Barbauld, "Fashion: A Vision"

from A Legacy for Young Ladies, Consisting of Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose and Verse, By the Late Mrs. Barbauld (Boston, 1826)

A Note on the Essay

"Fashion: A Vision" was included in a collection of posthumous essays edited by Barbauld's niece Lucy Aikin. In her preface Aikin notes that "These pieces were found among her papers by the members of her own family. Some of them enforce moral truths; others contain instruction in history and other branches of the graver studies of youth; but the greater number are of a light and elegant cast, adapted to exercise the ingenuity and amuse the fancy while they refine the taste. Those in the form of letters were all addressed to different ladies whom she favoured with her friendship" (iv).

"Fashion: A Vision" is not a letter per se, but its address to a representative young woman gives it an epistolary flavour. The essay gives us Barbauld's perspective on the vanities of fashion, including the wearing of corsets, but more than that it makes clear that she sees that fashion is allied with the political issue of rights and liberty, and acknowledges a relation between dress and conduct, in which women are encouraged to align themselves with commerce and consumerism.

/94/ YOUNG as you are, my dear Flora, you cannot but have noticed the eagerness with which questions, relative to civil liberty, have been discussed in every society. To break the shackles of oppression, and assert the native rights of man, is esteemed by many among the noblest efforts of heroic virtue; but vain is the possession of political liberty if there exists a tyrant of our own creation, who, without law or reason, or even external force, exercises over us the most despotic authority; whose jurisdiction is extended over every part of private and domestic life; controls our pleasures, fashions our garb, cramps our motions, fills our lives with vain cares and restless anxiety. The worst slavery is that which we voluntarily impose upon ourselves; and no chains are so cumbrous and galling as those which we are pleased to wear by way of grace and ornament. Musing upon the idea, gave rise to the following dream or vision:

Methought I was in a country of the strangest and most singular appearance I had ever beheld: the rivers were forced into jet-d'eaus, and wasted in artificial water-works; the lakes were fashioned by the hand of art; the roads were sanded with spar and gold-dust; the trees all bore the marks of the shears, they were bent and twisted into the most whimsical forms, and connected together by festoons of ribbon and silk fringe: the wild flowers were transplanted into vases of fine china, and painted with artificial white and red.

/95/ The disposition of the ground was full of fancy, but grotesque and unnatural in the highest degree; it was all highly cultivated, and bore the marks of wonderful industry; but among its various productions I could hardly discern one that was of any use.

My attention, however, was soon called off from the scenes of inanimate life, by the view of the inhabitants, whose form and appearance were so very preposterous, and, indeed, so unlike any thing human, that I fancied myself transported to the country of

"The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders:" (1)
for the heads of many of these people were swelled to an astonishing size, and seemed to be placed in the middle of their bodies. Of some, the ears were distended till they hung upon the shoulders; and of others, the shoulders were raised till they met the ears: there was not one free from some deformity, or monstrous swelling, in one part or other; either it was before, or behind, or about the hips, or the arms were puffed up to an unusual thickness, or the throat was increased to the same size with the poor objects once exhibited under the name of the monstrous Craws: some had no necks; others had necks that reached almost to their waists; the bodies of some were bloated up to such a size, that they could scarcely enter a pair of folding doors; and others had suddenly sprouted up to such a disproportionate height, that they could not sit upright in their loftiest carriages.

Many shocked me with the appearance of being nearly cut in two, like a wasp; and I was alarmed at the sight of a few, in whose faces, otherwise very fair and healthy, I discovered an eruption of black spots, which I feared was the fatal sign of some pestilential disorder.

/96/ The sight of these various and uncouth deformities inspired me with much pity; which however was soon changed into disgust, when I perceived, with great surprise, that every one of these unfortunate men and women was exceeding proud of his own peculiar deformity, and endeavoured to attract my notice to it as much as possible. A lady, in particular, who had a swelling under her throat, larger than any gotre (2) in the Valais, and which, I am sure; by its enormous projection, prevented her from seeing the path she walked in, brushed by me with an air of the greatest self-complacency, and asked me if she was not a charming creature?

But by this time I found myself surrounded by an immense crowd, who were all pressing along in one direction; and I perceived that I was drawn along with them by an irresistible impulse, which grew stronger every moment. I asked whither we were hurrying with such eager steps? and was told that we were going to the court of Queen Fashion, the great Diana whom all the world worshippeth. I would have retired, but felt myself impelled to go on, though without being sensible of any outward force.

When I came to the royal presence, I was astonished at the magnificance I saw around me. The queen was sitting on a throne, elegantly fashioned in the form of a shell, and inlaid with gems and mother-of-pearl. It was supported by a camelion, formed of a single emerald. She was dressed in a light robe of changeable silk, which fluttered about her in a profusion of fantastic folds, that imitated the form of clouds, and like them were continually changing their appearance. In one hand she held a rouge-box, and in the other one of those optical glasses which distort figures in length or in breadth according to the position in which they are held. At the foot of the throne was displayed a profusion of the richest productions of /97/ every quarter of the globe, tributes from land and sea, from every animal and plant; perfumes, sparkling stones, drops of pearl, chains of gold, webs of the finest linen; wreaths of flowers, the produce of art, which vied with the most delicate productions of nature; forests of feathers waving their brilliant colours in the air and canopying the throne; glossy silks, network of lace, silvery ermine, soft folds of vegetable wool, rustling paper and shining spangles;--the whole intermixed with pendants and streamers of the gayest tinctured ribbon.

All these together made so brilliant an appearance that my eyes were at first dazzled, and it was some time before I recovered myself enough to observe the ceremonial of the court. Near the throne, and its chief supports, stood the queen's two prime ministers, Caprice on one side, and Vanity on the other. Two officers seemed chiefly busy among the attendants. One of them was a man with a pair of shears in his hand and a goose by his side,--a mysterious emblem, of which I could not fathom the meaning: he sat cross-legged, like the great lama of the Tartars. He was busily employed in cutting out coats and garments; not, however, like Dorcas, (3) for the poor--nor, indeed, did they seem intended for any mortal whatever, so ill were they adapted to the shape of the human body. Some of the garments were extravagantly large, others as preposterously small: of others, it was difficult to guess to what part of the person they were meant to be applied. Here were coverings which did not cover; ornaments, which disfigured; and defences against the weather, more slight and delicate than what they were meant to defend; but all were eagerly caught up, without distinction, by the crowd of votaries who were waiting to receive them.

The other officer was dressed in a white succinct /98/ linen garment, like a priest of the lower order. He moved in a cloud of incense more highly scented than the breezes of Arabia; he carried a tuft of the whitest down of the swan in one hand, and in the other a small iron instrument, heated redhot, which he brandished in the air. It was with infinite concern I beheld the Graces bound at the foot of the throne, and obliged to officiate, as handmaids, under the direction of these two officers.

I now began to inquire by what laws this queen governed her subjects, but soon found her administration was that of the most arbitrary tyrant ever known. Her laws are exactly the reverse of those of the Medes and Persians; for they are changed every day, and every hours: and what makes the matter still more perplexing, they are in no written code, nor even made public by proclamation: they are only promulgated by whispers, an obscure sign, or turn of the eye, which those only who have the happiness to stand near the queen can catch with any degree of precision: yet the smallest transgression of the laws is severely punished; not indeed by fines or imprisonment, but by a sort of interdict similar to that which in superstitious times was laid by the Pope on disobedient princes, and which operated in such a manner that no one would eat, drink, or associate with the forlorn culprit, and he was almost deprived of the use of fire and water.

This difficulty of discovering the will of the goddess occasioned so much crowding to be near the throne, such jostling and elbowing of one another, that I was glad to retire and observe what I could among the scattered crowd: and the first thing I took notice of was various instruments of torture which every where met my eyes. Torture has, in most other governments of Europe been abolished by the mild spirit of /99/ the times; but it reigns here in full force and terror. I saw officers of this cruel court employed in boring holes with redhot wires, in the ears, nose, and various parts of the body, and then, and then distending them with the weight of metal chains, or stones, cut into a variety of shapes: some had invented a contrivance for cramping the feet in such a manner that many are lamed by it for their whole lives. Others I saw, slender and delicate in their form and naturally nimble as the young antelope, who were obliged to carry constantly about with them a cumbrous unwieldy machine, of a pyramidal form, several ells in circumference.

But the most common and one of the worst instruments of torture, was a small machine armed with fishbone and ribs of steel, wide at top but extremely small at bottom. In this detestable invention the queen orders the bodies of her female subjects to be inclosed: it is then, by means of silk cords, drawn closer and closer at intervals, till the unhappy victim can scarcely breathe; and they have found the exact point that can be borne without fainting, which, however not unfrequently happens. The flesh is often excoriated, and the very ribs bent, by this cruel process. Yet what astonished me more than all the rest, these sufferings are borne with a degree of fortitude which, in a better cause, would immortalized a hero or canonize a saint. The Spartan who suffered the fox to eat into his vitals, did not bear pain with greater resolution: and as the Spartan mothers brought their children to be scrourged at the altar of Diana, so do the mothers here bring their children,--and chiefly those whose tender sex one would suppose excused them from such exertions,--and early inure them to this cruel discipline. But neither Spartan, nor Dervise, nor Bonze, nor Carthusian monk, ever exercised more unrelenting severities over their bodies, than these /100/ young zealots: indeed the first lesson they are taught, is a surrender of their own inclinations and an implicit obedience to the commands of the Goddess.

But they have, besides, a more solemn kind of dedication, something similar to the rite of confirmation. When a young woman approaches the marriageable age, she is led to the altar: her hair, which before fell loosely about her shoulders, is tied up in a tress, sweet oils drawn from roses and spices are poured upon it; she is involved in a cloud of scented dust, and invested with ornaments under which she can scarcely move. After this solemn ceremony, which is generally concluded by a dance round the altar, the damsel is obliged to a still stricter conformity than before to the laws and customs of the court, and any deviation from them is severely punished.

The courtiers of Alexander, it is said, flattered him by carrying their heads on one side, because he had the misfortune to have a wry neck; but all adulation is poor, compared to what is practised in this court. Sometimes the queen will lisp and stammar,--and then none of her attendants can speak plain; sometimes she chooses to totter as she walks,--and then they are seized with sudden lameness: according as she appears half undressed, or veiled from head to foot, her subjects become a procession of nuns, or a troop of Bacchanalian nymphs. I could not help observing, however, that those who stood at the greatest distance from the throne were the most extravagant in their imitation.

I was by this time thoroughly disgusted with the character of a sovereign at once so light and so cruel, so fickle and so arbitrary, when one who stood next me bade me attend to still greater contradictions in her character, and such as might serve to soften the indignation I had conceived. He took me to the back of /101/ the throne, and made me take notice of a number of industrious poor, to whome the queen was secretly distributing bread. I saw the Genius of Commerce doing her homage, and discovered the British cross woven into the insignia of her dignity.

While I was musing on these things, a murmur arose among the crowd, and I was told that a young votary was approaching. I turned my head, and saw a light figure, the folds of whose garment showed the elegant turn of the limbs they covered, tripping along with the step of a nymph. I soon knew it to be yourself:--I saw you led up to the altar,--I saw your beautiful hair tied in artificial tresses, and its bright gloss stained with coloured dust,--I even fancied I beheld produced the dreadful instruments of torture;--my emotions increased:--I cried out, "O spare her! spare my Flora!" with so much vehemence that I awaked.


1. Othello 1.3.144-5.
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2. Goitre is a swelling in the neck caused by an enlarged thyroid gland due to an iodine deficiency. Barbauld means it as a symptom of cretinism, which was endemic in the valleys of central Switzerland.
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3. See Acts 9.36: "Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas or Gazelle. She was full of good works and acts of charity."
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