This ‘social essay’, published in 1874, documents the author’s views about the dangers of following fashion. The author, Luke Limner, starts by condemning the luxury and excess of fashion, and criticizing the wealthy classes’ taste when choosing to wear the latest styles.
Limner’s main concern is fashion’s utter disregard of, and attempt to better, nature. He comments that modern dress is becoming increasingly independent of climate or season, stating that ‘the English lady suffers in her corset and tight bottines in the tropical heat of Calcutta.’
The bulk of the essay charts his disapproval of modifications of the body. He comments that clothing, instead of fitting itself to the human form, demands that the body adapt itself to fit the garments. He feels that this ‘authority of fashion is a gross imposition on mankind,’ and specifically focuses on the corset. He believes that fashion is deforming natural bodies, with great health risks, that he outlines in detail. He is very knowledgeable about human anatomy, commenting on the impact of the corset on the lungs and liver, which serves to provide epistemological evidence and support to his claims, which may otherwise seem somewhat empty. He urges modern women to ‘aid Mother Nature to abolish that type of body bondage and cursed contrivance.’
Limner’s concerns about the dangers of the excess of fashion, as well as attempts to modify the natural forms of the body are common themes in fashion writing. Particularly during this period, but even as late as the twentieth century, there is a concern about the frivolity of fashion and the impact, both physical and moral, that it has on women. As is the case with a lot of fashion writing, there is a somewhat sexist tone to Limner’s essay. He expresses a concern that women’s heads are filled with ‘flounces and furbelows, ribbons and gauze’ and that female vanity is ultimately leading to the downfall of society. However, there also seems to be a genuine concern about the risks to women’s health as a result of following fashion too strictly, and he appears to blame the fashion industry more than the women themselves. He sympathises that fashion’s ever-changing demands make it increasingly difficult for women to adhere to trends. That is the main contradiction of this essay: Limner accepts that the fashion industry makes unrealistic demands of women’s bodies, but then also seems to blame female vanity for accepting these demands.
It is very telling of attitudes of the period that, despite the fact that women were generally accepted as the main consumers of fashion, it is men who are trusted to write about fashion in a critical way. There is much debate in dress history, about whether fashion is a liberating or enslaving force. When reading essays such as Limner’s, it is hard to imagine that it can be anything other than a subjugating, oppressive industry. However, in the twentieth century, when women started to be respected as designers and later writers and curators, the tables turned and fashion became a means of female emancipation and expression of creativity.