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

Prostitutes and their Clothes: Fanny Hill

Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, is a pornographic novel written in 1748 by John Cleland. The epistolary novel follows the adventures of a country girl come to town after the death of her parents. Fanny wants to become a maid and is hired by a Mrs Brown who is in fact a madam/pimp. Teenage Fanny is gradually introduced into the work of a prostitute through various voyeuristic experiences. Fanny falls in love and is rescued and after several twists of fate, becomes a mistress and then a prostitute again. Eventually, at the ripe old age of 18 she finds her old lover, tells him all, is forgiven and accepts his proposal of marriage.

It’s a pretty important work as it is considered the first pornography to use the novel form. It is one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history. It is very explicit and – with orgies, homosexuality, anal sex, cross dressing and more –  might change your opinions on sexuality in the eighteenth century.


However, I am interested in what the prostitutes wear! Cleland does pay attention to Fanny’s clothes and how they change throughout the novel based on her social status and position.

As Brandoin and Gay did, Cleland plays with the trope of the inappropriately, or overdressed, prostitute. Indeed, when we first meet Mrs Brown she is ‘dressed in a velvet mantle (in the midst of summer)’. One of the first things that happens when Fanny arrives with Mrs Brown is that her ‘rustic’ clothes are removed and she is given more fashionable clothes. This is symbolic of a certain loss of innocence, an attempt to turn Fanny into to something she is not yet. Fanny writes,

Well then, dressed I was, and little did it then enter into my head that all this gay attire was no more than decking the victim out for sacrifice, whilst I innocently attributed all to mere friendship and kindness in the sweet good Mrs. Brown

Fanny’s commentary on the change from the ‘neat easy simplicity of [her] rustic dress’ to ‘awkward, untoward, tawdry finery’ shows the inappropriate nature of the swap. A more obviously symbolic point in the novel is when Fanny bites through her petticoat when she loses her virginity. The tearing of the cloth is symbolic – especially as Cleland delights in exploring the idea of a virgin ‘tearing’.

Later, when Fanny is with a kinder brothel (Fanny is almost raped at Mrs Brown’s) hidden behind a milliner’s shop, when she is happier and more at ease her clothes reflect this. Gone are the trappings of a ‘taudry-town miss’. Fanny’s dress at Mrs Coles, ‘had the more design in it, the less it appeared to have’, having ‘correct neatness, and elegant simplicity’. This attire marks a sophisticated aesthetic which distinguishes Fanny from the naïve girl once satisfied by second-hand finery.

I was not at all out of figure to pass for a modest girl. I had neither the feathers, nor fumet of a taudry town-miss: a straw hat, a white gown, clean linen, and above all, a certain natural and easy air of modesty

It is interesting to see that clothes are important and expressive, even within a pornographic novel. As Oliver writes an author dress may be used ‘merely to entertain, or even to titillate the reader’ and yet, ‘an author may utilise dress in all its myriad expressions within a single text’. I don’t think Cleland’s novel is an exception to this.

As far as the illustrations go, they tend to be much less interested in the variations in dress. This illustration depicts a scene from the time at Mrs Cole’s.



Fanny Hill, Louisa, and the Nosegay Boy, George Morland (1787) Visit The British Museum for more information.

In Morland’s illustration the prostitutes’ dresses are excessively fashionable with many-flounced petticoats, ruffled sleeves and feathered hats. Though the centrepiece of the drawing is the penetration, the scene is dominated by copious amounts of fabric and ribbons which play into the trope of the over-dressed whore. Morland’s use of clothing reduces Cleland’s character to a passive figure meant only to arouse.

If your’re of age and interested in this period I would certainly recommend giving Fanny Hill a read. Don’t get me wrong, this is Porn with a capital P. However, its good fun, Cleland’s metaphors are endless and the novel is full of bounce and vigour. It was ahead of its time and, for some, is still revolutionary today. Its heroine treats sex for pleasure alone as a great joy in life and, though boringly settles down to marry at the end of the novel, she is not punished for her sins. And, as one reviewer on Goodreads wrote, “If you’ve heard one euphemism for penis, you…well, you haven’t heard them all. Once you finish this book, then you’ll have heard them all.”


Cleland, John, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, 2 vols, (London: printed by Thomas Parker for G. Fenton in the Strand, 1749)

Oliver, Kathleen M., Samuel Richardson, Dress, and Discourse, (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008)

Wigston Smith, Chloe, Women, Work and Clothes in the Eighteenth-Century Novel, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)


5 thoughts on “Prostitutes and their Clothes: Fanny Hill

  1. Pingback: SMUT! | objectbale

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