We live in a world often dominated by the latest fashions and prevalent images of body modifications. Whether in traditional print media or on social media sites, women in particular are bombarded with images of often unattainable body shapes, whilst simultaneously encouraged to remain natural in appearance. A curvaceous body type can be obtained by plastic surgery, or alternatively, is now easily replicated with fashion companies selling a wide variety of padded products that can change how our bodies look in clothes. Even though these trends and societal expectations may seem aproduct of the modern age, how true is this?
In reality, this trend has a much longer history. The eighteenth century saw a variety of extreme fashions introduced by women of the elite. This included wearing large hoops under dresses, bum padding, and even stomach padding to give the illusion of pregnancy.
Celebrities and social media stars are at the forefront of establishing new fashion trends. But just as the modern media and public are intrigued and obsessed by the fashions and bodily choices of celebrities, so too was eighteenth century society. Back then, the leaders of fashion were known as the beau monde. Fashion gave elite women a form of empowerment largely unavailable to them elsewhere in eighteenth-century society. This was a sphere they could dominate, arguably giving them a form of pleasure unavailable anywhere else.
By the 1730s, the Rococo style was deeply entrenched in both French and English fashions, with a focus on the feminine being the most crucial quality of dress for women. This translated into using padding on the hips or hoops to create a new body shape.
The use of padding to create a curvaceous body shape culminated in the 1780s into a rounded silhouette: hip padding alongside the addition of bum pads or rolls to give the illusion of a more rounded physique, as well as increasing appearance of breast sizes by using starched kerchiefs tucked into the front of the dress. This was not a new development in fashion, however the changing shape of the body was reaching new heights of exaggeration and extremes.
In 2021, we may often see satire and humour directed at those in the public eye on social media – for being too revealing, for having exaggerated bodily features, for all manner of fashion choices. The satirical prints of the eighteenth century did not hold back from attacking women’s fashion either.
Luxury and extravagance were often used as the measure for immorality or downfall in society. This meant fashion was consequently seen as a vice in need of correcting. All manner of vices appeared in satirical prints, and women’s fashion choices were also ridiculed.
The vast number of satirical prints created about women’s fashions suggests that enough women were participating in what the satires considered to be excessive and ‘humorous’ for such satirical prints to be rendered relevant.
Demonstrating interesting parallels between the past and the present, the satirical print Chloe’s Cushion or The Cork Rump bares a striking resemblance to the famous Kim Kardashian image in Paper magazine where Kim ‘breaks the internet’. However, instead of a champagne glass perched on Kim’s ‘rump’, a tiny dog sits in its place on top of Chloe.
Ridiculing the fashion of wearing padding on the bum links to a similarly themed satirical print, The Bum Shop published by S. W. Fores in 1785. Four women are at various stages of the buying process, with some being fitted for the pads, whilst others admire the final look.
However, all of the women appear to have ugly faces, and look ridiculous to the viewer whilst wearing or holding the padding, indicating the mocking tone of the print. Extreme vanity is showcased in this print, stating it is a ‘fashionable article of female Invention’; suggesting that it is by women’s choice to dress this way.
Society, and especially men, disapproved of these extreme fashions. In some cases, they were angered by women trying to alter their bodies in ‘unnatural’ ways with padding that gave them a different shape and appearance – it was considered to be false, and not a true representation of their natural bodies.
Most concerningly for men, if a woman could change her body shape she could potentially hide an illegitimate pregnancy. A woman’s sexual reputation both before and after marriage was considered a matter of the utmost importance to elite gentlemen, as fears of illegitimate children inheriting their estates were prevalent in the period.
Considering this social issue, it is therefore understandable why fashion, female sexuality and a sense of female independence seamlessly blended together in the male perception, and thereby became a key target of their concern.
Women controlled what they wore, making fashion unique as an area lacking domination by men; yet these prints indicate this did not stop men, and wider society, from trying to encourage changes.
The social scientist Mostafa Abedinifard puts forward the theory that ridicule (and therefore satire) can act as a key tool in society to threaten ‘any violations of established gender norms’.  This theory can help explain why satirical prints of women’s fashions were made. In Abedinifard’s words: ‘Through a mechanism involving fear of embarrassment, ridicule apparently occupies a universal role in policing and maintaining the gender order’.  By nurturing a fear amongst women of being ridiculed by the rest of society, the prints arguably created an environment of self-policing that encouraged women to stay within gender expectations. These expectations guided women towards remaining natural in their appearance and staying within the private sphere, if they did not wish to be ridiculed.
There are many intriguing parallels between eighteenth century society and our own times in terms of how women’s self-expression through fashion is viewed. Using padding to alter the appearance of certain body parts is not a new phenomenon. In a post-lockdown world where we once again reassess how we clothe our bodies, it is interesting to consider the power fashion held in eighteenth century society, and the responses it generated.
Holly Froggatt is an MA Historical Research graduate of the University of Sheffield. Her research seeks to explore the relationship between satirical prints and the ridicule of elite women, and the expectations they faced in eighteenth century Britain. You can find Holly on twitter @Holly_Froggatt
Cover Image and Title: William Dent, Female Whimsicalities, pub. James Aitken, 1793, col. etching, British Museum 1902,0825.3 (BM Satires 8390), Wikimedia Commons.
 Cindy McCreery, The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in Late Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 2004), p. xii.
 Aileen Ribeiro, The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820 (London, 1995), p. 72.
 Erin Mackie, Market à la mode: Fashion, Commodity, and Gender in the Tatler and the Spectator (Baltimore, 1997), p. 125.
 Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1991), p. 25.
 Mostafa Abedinifard, ‘Ridicule, Gender Hegemoney, and the Disciplinary Function of Mainstream Gender Humour’, Social Semiotics 2 (2016), p. 241.
 Ibid., pp. 244-45.
 Mackie, Market à la mode, pp. 238-241.