the consumer culture. “The ideas that ‘consumption was the logical end of production’, that the ‘latent consuming capacity of the public at large might become an engine for sustained growth’, that ‘society was an aggregation of self-interested individuals tied to one another by the tenuous bonds of envy, exploitation and competition’ were new and, to many, alarming.”[3] The consumer culture certainly brought economical and social growth. However, it also came with emulation and envy. In Taste in High Life, William Hogarth satirizes the clothes and manners of fashionable society in the eighteenth century. The pictures on the wall depict vast skirts supported on hoops, corsets, and high-heeled shoes. It is clear that people wanted to hide, or rather correct, their actual body and boast their fashionable lives. In the foreground of the painting, there is a dressed-up monkey reading from a dinner menu offering ‘cox combs, duck tongues, rabbit ears, and fricasey of snails.’ People of the high class had unnecessarily fashionable and lavish lives. They did whatever cost to sustain their fashionable lives, even if it was eating duck tongues or rabbits’ ears.


However, in the beginning, these fashionable dresses and decorations had a different meaning to the people, especially to the women. Women were very limited to socialize and participate in the society. It was because of the domestic sphere as women’s proper place in society. Therefore, assembly rooms, public places found in many cities where members of the higher social classes of “both sexes” could gather and socialize, provided a safe environment where these women could meet new people and make friends. But, these kinds of gatherings brought emulations, which led to pretentiousness and extravagance. Also, according to The Spectator, “People fancy themselves in the Height of the Mode.”[4] Following the Mode caused too much spending on fashion.

Surely, as Neil McKendrick asserted, “Wigs and other removable items of dress render personal appearance changeable. Such shifts in the nature of one’s possessions coincide with a reappraisal of the way property expressed personality.”[5] However, individuality could not be achieved when all the people follow the mode. Here is a very good example of adverse reactions of following the mode.


The young girls had to wear corsets to correct their body shapes. They had physical constrictions and distortions in the name of fashion, which caused girls dying or disabled by having their internal organs crushed by too-tight corsets.



Bernard Mandeville, “The fable of the bees. Part II. By the author of the first.” (1729). 113. Web.

Stephanie Koscak, “Lecture: ‘The Great Renunciation’? Commercialization, Politics, and Gender.”  1-9-14

McKendrick, Neil. “The Commercial Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England,” in The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London: Europa, 1982), 9-33.

The Spectator. Addison and Steele. No. 129, July 28.


Figure 1:

A Taste in High Life. Victoria and Albert Museum. Museum Number: F.118:129 <>


Figure 2:

Fashionable Dresses in the Rooms in Weymouth 1774. Victoria and Albert Museum. Museum Number: E.2262-1888 <;


Figure 3:

An elegant establishment for young ladies. Victoria and Albert Museum. Museum Number : P.50-1930                                                          <;

[1] Bernard Mandeville, “The fable of the bees. Part II. By the author of the first.” (1729). 113. Web.

[2] Stephanie Koscak, “Lecture: ‘The Great Renunciation’? Commercialization, Politics, and Gender.”  1-9-14

[3] McKendrick, Neil. “The Commercial Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England,” in The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London: Europa, 1982), 9-33.

[4] The Spectator. Addison and Steele. No. 129, July 28.

[5] McKendrick, Neil. “The Commercial Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England”


One thought on “Fashion and Extravagance

  1. An interesting and thought provoking post! How fascinating it is to imagine the excesses and indulgences of this period, as the tendency for rampant, conspicuous consumption began to take hold in Europe. Taking in primary sources, which recount the delectable extravagances of the table, the sumptuousness of textile, the unrestraint of flourish in furniture design, perhaps, makes one realize how important the function of perceptible ‘show’ must have been. How much work went into crafting the image of ones self in order to exude or attain some sense of power or rank in society through a gratuitous display of wealth. As Michael Kwass points out in his essay, “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France,” the “language of eighteenth-century taste leaders suggests an attempt to move beyond a courtly consumer culture in which the main purpose of goods was to mark social rank.” These taste leaders, he points out, began to shape a new sense of consumer value, driving and inspiring others in society, especially those of lesser social rank, to try an attain the material goods that the taste leaders had. This tendency toward mimicry, in which the lower classes aspire to achieve the material standing of those above them, has been dissected by social theorists Georg Simmel and Thorstein Veblen, and dubbed the “emulation thesis.”
    The easiest manifestation of emulation was usually through dress and through items of personal adornment, perhaps by wearing certain quality of fabric, a trendy print, a handsome lining, a stylish shoe, or perhaps the latest wig. As Kwass points out, in the seventeenth century wigs were typically reserved as a “marker of high birth and status” worn only by a privileged few, but by the eighteenth century, wigs had not only caught on with the nobles around Europe, but had actually “tumbled down the social hierarchy, so far down that writers now observed them sitting atop the commonest of heads.” It is so fascinating to think about how this sort of process of emulation took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and also to consider the ways in which it still takes place in modern society today. We often see the process of emulation taking place in popular culture. You can see it clearly when you walk into a store that produces mass manufactured, fashionable goods that are sold to the public at low cost, but play off high-end designs –something like watching the development of products for a store like Forever 21, which has borrowed directly from the high fashion runway lines that sell goods for thousands of dollar and that are attainable only by a privileged wealthy few. The popularity of stores like Forever 21 clearly demonstrate that the culture of emulation still takes places strongly in modern society today.

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