References to women and their dress continually recur in British literature, especially predominant between the mid-seventeenth century (the Cavaliers) and the early nineteenth century (the Romantics). Clothing, or lack thereof, becomes one means for male authors to write about women. In John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), Robert Herrick's "Upon Julia's Clothes" and "Delight in Disorder" (1648), and John Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (1819), the authors undress the individuals to render them vulnerable, often weaving eroticism and voyeurism into their examinations. Other works, such as Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1714) and Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722), detail the temporary power contained within the manipulation of attire, but reaffirm the patriarchy's ultimate control by reclaiming women's limited influence. Finally, the essays and conduct manuals prevalent in eighteenth century England directly detail the immense importance of dress imposed upon women by the patriarchy. Wetenhall Wilkes' religiously-based A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady (1740) and John Gregory's social view in A Father's Legacy to his Daughters (1774) offer repressive guidelines to women regarding their attire. Set against these numerous "feminine ideals" are Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (1694) and Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), essays which uncover various fallacies of the period, including the fashion preoccupation, and call women to nurture their mind rather than their dress. Whether women are dressed or undressed, empowered or disempowered, pious or ornamental, the close link drawn between women and clothing by male authors falsely defines femininity and restricts a woman's value to her physical beauty.
English Language and Literature
Elashik, Kimberly A., "(Un)dress and (Dis)empowerment): The Relationship Between Women and Dress from the Cavaliers to the Romantics" (1993). Honors Projects. 18.