I’m of an age (none of your beeswax, thanks for asking) where most of the clothes in the shops are simply not for me. Not only am I picky about labor standards, fabric and construction quality, the styles aren’t for me. I’m too old. I create enough havoc walking (falling) down the street as it is that I do not need to look like the mid-life crisis I’m having involves a desperate search to recapture my youth through H & M or Hot Topic or whatever-the-kids-are-wearing clothing. I’ve achieved “a certain age,” and as with my everyday closet, my living history wardrobe has to reflect my age as well. Pity, really.
But more’s the pity here: I don’t have a clear idea, really, how age was perceived in the various decades I interpret. I have a clearer idea of how different body shapes and class levels were perceived and taunted, though sometimes body shape is an analogue for age.
There’s a classic image that juxtaposes age and youth. Here’s how the British Museum describes this image:
‘Is this my Daughter Ann?’; satire on fashion. A street where, before a house [on the right], over the door of which the name ‘Love Joy’ is written, a sedan chair has been brought, in order to carry away a young lady, who, in a towering toupée, and other articles of fashionable attire of this period, is leaving the house in company with a young soldier, who caresses her as they go; she looks fondly at him. An old woman, in what was then an ‘old-fashioned’ costume is interposing to prevent the departure of the damsel. 1774
Okay… “An old woman, in what was then an ‘old-fashioned’ costume.” You will note that the old woman is wearing what we typically wear here in New England to represent everyday clothing for middling and lower sort American colonists for most of the 1770s. I don’t want to put too much stock in the cataloger’s description, because I’m not sure that print curators or curatorial assistants always know as much about material culture as they think they do. And we know that six weeks is not six years when it comes to transmitting fashion changes and updates across an ocean. I think “old fashioned” might not be exactly or entirely right as a descriptive phrase.
What does the old woman’s clothing really signify? That she’s rural and not urban? That’s she’s poor? That she’s old? How ‘old fashioned’ is that costume by 1774… in a context other than London courtesan couture? And how do we translate the clues we have trouble deciphering into a dress code for living history?
Well, happily, there’s a verse under the image in this print.
Is this my Daughter Ann
The Matron thus Surprised exclaims,
And the deluded Fair One Blames
But had the Mother been as Charming
She had Thought the Mutual sport no harm.
This Moral’s an undoubted Truth
Age envies Still the Joys of Youth
So this print is not about fashion. It’s about sex. (Well, duh. You were wondering when I’d bring that up.) It’s also, in a way, about hypocrisy, isn’t it? But the verse gives us the clue that the mother’s clothes are meant to be matronly. “Conservative because of her age” might be a better descriptive phrase than “old fashioned” in that catalog record.
But does that mean that those of us who have achieved “a certain age” might also consider whether we, too, should be dressing in a more “conservative because of her age” style? I don’t really know.
But look here: Zoffany, ca. 1762.
Here we’re looking at a rural woman ten to twelve years before “My daughter Ann.” The costumes are very similar; maybe the mother in Ann really is just old fashioned.
Here’s another version of “My daughter Ann,” this time more clearly fashion focused, without the sexual overtones.
Yale helpfully provides a transcription of the verse at the bottom:
HEYDAY! Is this my DAUGHTER ANNE! | Heyday! the country Matron in surprize, | Is this my Daughter thus bedizell’d? cries. | To Town she lately went a Damsel plain: | But scarcely now is to be known again. | That City to its Vanities has brought her, | And banish’d the good Housewifery I taught her. | Why, Child you’ll frighten here our honest People: | They’ll say you’ve on your Head a London Steeple.
My best guess is that this print is skewering both Anne and her mother: Anne, for being so outlandishly fashion-forward, and her mother, for being so far behind. But again, that’s only a guess.