Dressing Table Mirror, ca. 1756-1758 (made). Chelsea, England.
Throughout the Renaissance period, men and women became increasingly concerned with the idea of the “individual” and self-identity. The increasing prevalence of mirrors as personal accessories highlights a growing emphasis on self-perception and personal reflection. Growing curiosity with ones own image, and an increasing awareness of an “individual” identity had profound effects on the way people viewed not only themselves, but also others. Awareness of individual identity manifested itself in many ways, but perhaps the most pronounced expression of this phenomenon was through fashionable dress and the growth of a consumer culture, which became increasingly focused on accumulation of material goods.
Mirrors are interesting objects of consumer culture in this period because they literally reflect one’s image in relationship to the world within which they exist. They allow one to see themselves in relationship to others, as well as others in relationship to themselves. This small dressing table mirror, manufactured from fine Chelsea porcelain in the mid 18th century, features a concave for a watch movement, as well as possible mechanics for a music box. The ornate piece, white with gold-gilding and pastel flourishes, was an expensive luxury item when it was first introduced to consumer markets. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century, as factory and mass manufacturing increased, mirrors became a more widely available and affordable personal product. Mirrors were often embellished with ivory, ebony, or tortoiseshell and sometimes featured ornate wooded frames. This particular piece, a “top end of the market” item was manufactured by a “skilled draughtsman and designer” in the Chelsea porcelain factory (Dressing Mirror)
As historian Neil McKendrick points out in his article, “The Birth of a Consumer Society,” eighteenth century England was marked by period of expansion of material consumption—a “consumer revolution”—driven by the Industrial Revolution. Factory manufacturing made goods that were once manufactured on a small scale (and therefore expensive) available to wider, less affluent, audiences. Everyday items that we take for granted today, such as the knife and fork, became available to more common households. What was once found exclusively on the tables of the aristocracy could not be found on the tables of the middle class.
Knife & Fork, ca. 1750-1770 (made). Chelsea, England
This particular knife and fork set was a standardized type that were typical of hosted dinner parties –the knife and fork provided by the host. This set features a pistol shaped handle, a look that would wane in favor of straight handles by the end of the eighteenth century. The metal is made of a steel blade that fits into a resin moulding. The union between the handle and blade fitted with a “ferrule” or small metal collar. Porcelain hafts were introduced to Europe by way of china and the resin moulds for the handles would have been mass manufactured in English factories at this time, making the wares available in larger scale (Knife & Fork)
The mass manufacturing of goods, such as mirrors, clothing, and tableware, allowed for lower and middling classes to “enjoy the accumulation of riches, luxury, and pleasure,” though, “the rich, of course, led the way” (McKendrick, 4). Even as lower classes obtained access to fine goods, it was always the upper crust that introduced the newest fashions into the culture.
Because fine mirrors, at the time of their introduction, were expensive luxury items, one might assume that those of lower economic status may not have been as likely to afford ornate mirrors or to keep them in their households. Given this notion, one could possibly entertain the idea that because those of the lower classes could not afford to surround themselves with personal items of ornate adornment and decoration, such as the mirror, they also may not have been as keenly aware of the potential potency of material goods as a signifier of individuality and self-worth. This was not the case.
Artisan guilds of the middling classes were often involved in the manufacturing of mirrors that were sold in the luxury market. Those of middling and lower classes often worked as laborers in manufacturing houses or as servants in the homes of elites where luxury items and fashionable objects were kept. There was constant, everyday interaction between the haves and the have-nots. For many, the resultant effect was the institution of a nascent culture of emulation, the “Veblen effect of emulative spending,” whereby those of lower social ranks, who were constantly surrounded by dramatic polarities of wealth, aspired to achieve a level of social stock as those “above” them, often through the accumulation of material possessions (McKendrick, 6). Those of lower classes who were participants in this “culture of emulation” hoped to achieve social ‘leveling’ through the accumulation of luxury items such as mirrors, furniture, fancy foods, exotic animals, and ornate dress.
Fashionable dress, alongside other commercial goods and accessories, became a potent signifier of social class, wealth, power and political station. One’s dress, in the eye of the eighteenth century beholder, could denote one’s social ‘attractiveness’, as one’s social status and character was perceived through the extravagance, expensiveness, and ornateness of their dress.
Man’s Formal Suit, ca.
1740-1750 (made). United Kingdom.
This Man’s Formal Suit, ca. 1740-1750 exemplifies the ornateness of dress in the eighteenth century. Made of multiple fabrics, but composed mainly of wool, this item featured silver gilt braid and a silk lining, panels of linen and buckram, and was hand-sewn. It may have featured mass manufactured buttons and trimmings, which could bring down the cost. This particular coat was gold and green and was fitted snuggly to the body. The cuffs were shallow and the coat collarless (Man’s Formal Suit).
The 18th century poet, John Brevel, discussed his feelings on the prevalence of “fashionable” items in the eighteenth century, as well as the potency of dress to influence one’s perception of another’s identity.
Breville , John . The art of dress. An heroi-comical poem.. London : Eighteenth Century Collections Online
Brevel comments that a woman’s toilet accessories, “the polished mirror, comb, patches, paint,” were “toys” that had the ability to give the “Sex a Grace,” meaning to imbue a woman with an air of refinement after beautifying herself with products. However, later in the poem, Brevel suggests that emulation and aspiration towards betterment through the accumulation of goods is daft endeavor, “fools and coquets” he says, are “the false pretenders to both air and wit” (Brevel, 20). Brevel also comments on the ability of fashion to engender one’s perception of another’s character. He says of the woman, “Be wond’rous tight about the Leg and Foot, for those parts neglected, soon betray the Slut: In Chusing Stocking, shun the Vulgar blue, and Braidm as well as lace, the Damask Shoe” (Brevel, 22). Here, Brevel is making a distinction about the air of promiscuity a woman displays through dress. For Brevel, one can consciously govern how others perceive them, and in essence to construct their own identities, by knowing how to dress. For him, knowing how to dress means knowing how to conduct oneself in society.
Dress could indicate similarities in social status between men and women of similar backgrounds, and in turn, highlight inequalities between those of dissimilar social position. As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau points out in his treatise, Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Men (1755), “Before people invented the signs which represent riches, wealth could scarcely have consisted of anything other than land and animals” (Rousseau, 2). Material possessions did not signify wealth in the same way that they would after the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century. After the Revolution, as McKendrick points out, quoting from Adam Smith’s famous treaty, The Wealth of Nations, “the ‘doctrine of luxury’ eventually took over from the doctrine of the ‘utility of poverty,’ and “English society prepared intellectually and socially for the consumer revolution” (McKendrick, 7-8). To some, consumer society was nothing more than “an aggregation of self-interested individuals tied to one another by the tenuous bonds of envy, exploitation, and competition.” Frugality and avarice were valued characteristics. Conspicuous consumption was the antithesis to the theme of the spendthrift mentality, and for many, it merely served to consistently pit rich against poor and to highlight inequalities among men. Rousseau famously remarked, “Natural inequality manifests itself imperceptibly with inequality arising out of social groups, and the differences among men, developed out of differences of circumstances, became more perceptible and more permanent” (Rousseau, 1). To many others, conspicuous consumption and extravagant personal adornment allowed individuals to craft a unique identity. The purchase of exquisite garments, embellished mirrors, fanciful tableware, and exotic foods and animals, became an extension of their personality and character and symbolized their desired place in society.
Breville , John . The art of dress. An heroi-comical poem. London : Eighteenth Century Collections Online: Range 1291, 1717. http://find.galegroup.com/ecco/retrieve
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.
Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality (1755), selections.
Dressing Table Mirror. N.d. Photograph. V&A Collections , London . Web. 11 Mar 2014.
Knife & Fork . N.d. Photograph. V&A Collections , London . Web. 11 Mar 2014.
Man’s Formal Suit . N.d. Photograph. V&A Collections , London . Web. 11 Mar 2014. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O34282/mans-formal-suit-unknown/