Fashion and Faction

Learn how dress and decoration, made and worn by women, was part of campaigning

[20-minute read]

Paying heed to eighteenth-century women’s use of fashion for political ends, calls attention both to an understudied aspect of women’s political involvement as well as to the importance of material culture, visual impact, and the use of space in explaining the viral nature of politics in the eighteenth century. The creation of visual impact through the use of colours, clothes, accessories, and objects provided opportunities for appropriation and subversion by those out-of-doors, specifically women, who were intent on expressing their political opinions. In turning their appearance, dress, accessories, and even their domestic objects to political advantage, women could make discreet or obvious political statements, thereby becoming participants as opposed to spectators in political life, and contributors to the creation of a larger public sphere.

For Jonathan Swift, animadverting upon the evils of Party at the beginning of March 1710/11 in The Examiner, as the Sacheverell mobs spilled out to riot in the streets of London, women’s use of fashion to proclaim party allegiances and their accompanying politicization of social spaces was simultaneously symbolic and deplorable:

For Parties do not only split a Nation, but every Individual among them … I speak not here of the Leaders, but the insignificant Crowd of Followers in a Party, who have been the Instruments of mixing it in every Condition and Circumstance of Life. As the Zealots among the Jews bound the Law about their Foreheads and Wrists, and Hems of their Garments; so the Women among us have got the distinguishing Marks of Party in their Muffs, their Fans, and their Furbelow’s. The Whig Ladies put on their Patches in a different manner from the Tories. They have made Schisms in the Play House, and each have their particular sides at the Opera: And when a Man changes his Party, he must infallibly count upon the Loss of his Mistress. (Swift 1)

Joseph Addison, reflecting in The Spectator on the winter’s politics from the vantage point of June 1711, was similarly so inspired by fashionable women’s ability to imbue their patches — those smallest and seemingly most frivolous items of personal adornment — with political meaning that he was prompted to write a satirical, admonitory essay on the subject. By placing their patches strategically (Whigs to the right; Tories to the left), they subverted fashion, adapted it to serve their political purposes, and effectively turned themselves into political canvasses. Their use of fashion not only functioned as a form of intimate advertisement, proclaiming their personal political opinions, but it also served to make a collective political statement, politicizing the public, ostensibly social space of the Opera. In that sense at least Swift was correct: women could act to foster the spirit of party by “mixing it in every Condition and Circumstance of Life”, thus dividing even the social arena along political lines. And all without having to say a word.

As profoundly conservative men, Swift’s and Addison’s responses to this conjunction of women, fashion, and politics were both typical and telling. While Swift was dismissive of the women themselves, grouping them with the politically unimportant “insignificant Crowd of Followers” of party, Addison saw them as more worrying, because more influential. Drawing implicitly on centuries-old assumptions about women as agents of chaos whose meddling in politics exacerbated “the hatreds and animosities that reign among men” through their ‘natural’ tendency to excess and “party-rage”, he reprimanded them sharply for their behaviour. True English women should, he charged, be exemplars of restraint and familial domesticity, “tender mothers, and faithful wives”, who were above reproach and, importantly, above political partisanship. Both men saw women’s involvement in politics through the use of fashion and adornment (itself problematic due to its close association with women, luxury, and corruption) as a lamentable trivialization of politics. Swift, however, was also astute enough to identify it as symptomatic of a deeper change in English political culture. By the 1710s, politics had already escaped the control of politicians and their hacks to include growing numbers ‘out of doors’. Pandora’s box had been decisively opened.

The political use of colours, fabrics, clothes, accessories, and objects emerges from a period of remarkable transition and cultural change, but is rooted in a long history of ritualistic behaviours and highly symbolic visual displays. As their forefathers had before them, eighteenth-century contemporaries paraded, processed, and perambulated for institutional, vocational, or civic reasons, often wearing special clothes of certain colours, decorated with ribbons and cockades and other accessories, in order to make personal or collective statements of identity and allegiance. In so doing, they used their appearance and actions to turn the physical locations, the ‘places’, where they lived, worked, and socialized into the more abstract ‘spaces’ where politics could be performed. These spaces could be public or private, formal or informal, inclusive or exclusive, masculine or feminine. The eager appropriation of these older models of public participation and personal statement, and their use for political ends, need to be seen as a significant contributory factor in the generation of contagious political excitement in the eighteenth-century. They also add another dimension to our understanding of the construction of the eighteenth-century extra-parliamentary nation, as they emphasize the importance of visual political statements in fostering group awareness and cohesion long before the radicalization of fashion brought about by the French Revolution. Whether it was massed Leveller support in the display of sea-green ribbons worn by the thousands of men and women who attended the funeral of Robert Lockyer in London in 1649 (Woolrych 445; Fissell 112), or the use of crape-draped apples to protest the tax on cider in Exeter in 1763 (Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser, 13 May 1763), it is clear that contemporaries understood the importance of visual symbolism.

Symbols of Political Allegiance

The importance attached to colours and objects extended to electoral politics as well. In the hard-fought election contest for Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1790, for instance, the candidates poured money into the purchase of cockades and ribbons, flags, flowers, garlands, and highly decorated chairs. While the cockades were made of the best China ribbon and were not cheap at 1s. 4d. each, they formed only part of a strikingly large outlay on items for visual display: for every pound that candidates spent on producing the more than 50,000 pieces of printed paper that rained down on this town of 4,500, £14–£15 was spent on purchasing visual materials.[1] By the 1820s, the distribution of cockades and ribbons had come to symbolize not only the exorbitant cost of elections, but also politicians’ increasingly concerns about undue influence and corruption. These concerns were made manifest in the 1826–27 session of parliament, which made it illegal for a candidate or his agent to distribute “any cockade, ribbon or other mark of distinction” on the pain of a £10 fine, or, similarly, for any returning officer to allow anyone to vote who was wearing these politicized accessories.[2]

On the whole, we still know surprisingly little about the material culture of female political involvement prior to the French Revolution. The surviving textual evidence is anecdotal and widely scattered, and the physical evidence was often ephemeral or contextual. Ribbons, bandeaux, cockades, and dresses in a candidate’s or a faction’s colours could, for instance, all be put to other uses after their immediate political purpose was met. Similarly, they, and other everyday fashion items, including handkerchiefs, garters, lappets, and fans, which do survive in museums and collections, often go unrecognized unless they are blatantly political.

In many instances, it was the context that transformed an ordinary fashion item into a political statement.[3] Even the simplest of accessories, such as a basic white handkerchief, could be used to proclaim loyalty, support, or allegiance, when waved by groups of women lining a street or assembled in windows and on balconies alongside a processional route.

Handkerchiefs, Cockades, Sashes and Ribbons

By the time that John Trusler published his play, The Country Election, in 1768, women’s collective presence at election-related activities was deemed so much a part of the crowded, politicized street scene that he pointedly included them in his stage directions: “Windows full of ladies, holding out their handkerchiefs”.[4] While it might be tempting to see their participation, literally, as window-dressing for the electoral scene, thereby creating a politicized space through their presence but adding little more than colour and beauty to a canvass or chairing, this is certainly not always the case. Contemporaries often singled out women’s participation and candidates claimed political allegiance from their actions. In a fulsome description of Sir George Warren’s canvass in Lancaster in October 1785, a correspondent to the Morning Chronicle took pains to point out that Warren had the support of “a large concourse of people” (presumably men and women), as well as, specifically, the “ladies”: “In the procession round the town, the streets were lined with an amazing number of people, and the windows of all the houses were crowded with ladies, who, by waving their handkerchiefs, testified their wishes for the success of Sir George Warren”.[5]

The difficulty of assessing the extent of women’s involvement in popular participatory events such as this is complicated by the use of terms such as ‘the ladies’. At times, references are clearly being made to elite women (aristocrats and gentry) who rented (or had rented for them) the upstairs rooms in houses lining the most important processional routes, where they could watch the proceedings safely from a relatively comfortable, sheltered and elevated vantage point. In the majority of cases, however, contemporary usage is frustratingly nonspecific, the ‘ladies’ being defined less by social class than by genteel dress and behaviour. Thus, the women who crowded in to the windows around the hustings in Darlington in August 1832, wearing their candidate’s “true blue” badge — probably a cockade made of ribbon — were identified only as “the most respectable ladies of Darlington”.[6] Occasionally, references suggest that the difference between ‘ladies’ and ‘women’ was echoed in their use of space. A letter to the General Evening Post in 1773, which praises the voters’ backing for a defeated candidate at Worcester, describes a colourful, vibrant street scene with ‘ladies’ at windows and ‘women’ below them at doors, and children brought out into the street, symbolically dressed in blue and white:

One of the noblest sights that was ever exhibited in this country, was after the close of the poll: the independent, the honest, and the free voters, insisted that Sir Watkin Lewes was their legal Member, and would not acknowledge Mr. Rous, as they said he had procured his majority by b—y and c—n [bribery and corruption]; they provided a chair, with a triumphal arch decorated with laurel gilt with gold, and a cap of Liberty pendant, in which they placed Sir Watkin Lewes: in this manner he was carried on the shoulders of twelve persons, through the city: he was preceded with colours and streamers flying, a band of musick playing a tune to the words of a song, which was a parody on the famous song in Judas Maccabaeus … The principal gentlemen of the town went before him singing the above song, in which they were accompanied by an immense concourse of people: the old people brought out their children in their arms, dressed in white with blue sashes, as emblems of innocence, thereby testifying their just abhorrence of corruption, and presented him with garlands and wreaths of laurel, gilt with gold; the ladies and women of all conditions crouded (sic) to the windows and doors, clapping their hands and waving handkerchiefs in the air.[7]

More than fifty years later, one of the successful candidates in the 1826 Northumberland election met with a similarly exuberant reception when he arrived at Haltwhistle. The  ‘ladies’ in question may have been the female members of the area’s leading political families, but they might, just as readily, have been the neatly dressed and socially aspiring mothers, aunts, and sisters of the girls in the procession:

All classes of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood vied with each other in demonstrations of attachment. A numerous party of gentlemen on horseback went some miles to meet him; at the entrance of the town he was met by a body of above one hundred freeholders, and sons of freeholders on foot, and by a procession of one hundred of the junior female members of their families, mostly dressed in blue or decorated with ribbons of that colour. This assemblage of youth and beauty led the way into the town, and were followed by an excellent band of music, accompanied by appropriate banners and ornaments of laurel … Every window was crowded with ladies waving handkerchiefs and blue ribbons….[8]

The records of this election show that female supporters of all the candidates, successful and otherwise, crowded the streets, windows, and rooftops of the county’s towns, adorned with their candidates’ favours, waving handkerchiefs and flags enthusiastically (24, 129, 141, 203).

Candidates’ response to enthusiastic female support varied. At times it could be ambivalent. T. W. Beaumont, for instance, speaking in Hexham after an opposition attempt to tarnish his personal character, was quick to claim women’s support, depicting them as a moral force in politics and a testimony to his personal integrity. However, he was also equally swift to distance himself from them by invoking the stereotype of the noisy, unruly female (Howard 680): “I have also an evidence of it in the approbation of the fair sex. (Loud cheers and waving of handkerchiefs). This approbation, I am convinced, no one will receive whose conduct is not above reproach, and the conduct of no one in private life stands higher, … (Here the cheering and waving of handkerchiefs continued so long, particularly from the fair sex, that Mr. B. smiled and good-humouredly observed) (sic) that when the female tongue is once set a-going, it is very difficult to be stopped.” (203)

Fashionable political statements were not always related to elections, however. By the early eighteenth century, quick-witted printers had recognized that there was a market for politically inspired fashion accessories and had begun to produce printed handkerchiefs and fans. Shops in London were soon selling silk, linen, and cotton handkerchiefs celebrating iconic national events such as the signing of the Magna Carta, Marlborough’s victories, the Treaty of Utrecht, or the Queen’s speeches to parliament.[9] At the height of the excitement generated by the Middlesex Election of 1768, images of that master of political marketing, John Wilkes, appeared on a wide variety of consumer goods and fashion items. These included handkerchiefs bearing a portrait of Wilkes, surrounded by oak leaves and the allegorical figures of Britannia and Justice, complete with his election results.[10] Later, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, and events like Peterloo also found their way on to handkerchiefs.[11]


While printed handkerchiefs may have been used more by men than women, fans were one of the century’s most enduring female fashions. They were carried by all women across the country with any pretensions to gentility and ranged from exquisite hand-painted, bejewelled works of art through exotic imports from the Orient to bright, printed paper fans on inexpensive wooden mounts, produced by entrepreneurial local printers, often from popular engravings and prints. Through their choice of fans and the subjects they depicted, women could make effective nonverbal claims to character, fashionable sentiments, and cultured taste, as well as to patriotism or political opinion.

Topical fans were an eighteenth-century development. Cheap and quickly produced, they functioned, according to Rhead as ‘a purveyor of history, a kind of running commentary on the affairs of the hour. It was the fan of the people — the poor relation of the more aristocratic painted fan.’[12] Topical fans enabled women to comment upon or celebrate domestic and international achievements, to make public their allegiance (or not) to the monarch or government of the day, and to participate in the excitement generated by politicians or political events.

The Excise Crisis of 1732–1733 gives us a brief glimpse into the development of and women’s use of the popular fashion of fans to express their political opinions. The Excise scheme was part of Robert Walpole’s overall financial strategy. His proposals in 1732–3 to extend the excise to include wine and tobacco were not only an unmitigated, but also an unexpected, failurem as they were interpreted as — or, to use modern terminology, expertly ‘spun’ as — an insidious attack on the rights and liberties of the freeborn Englishman, particularly the Englishman’s right to private property. The opposition to the Excise Bill established a pattern of extra-parliamentary action that mobilized the population and saw the organization and use of public opinion across the country for specifically parliamentary ends.

Printers flourished in this political climate. Londoners were inundated with handbills; graphic satires and prints proliferated, often attacking Walpole and the Excise Bill, and serving as doom-ridden predictions of the Bill’s consequences.[13] Nor did it take long for the Excise to appear on fans. On 2 June 1733, Fog’s Weekly Journal proudly announced:

This Day is Publish’d, An Excise Fan for all Loyal Ladies; Or, The Political Monster, as described in Fog’s Journal, May the 5th, Curiously Delineated, being a Memorial for Posterity. In this most agreeable Fan, is Represented, I. A Picture of Cardinal Wolsey, the first Excise Master of England, done from an Original Painting. II. His Feats on one Hand, and those of his Successor on the other. III. A Lawyer with two honest Briefs. IV. That famous Monster, Monger, Ferdinando Ferdinandi, Drawn from the Life. V. The Death of this Monster. VI. The Modern Inquisition, with an Assembly of many Spectators, as Vintners, Tobacconists, &c.

’Tis in the Power of every British Fair
’To turn Excises of all Kinds to Air.

Sold by M. Gamble at the Golden Fan in St. Martin’s Court, near Leicester Fields. Price 2s. 6d.

This fan survives in two forms in the British Museum collection: one solely of the central section of the fan, which portrays a male figure holding papers that read “Liberty and Property,” “No Dutch Politiks. Down with the Excise,” above and to the left of the above-mentioned couplet to the “British Fair” (BM, AN354263001), and another of the full, unmounted fan paper (BM,1891,0713.379). Its popularity can be traced through the newspapers of the day.

Martha Gamble continued to advertise the fan in a variety of London newspapers, including Fog’s Weekly Journal, the St. James’s Evening Post, the Daily Journal, and The Craftsman, until at least the beginning of May 1734. This suggests that she profitted from the Excise Crisis for a year. Furthermore, the fan must have quickly gained in popularity for she was already advertising it as “The famous excise Fan” by September 1733 — and apparently charging more for it: “Price 2s. 6d. the Mount, 3s. 6d. mounted” (Daily Journal, 27 September 1733). The newspaper reports of Lord Mayor Day that autumn testify to the fan’s continued popularity and reveal women making use of it to acclaim the outgoing Lord Mayor who had been a staunch opponent of Excise:

…in return from Westminster the late Lord Mayor’s Coach was perfectly carried by the Populace, the better Sort from the Windows and Balconies saluting him with the Cry of, No Excise; even the Ladies making their Compliments with their Fans — Such will the Reception be of all those who endeavour to serve their Country without Fee or Reward. (Fog’s 3 November 1733)

The Craftsman also drew attention to the women’s actions, noting that “the Ladies in the Balconies and Windows shew’d their Zeal by shaking their Fans and joyning in the Cry of No Excise” (3 November 1733). While some of these fans would undoubtedly have been found in the hands of the women who attended the “Ball for the Ladies” with which the day’s celebrations culminated, the newspaper reports suggest that this display of political spirit extended substantially beyond the tight membership of the ball-going civic elite. If, as Richard Price has argued, the Excise Crisis was a key developmental point in the creation of the extra-parliamentary nation as a political force, then it was also an important demonstration of women’s willingness and ability to participate in that process and to claim their place through both their presence and their use of fashion.


Women’s politicization of space through the use of fashion needs to be seen in the context of a society that could draw on historical traditions of popular public involvement and popular statements of allegiance and loyalty through the well-established use of ritual, symbols, and activities that often including clothing and accessories. The appropriation of these older models of public participation and personal statement, and their use for political ends, may be seen as a significant contributory factor in explaining the viral nature of political excitement that was such a feature of eighteenth-century electoral politics and political crises. It also adds another dimension to our understanding of the development and gendering of the extra-parliamentary nation. It particularly helps to highlight some of the strategies of inclusion and appropriation used by those out of doors, including women, who were intent on expressing their political opinions. The use of fashion for political ends made politics a participatory, as well as a spectator, sport.

[1] Barker and Vincent, xxvii–xxix.

[2] 1826–27 (367) 7/8 Geo. IV. Sess. 1826/7. A bill [as amended on the report] to make further regulation for preventing corrupt practices at elections of members to serve in Parliament, and for diminishing the expense of such elections: Proquest:–2004&res_dat=xri.hcpp&rft_dat=xri.hcpp.fulltext: 1826–010253:2 [09/05/2010]

[3] Navickas, 7.

[4] These directions remained unchanged when the play was republished twenty years later: John Trusler, The Country Election (1788), 46.

[5] Morning Chronicle, 12 Oct. 1785.

[6] Electors’ Scrap Book, 45.

[7] General Evening Post, 9 Dec. 1773. Note that this letter was also published in St. James’s Chronicle or British Evening Post on 9 Dec. 1773.

[8] Pollbook … Northumberland, 1826, 76.

[9] Victoria & Albert Museum, 228.1879: “The Signing of the Magna Chartar” (sic), (1785–90); V&AM, T.47–1967: “The Battle of Blenheim, 1704” (1705); V&AM, T.85–1934: “Marlborough’s Victories” (1707); V&AM, T.303–1960: “The Treaty of Utrecht” (1713); MoL. 85.57: “An Abstract of the Treat of Peace between the Queen of Great Britain &c. the King of France, concluded at Utrecht March 31 – April 11, 1713”; V&AM, T.313–1979: “Queen Anne’s Speech” (1710). In the Daily Courant (11 Oct. 1709), Nathaniel Crouch at the Bell in the Poultrey celebrated the allies’ victory over the French with a “Victory Handkerchief” at 2s. 6d.

[10] BM, 1904,1029.1.

[11] BM, AN233975001; Atkins, 27.

[12] Rhead, 206.

[13] See, for example BM, AN354993001, “Excise in Triumph” (1733), upon which “Dejected Trade hangs down its drooping Head”.