18th C Fashion / 18th C Literature / Eighteenth Century / History / Lit Crit / Prostitution / Women

Prostitutes and their Clothes: ‘Beneath the Lamp her tawdry Ribbons glare’

This is the first in a series which looks at representations of eighteenth century prostitutes and their clothes in verbal and visual sources.


Swiss-born ‘Charles’ Brandoin’s prints, A Modern Demirep on the look-out and The Charming Millener of ___ Street (1771) demonstrate a growing anxiety in the eighteenth century about female dress. This pair of satirical prints depict two urban women, the milliner, with the accoutrements of her trade, and the prostitute. Similarly to other Brandoin designs, these look like French fashion plates; an artistic decision which draws attention to the clothing worn. Both images feature decorated hats, patterned stomachers, and a lower class/cheaper take on the elaborate mantua-created bustle.


A beautifully embroidered stomacher, part of the V&A collection (1730-50)

However, because of their near-identical clothing it is almost impossible to distinguish between the women. The fashion plate format elicits a neutral, if calculated, gaze encouraging the viewer to judge the merits of the costumes rather than the moral differences between the two women. Brandoin is suggesting one of two things (or perhaps both); firstly, you can’t tell the difference between a respectable tradeswoman and a criminal because the latter dresses like the former, and secondly, he refers to the (well-documented) links between women in the dress trade and prostitution. Perhaps he suggests these women have more than their fashion in common.

John Gay wrote a long poem/set of verses from the point of view of a man wandering around the streets of London describing the various sights he sees. Here is the section entitled ‘How to know a Whore’.

No stubborn Stays her yielding Shape embrace;

Beneath the Lamp her tawdry Ribbons glare,

The new-scowerʼd Manteau, and the slattern Air;

High-draggled Petticoats her Travels show,

And hollow Cheeks with artful Blushes glow;

With flattʼring Sounds she sooths the credʼlous Ear,

My noble Captain! Charmer! Love! my Dear!

Unlike Brandoin, this section of Gay’s Trivia; or The Art of Walking the Street of London (1716) suggests one can identify a prostitute by her dress alone. The decayed mantua, petticoats, and ribbons can be read as indicators of compromised virtue. The absence of stays, ‘the most basic signifiers of female respectability’, indicates a removal of the physical and moral barrier between the woman’s body and depravity. The absent stays are anthropomorphised in order to evoke a sensual image of the embraced body.  Gay’s description focuses on second-hand finery, such as the ‘tawdry’ ribbons and her petticoats, dirty and wet from being dragged through the dirt of the street. The woman’s ‘new-scower’d Manteau’, a second-hand garment refreshed and resold, seems to indicate a financially vulnerable figure. Part of this tawdry image is the blush, concealing ‘hollow cheeks’. This make up could be hiding the effects of hunger or something much more sinister, such as the damage caused by syphilis.

Gay then moves on to list some of the ways in which prostitutes could dress in a disguise. Such trickery speaks into the huge link between prostitution and theft and violence during the 18th century. Some suggest that many prostitutes could better be describe as thieves who used sex as a distraction technique. They often seduced newcomers, or sailors temporarily visiting, then stole their money and valuables. Gay writes,

In Riding-hood, near Tavern-Doors she plies,

Or muffled Pinners hide her livid Eyes.

With empty Bandbox she delights to range,

And feigns a distant Errand from the Change;

Nay, she will oftʼ the Quaker’s Hood prophane,

And trudge demure the Rounds of Drury-Lane.

She darts from Sarsnet Ambush wily Leers,

Twitches thy Sleeve, or with familiar Airs,

Her Fan will pat thy Cheek; these Snares disdain,

Nor gaze behind thee, when she turns again.

Gay quickly runs through several disguises a prostitute could put on. For example, she might dress as a Quaker (in conservative, plain clothes), a particularly religious woman or wear a ‘pinner’ a headdress with long lappets. Here we hear about her ‘snares’ and a few lines later Gay describes a poor yeoman led astray by a ‘fraudful nymph’.

Brandoin responds to concerns about the ambiguity of dress limiting men’s ability to ‘read’ women. Gay is more complex, he describes the unique ability of dress to represent women’s social and moral status but also records the use of disguise and trickery by the women of the street. These are tropes we can see repeated in visual and verbal representations of prostitution throughout the century Though the increasing democratisation of fashion made views such as Brandoin’s more common towards the end of the century, these conflicting voices are indicative of the complex relationship eighteenth century society had with its own obsession with commodities.

Both men demonstrate, or are responding to, concerns about widespread prostitution in London, which Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1862) quantifies at fifty thousand in the late eighteenth-century. Though this may be a vast over-estimate it demonstrates the perceived threat to society this body of women posed. However, these conflicting voices are indicative of the complex and paradoxical relationship eighteenth-century society had with women’s dress and female identity



McCreery, Cindy, The Satricial Gaze: Prints of Women in late Eighteenth Century England, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Ribeiro, Aileen, ‘Street Style: Dress in John Gay’s Trivia’, in Walking the Streets of Eighteenth-Century London: John Gay’s Trivia (1716), ed. by Clare Brant and Susan E. Whyman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp.131-144

The Consumption of Culture 1600-1800 Image, Object, Text, ed. by A. Bermingham and J. Brewer, (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p.1-19


3 thoughts on “Prostitutes and their Clothes: ‘Beneath the Lamp her tawdry Ribbons glare’

  1. Pingback: Prostitutes and their Clothes: Fanny Hill | objectbale

  2. Pingback: ‘Tickled Pink’: Mary, Countess of Howe | objectbale

  3. Pingback: The Alarm, or Attention to Detail | objectbale

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