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.

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