Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Leggy Ladies: 18C Attitudes Towards Legs

James Gillray's "Fashionable Contrasts" explicitly channels sex through legs & feet.
Gillray's cartoon depicts
ladies of questionable virtue
with their legs showing
from under their skirts.
Eighteenth-century dress, as most of us know, required women to wear long skirts, petticoats, and/or dresses to cover up as much of their legs as possible. A “short skirt” was one that revealed a lady’s ankle(!), and ladies who showed leg were considered titillating, inappropriate, or downright immoral. On the other hand, women who cross-dressed were often admired for their show of a “well-turned leg.” A quote from Bernard Mandeville describes this double-bind perfectly:

If a woman at a merrymaking dresses in Man’s clothes, it is reckon’d a Frolick amongst Friends…Upon the Stage it is done without Reproach, and the most Virtuous Ladies will dispense with it in an Actress, tho’ every Body has a full view of her Legs and Thighs, but if the same Woman, as soon as she has Petticoats on again, should show her Leg to a Man as high as her Knee, it would be a very immodest Action, and every body will call her impudent for it.
Peg Woffington, here as
"The Female Volunteer," was
often admired for her
luscious legs.

In fact, what made women’s legs so titillating was precisely the fact that they—and the crotch at the top of the legs—were hidden, invisible and unmentionable in normal dress. According to costume historian Ann Hollander, while men’s clothing tended to emphasize the body and “demonstrate the existence of a trunk, neck and head with hair, of movable legs, feet and arms, and sometimes genitals,” women’s clothes and particularly the skirt, which “hid women from the waist down and thus permitted endless scope for the mythology of the feminine, had become a sacred female fate and privilege, especially after it became firmly established as a separate garment.”

The separation of the legs seemed to allude, all too clearly, to the genitalia between them, making breeches on women an overtly sexual spectacle. Even actresses had to contend with the condemnation of eighteenth-century moralists on the topic of breeches parts and travesty, while all women were aware that the showing of legs was an immoral act often associated with prostitution.

Oh Henry!
Look at your
This is not to say, of course, that men’s legs were not sexualized in one way or another, either. Eighteenth-century texts and earlier Renaissance texts emphasize slim ankles and bulging calves as being the definition of a graceful gam in a gentleman. Henry VIII, for example, was revered for his muscular calves, a fact remarked on by the Venetian ambassador in 1515: “His majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on…with an extremely fine calf to his leg.”

The difference between men’s and women’s legs seems mostly to be that an exposed male leg was accepted and expected in the eighteenth century, while the appearance of a feminine leg was, in most cases, not. Women who cross-dressed were seen as transgressors of gender codes, but, if they were attractive enough, then their leg exposure was also acceptable. All women who cross-dressed or even momentarily donned trousers to, for example, ride more comfortably on horseback (like the real Queen Caroline Mathilde who I wrote about last week!), were able to take advantage of the greater mobility that trousers afforded.
The trousers of female pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Reade in this engraving
suggest a level of comfort and mobility inaccessible to women in dresses and petticoats.

Thus, trousers were always, in a sense, a way for women to rebel, for they signaled independence, freedom, and increased mobility. This doesn’t mean that women in trousers weren’t sometimes co-opted by patriarchal projects designed to recruit men to the army, to arouse men sexually, or to put female bodies on display for consumption. Pants and legs are much more complex signifiers in the eighteenth century than just that; the images I include here as well as the remarks by Mandeville indicate the multifaceted, at times ambiguous nature of the female leg, and legs more generally, in eighteenth-century English society.

Isaac Cruikshank's cartoon satirizes the growing interest in ballet at the end
of the 18th century and its exposure of female legs...and other bits.

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