The Incorrigible Habit: A Study of Dress Reform in England

Quentin Bell looks at the revolutions at work within fashion over the years, rational and otherwise.

The history of dress is, to a very large extent, a history of protests. Ineffectual but unabated, the great diatribe against the tyranny of fashions has persisted from time immemorial to the present day. In the main, the critics fall into two main categories: the moral and the medical. There have been many subsidiary complaints based upon patriotic, aesthetic, humanitarian and economic reasons, and for the past 500 years it has been noticed that the lower classes now have the insolence to dress like their betters; but the most formidable remonstrances have been religious and physiological. It is the medical and practical objections to fashionable dress that have resulted in attempts to supply an alternative model distinct from, and opposed to, the prevailing fashion. The moralists were for the most part content if the mode were followed in a sober and discreet manner. The virtuous man should, as Cicero puts it, be neither foppish nor yet slovenly in his attire. But this could not suffice for those who were concerned for the lungs, the circulation, the belly and the reproductive organs.

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