Lasting Thoughts on ‘First Impressions’

Studying fashion and dress in early modern Europe, it becomes clear just how much appearances mattered in this period. People took stock of what others were wearing, and they used that information to develop a sense of someone’s identity. This can be seen particularly through the institution of sumptuary laws, which tried to codify appearances, specifying which fabrics and garments men and women of different levels of society could and couldn’t wear in order to ensure their correct sartorial identification. Similarly, works like “costume books” implied that people wore different styles of clothes in different places around the world, and therefore that their place of origin could be deduced from their appearance.

  A recent symposium on 10 November 2016 for postgraduates and ECRs, titled ‘First Impressions: Faces, Clothes and Bodies 1600-1800’, focused on the importance of appearances in the early modern world. Organised by Elizabeth Spencer from the University of York and Hannah Wallace from the University of Sheffield, the one-day conference was held at York Medical Society, necessitating a very early train up to York – but it was definitely worth the journey.

  The first panel focused on ‘Disfigurement and Disability’. Joshua King’s talk looked at cripples in early modern England, showing how some men used strategies of concealment to try and make their physical differences less obvious and so reduce the negative reaction towards them. However, he pointed out that these attempts to conform jar with how much wearers of wooden legs stood out due to the visibility and audibility of their prostheses. Elizabeth Potter showed how in William Earle’s text Obi; or the History of Three-Fingered Jack, the loss of the protagonist Jack’s fingers turned him into a hero, his disfigurement becoming an act of empowerment. Michelle Webb explored William Dobson’s painting of John 1st Baron Byron, who was depicted with a scar on his cheek which he’d obtained during the English Civil War. Webb argued that this portrayal of disfigurement doesn’t mean that all war wounds were seen as respectable or as evidence of heroism; only some soldiers and scars were seen as “honourable” in the seventeenth century, with many injuries too debilitating to be viewed in a positive light.

  The second panel was on ‘Early Modern Bodies’, beginning with Giulia Mari’s examination of Captain Thomas Lee’s legs in a portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts. Mari argued that due to the association of legs and legwear with control, dominance and assertiveness – and thus men – in this period, this portrayal of Lee with bare legs shows him to have been outside of normative masculinity. Sophie Morris’s talk was an example of where a source can itself be not all that it seems on first impressions. She looked at the prints in John Brown’s anatomical treatise of 1681, demonstrating that the poses which the bodies in the prints have adopted derived from courtly culture and the ideals of conduct literature, as well as intersecting with fashion plates. Sarah Goldsmith discussed the experience of the Grand Tour for men, which was often a period of bodily development, both through the active cultivation of politeness and the physical changes which occurred with puberty, so that men could end up completely unrecognisable on their return home. Emma Markiewicz’s talk looked at hair and wigs in the eighteenth century. The colour and condition of your hair was believed to be affected by your humours, with your hair therefore revealing your inner composition and moral nature, so that trying to change your hair or adopting a wig could imply that you were trying to hide something.

  The third panel was on ‘Disseminating First Impressions’. Pete Collinge examined two portraits by Joseph Wright, one of Sarah Clayton and the other of Ellen Morewood, arguing that both show these women as challenging gender stereotypes, staking their claims in the more masculine domains of business and property. Grainne O’Hare looked at female celebrities in the eighteenth century, showing that individual celebrities were not wholly in control of their own image, with the press and cartoonists twisting their personalities and their actions, undermining rather than empowering women who dared to be more public figures. Samantha Armstrong examined the idea of kindness, showing how it had a central place in both Christian thought and social ideals, so that it became an expected part of everyday interactions. Vanessa Mangione’s paper looked at the importance of first impressions in eighteenth-century courtship novels. In some novels men were exactly as they seemed, in others they may have ardently declared their love on first sight, but those claims of affection could be false.

  The fourth and final panel of the day was on ‘Representing the Other’. Anna Lisa Somma’s talk examined representations and understandings of hermaphrodites and cross-dressing in early modern Italy. Dan Waterfield focused on the character of Madame Duval in Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina, who rather than being easily categorisable transgressed national ideals and defied definition as either French or English. Kirsty McHugh looked at accounts of English tourists in Scotland in the eighteenth century, showing that travellers could be influenced by what they read elsewhere and so came to Scotland with prior assumptions about its inhabitants and expecting to see certain things. Kathryn Woods continued the Scottish theme by examining the migration of many educated young Scotsmen to London after the Act of Union, who the print media of the time sought to marginalise and exclude through the development of negative stereotypes of the Scots as uncivilised and as looking a particular way.

  The day ended with a keynote by Karen Harvey on Mary Toft. Toft was a woman who was believed for a while to have given birth to rabbits in the 1720s, although she later confessed that it had been a hoax, leading to her imprisonment. Harvey discussed the ways in which Toft was portrayed in images and in the reporting of her case, and how that changed over time, with responses to her including curiosity, outrage, and the belief that Toft herself – and not just her rabbit births – was monstrous.

  ‘First Impressions’ highlighted just how important everyday acts of performance and spectatorship were in this period. It showed that many people were highly self-conscious about the way they presented themselves to others (although interestingly the term “self-fashioning” didn’t pop up at the conference at all), actively employing strategies of artifice and concealment to influence other people’s perceptions of them. It also demonstrated the role of texts and images in creating and promulgating stereotypes and impressions of certain kinds of people, both individuals and whole swathes of society. Behaviour, gestures and deportment were raised as characteristics which could get you noticed, not just the aesthetics of your visual appearance; despite the conference title, clothes featured minimally in the day’s talks. There also appeared to be a gendered dimension to the topic, with most talks focusing on either men or women, and with there clearly being different standards and ideals for men and women in multiple arenas.

  With people’s ability to actively alter their appearance and with the dissemination of deliberately negative ideas about certain parts of society, there were many caveats to judging people by first impressions in the early modern period; all too often, things were not as they seemed. This conference showed just how complicated the interchange between established social ideals, natural bodies, individual agency and popular media could be, and was a very rich and thought-provoking day.