Caricature and Fashion

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From the Italian for "charge" or "loaded," the caricature print emerged in large numbers in the eighteenth century in industrializing western Europe. It was in the second half of the twentieth century that the caricature that concerned itself primarily with the subject of fashion and manners, rather than political or portrait themes, developed. The origins and conventions of the fashion caricature include over-lapping literary, theatrical, and popular religious and artistic traditions. Greco-Roman theorizations, performances, and artistic depictions of the cosmic world turned upside down, and late medieval woodcuts, in which memento mori themes of the dance of death and the bonfire of the vanities established the tropes of the veneer of civilization and the futility of dress and cosmetics in arresting earthly time. The European carnival tradition, commedia dell'arte and puppetry, which highlight human foibles, and the figure of the hag who deploys fashion and makeup in an act of sartorial and spiritual delusion provided subjects for major artists working in the etching media such as Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770), Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804), and Francisco de Goya (1746–1828). Not fashion caricatures as such, nor were these images widely available, but their themes recur in the eighteenth-century caricature print.

Caricature fashion prints also exist in a relationship to respectful engravings of the cries or occupations of the town, plates depicting national dress, and "costume plates" depicting courtier men and "women of quality" by seventeenth-century artists including Abraham Bosse and J. D. de Saint-Jean in France and the Bohemian Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677) working in England. The work of Jacques Callot (1592–1635) in France crosses the boundary between observation and satire. Etched images take on new meanings when pointed titles or moralizing verse are appended; the caricature generally makes use of a combination of word and image. Although censorship restricted production in France, prints were produced in neighboring Holland, and an early eighteenth-century fashion caricature entitled "The Powdered Poodle" survives in which the high-heeled shoes, forward posture, and long blond wig popularized by the court of Louis XIV is mocked in both image and appended verse (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale).

Eighteenth-Century Caricature

Drawing on Renaissance physiognomic studies or "caprices" by Leonardo da Vinci, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, and Albrecht Dürer, and the baroque caricatures of Annibale and Agostoni Carracci (Heads, c. 1590) and Gianlorenzo Bernini, eighteenth-century Italy saw a rise in the production of recognizable portrait caricatures. They included carefully delineated costumes etched by Pier Leone Ghezzi (1674–1755) and Pietro Longhi (1702– 1785), and painted in Rome by the English artists Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) and Thomas Patch (1725–1782). These works did not circulate widely in the public realm but were designed for the amusement of aristocratic circles participating in the Grand Tour who understood the dialectic of the ideal and the debased explored in this work. Furnishing their sitters with hideous physiognomies and ill-formed bodies loaded with fine clothing and airs, the works depict the dress and demeanor of the aristocrat abroad when the mask of civility has slipped under the influence of alcohol and other vice. The paintings of Patch and Reynolds drew upon the painted "modern moral subject" and subsequent etching cycles produced in England by William Hogarth (The Harlot's Progress 1731; The Rake's Progress 1733–1734; Marriage à la Mode 1743). Cinematic in its scenic narrative, Hogarth's finely produced work included satirical details of fashionable dress and deportment that were used to emphasize more general political, aesthetic, and moral questions.

As new and cheaper forms of reproduction and literate audiences for periodicals and prints arose in Enlightenment western Europe, there was a marked increase in the output of satirical printmaking from the 1760s in France, Germany, and the Dutch Republic, but notably England. England's freedom of the press and involvement of the public in political and cultural affairs through coffeehouse, print, and exhibition culture encouraged the production of thousands of caricatures. Fashion had two principal functions in these prints. In the first half of the century, the English political print included dress to indicate class, political party, geographic, ethnic, and national identity. In tandem with theatrical precedents, the shorthand device for a Frenchman was elaborate court dress and a simpering posture, for a Spaniard a ruff, and a Dutchman round breeches. Nationalist Tories and the English John Bull figure wore rustic frock coats and boots, in contrast to the rich court dress of Whigs which resembled that of continental court culture.

In the second half of the century, numerous English printmakers who were also printsellers switched their output from political caricatures to social ones in which fashion formed the principal and not the secondary subject. Matthew and Mary Darly, John Dawes, William Humphrey, William Holland, Samuel W. Fores, Carington and John Bowles, and John Raphael Smith exhibited their wares publicly in shop windows and printed single sheet caricatures that were sold in folio sets, reproducing the designs of others such as John Collett, Robert Dighton, Henry W. Bunbury, and Thomas Rowlandson. Themes include the speed of new fashionable items, textiles, patterns, and bodily silhouettes; the alleged spread of fashionability to the lower orders including the servant class; the concomitant difficulty of reading the social sphere; themes of metropolitan urbanity versus rustic simplicity; the role of the appearance trades, such as wigmaking and hairdressing, in promoting fashion; and alleged relationships between national fashions and character. The disjunction between the applied finery of fashion and the lumpen, deluded, or immoral physical body beneath continued older Christian themes.

The caricature print from 1760 extends the more general cultural association of women with extremes of fashion to that of men, as they scrutinize extensively the airs and dress of the macaroni (c. 1760–1780) and later the buck and the dandy (c. 1800–1820). Prints included both fictive and recognizable metropolitan individuals as well as referring to stock theatrical types such as the fop, the German friseur (an aged and ugly male hairdresser whose physiognomy was interchangeable with the Jew), the dancing-master (French and effete), the rustic, and the Scotsman, a "Billingsgate Moll" (a market woman), and a "Lady of the Town" (prostitute). In the etched prints of Matthew Darly, the more lowborn the person depicted, the more crude the illustrative style, suggesting a cruder imitation or performance of fashionability. These differences perpetuate the belief that the orders are inherently either vulgar or superior depending on rank, as well as highlighting the joke contained in the overstepping of sartorial boundaries from class to class. Just as the development of caricature demands its opposite, idealized aesthetics, so the convoluted forms, surprising gestures, and novel departures of caricature perfectly reflected contemporary notions of the chicanery of fashion.

Caricature prints appeared in the expanding number of English periodicals, such as The London Museum, The Oxford Magazine, and The Town and Country Magazine. Sometimes hand-colored, many such prints were also sold or hired out in suites. Etching and engraving were the dominant techniques until the 1770s, when the mezzotint was developed and during the 1780s aquatint and stipple engraving appeared. The latter techniques permitted longer print-runs of more than one thousand and conveyed detailed messages about the texture of clothing and the tone of complexion. Carington Bowles's and John Raphael Smith's figures were also set in backgrounds such as paved streetscapes and neoclassical dressing-rooms and masquerade venues which comment on the spread of consumption, comfort, and new design novelties, including dress.

Caricature prints were relatively expensive, sought out by the aristocracy, the gentry, and collected even by the king. If generally too expensive for the artisan, prints were available for viewing in print shops, on the walls of taverns, coffeehouses, and clubs, or in the 1790s, visited in exhibitions. Satirical prints were generally kept in folios, and it is unclear how often they were glazed and hung. Pasted on walls they made "print-rooms" (Calke Abbey, Derbyshire) and ladies' fans were occasionally composed of them. English prints were imported by French dealers and sent as far as St. Petersburg. Ambassadorial missions reported on their contents to rulers such as Louis XVI.

Although the circuits of exchange between English, French, Dutch, and German fashion caricature have not been clarified by scholars (most work has been done on revolutionary political imagery), it is apparent that the subject and style of English and continental work is interrelated. Hogarth derived much of his compositional virtuosity from a study of the French rococo fashion drawing and print by Boitard, Cochin, Coypel, Watteau, and Gravelot. The Matthew and Mary Darlys' calligraphic linear style set upon evacuated white backgrounds was copied around Europe. A group of crude French engravings on the topic of fops, fashion absurdities, and touristic interactions in the street are virtually indistinguishable in subject matter from English work, and the Darlys were copied in Germany. The French also produced caricature engravings of superb technical perfection and elegance in the 1770s, in which the style and format mocks both high fashion's perfection and the engravings of manners seen in Rétif de la Bretonne's Monument du costume (1789).

Meanings of Caricature Fashion Prints

In Germany, Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki's engravings for almanacs possess an elegant and animated line that epitomizes the ambiguity of some fashion caricatures. His paired contrasting images on the themes of artifice (court dress) and naturalism (neoclassical dressing) does not necessarily castigate the former: perhaps his suggestion is that pastoral dress is just as much an affectation for leisured peoples. His illustrations for Johann Kaspar Lavater's highly influential study of character and physiognomy (1775–1778) with a considerable focus on dress, do function as explicit attacks on ancien régime manners and morals and argue that the new man must reject the set of the courtier.

Eighteenth-century prints were often reproduced in the nineteenth century without the context of their original verbal text banners. This led to different interpretations that were frequently sentimental and nostalgic. Approaches to the caricature reflect shifts in twentieth-century art-historical and social analysis. A reflection model used exhaustively by British Museum cataloger and historian M. Dorothy George analyzed caricature prints as representations of real events such as the launch and spread of a new fashion. This approach is reductive in that prints had multiple meanings to different audiences and may have helped create the dynamic of an event. Whereas the art historian Ernst Gombrich argued that the aim of the printmaker and dealer was to sell the product and not unsettle the purchaser overly, the Hogarth historian Ronald Paulson argued that within graphic satire a range of explanations are true and not mutually exclusive. Paulson argued that Hogarth's work was designed for more than one audience and one reading. Like the theater, which assumed different reading positions from its multiple publics, the power of the caricature print is to function on several levels simultaneously. Although Brewer notes that there is almost no surviving evidence of how the common people viewed popular imagery, such as the caricature prints, there are many contemporary descriptions of the street and the theater, which emphasize that the fashionable and wealthy were often mocked or even abused for their pretension. Fashion caricatures participated in this dialogue.

Some men and women "of family and estate" such as W. H. Bunbury, Lady Diana Beauclerc, and the Marquis Townshend produced sketches which were engraved and distributed by professionals. Many of them laugh at the pretensions of the lower orders that emulate the manners and dress previously reserved for their social betters. This is not the only meaning, however. As Maidment notes of the early-nineteenth-century "literary dustman" type, in form and technique such prints might simultaneously highlight the energy and ingenuity of laboring class subjects at the same time as mocking aspirational behavior. It partly explains the longevity of the caricature print in periodicals for all classes. Caricature fashion prints also provided information about the mood or set of a fashion such as the insouciance of the Incroyable, a fop of the Directoire period. As Anne Hollander noted of Renaissance art, forms such as engravings might teach people what it was to look fashionable. In the eighteenth century, high-art painting and caricature were both means through which fashion was read, experienced, and modulated.

Nineteenth-Century Caricature

Master illustrators in the nineteenth century continued the themes on fashion laid down in the 1760s, notably Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) who worked for publisher Ackermann, James Gillray (1757–1815), Robert Dighton (1752–1814) and son Richard; Isaac Cruikshank (1756–1811) and sons Robert (1789–1856) and George (1792–1878). In the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, dress featured as part of the textual jokes in political caricature. Respectful fashion plates and caricatures issued from the same hand of experienced illustrators: Jean-Francois Bosio (1764–1827) and Philibert Louis Debu-court (1755–1832), who deployed an extremely elegant style and fine coloring as part of the joke. In Paris the famed series by Horace Vernet, Le Supreme bon ton from Caricatures parisiennes (c. 1800) used the figure types and linear illustrative style of the contemporary fashion periodical, but distorted the figures, poses, and situations to expose the ludicrous nature of contemporary manners. H. Vernet provided "serious" fashion plates for Pierre La Mésangère, who was both the publisher of Le journal des dames et des modes (c. 1810) as well as the famous caricature series Incroyables et merveilleuses (1810–1818), which continued the work of his father, Carle Vernet (1758–1836), from the 1790s. The paradox and collisions of exoticism and historicism of early-nineteenth-century dress is extremely well conveyed in these French images. The series Le bon genre (French periodical 1814–1816) set English and French fashions side by side, subject to some distortion, in order to have a ready-made caricature that also provides fashion information and comments on national identity. Louis-Léopold Boilly's exquisite painted genre scenes of fashionable life often verge on caricature with rather too much male and female buttock revealed through the chamois leather and muslin, and this interest was made explicit in his Recueil de grimaces (Paris, 1823–1828), caricature physiognomy lithographic studies.

Nineteenth-Century Journalism and the Caricature

In the nineteenth century, reading publics and leisure time increased and the costs of printing decreased, with a massive expansion of cheap periodicals and news-sheets including journals who now took the caricature as their very subject: in France La caricature (1830–1835) and its successor Le charivari (1832–1842) were run by Charles Philipon. Technical developments in lithographic, steel engraving, and wood-block reproductions meant that the caricature proliferated within these formats and ceased to be sold primarily within folio sets. When from 1835 political censorship was introduced in France, the caricature of Parisian manners became the screen through which other events might be filtered. Social, economic, and technological developments had major impacts upon fashion and there is no social topic in which the caricature did not participate. These included, but were not restricted to, male dandyism; the rise of the demimonde or courtesan class; sweatshops and the production of clothing; shopping and the department store; makeup and artifice; swells or dandies; middle-class hypocrisy and propriety; immodesty and the ball gown; women's participation in sport and education; feminism and the suffragette movement; dress reform; emancipation and embourgeoisement of slaves; issues of class and the "servant problem"; the aesethetic movement of the 1880s; and the general spread of consumer goods. Extremes and novelties of fashion, such as the women's crinoline and the bustle, the nature of fashionability and the Parisienne, and the interaction of the classes in the new public spaces of the metropoli of Paris, London, and New York, were delineated by highly accomplished artists working in lithography, notably Gustave Doré (1832–1883), J. J. Grandville (1803–1846), Joseph Traviès, Paul Gavarni (1804–1866), and Cham and J. L. Forain (1852–1931) Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) produced a massive output of 4,000 lithographs, many appearing in Le charivari and Le Journal amusant. His human comedy in which the same characters reappear relates to that of Balzac's literature. Nineteenth-century caricature employed novel compositional formats with overlapping vignettes and asymmetrical strip formats, as seen in the periodical La Vie parisienne. In England Max Beerbohm and George du Maurier provided the journal Punch, or the The London Charivari (from 1841) with a constant stream of caricatures that contributed to the tenacious idea that fashions for both men and women represented an absurdity. Its illustrator John Leech termed the word "cartoon" within Punch in 1843. The German middle-class public had numerous journals in which fashion caricatures recurred—Punsch (1847), Leipziger Charivari (1858), Berliner Charivari (1847), and Kladderadatsch (1848); the generic term "Biedermeier" for the period referred to a middle-class everyman fictional figure. The journal Simplizissimus (from 1896) led to the milieu in which expressionists like Georg Grosz (1893–1959) produced stinging comments on the human condition, using dress to mark out issues of class, gender, and sexuality. In North America enormous amounts of fashion-related caricature were produced for journals after the 1820s such as American Comic Almanach (from 1841), Punchinello, Harper's Weekly, and Vanity Fair. At the turn of the century the work of Charles Dana Gibson blurred the distinction between satire and the exaggerated fashionability of the Gibson girl, a gentle caricature that might be emulated for the turn of a head or silhouette of a skirt. In that the cartoon strip, comic book, and Disney film rely on caricature for their conventions, North America generated several industries from this form.

Until the post-World War II period when photography eclipsed line and other drawing in the media, the fashion caricature continued to be prominent within twentieth-century periodicals for all classes. Many of the fashion images commissioned by French couturiers including Paul Poiret approach the mannerism of caricature. The work of Erté (Romain de Tirtoff) also blurs the division between the fashion plate and the caricature in order to express a mood. Caricature images constitute important documents of relatively submerged topics including lesbianism and mannish dressing for women in the 1920s and male dress within homosexual communities. The commodification of dress and the rise of the fashion parade as a theatrical spectacle are documented in caricatures by figures such as Sem (Georges Goursat). The ironies of modernist lifestyle were documented by the British caricaturist Osbert Lancaster (Homes Sweet Homes, London, 1939). Wartime Britain and America used the caricature as propaganda to castigate wasteful female consumers. The emergence of the New Look was mocked as absurd or extravagant and unsuitable to matronly women in the late 1940s. Illustrator-designers, such as Cecil Beaton, provided high-style magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue with both drawn and composite photographic or collaged backdrop renditions of real society women (Elsa Maxwell, the Duchess of Windsor, Coco Chanel) which teetered upon caricature, as well as producing cutting versions for private consumption (Violet Trefusis).

Although caricatures continue to be included as cartoons in newspaper and periodicals, their power declined with the advent of television as an alternative form of entertainment in the 1950s. It could be argued, however, that the techniques of the caricature, related as they were to the theater and vaudeville stereotype, continued within popular culture forms of television and film. Many 1950s and 1960s situation comedies such as Green Acres and I Love Lucy feature absurd situations involving dress; the 1990s comedy series Absolutely Fabulous, written and acted by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, made the fashion industry and absurd fashions in dress and lifestyle its subject, as did the Robert Altman film Pret-à-Porter. Other popular situation comedies, such as Designing Women from the 1980s, Seinfeld, and the overdressed and shopping-addicted figure of Karen in the queer sitcom Will and Grace, deploy caricature-like exaggeration of dress, pose, and identity which is intertwined with both ancient tropes of theatrical farce and the caricature print of modern culture.

Much postmodern high-fashion illustration in the 1980s and 1990s used the form of the caricature to comment ironically on the place of fashion in contemporary life. The designers Moschino, Christian Lacroix (spring– summer 1994), and Karl Lagerfeld utilize a caricature-like irony in some of their illustration derived from Directoire imagery by the likes of Louis LeCoeur and Debucourt, as well as studying the genre for ideas; some fashion parades and styling by John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood resemble a caricature suite brought to life as a conscious strategy. Galliano's degree show (1984) and some subsequent collections (spring–summer 1986) were directly inspired by Incroyables et merveilleuses. Forms that are directly derived from the eighteenth-century caricature continue to be published in daily newspapers (the political cartoon in which prominent figures are characterized through their dress), journals such as Country Life (Annie Tempest's Tottering-by-Gently series) and The New Yorker (established 1925). Although amusing and trenchant, such caricatures now have an archaic air and may be replaced in the future by the three-dimensional and new temporal possibilities of digital technology. In that surrealism found fertile pickings in English Georgian and nineteenth-century French and German caricature, it could be said that surrealist-inspired contemporary digital fashion photography by Phil Poynter and Andrea Giacobbe continues the ludic project of the fashion caricature consumed in multidimensional ways.

See alsoFashions; Historical Studies of .


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Peter McNeil