Celebrity Couture: A New Trend? Fashionista Mary Robinson Led the Way – Over 230 Years Ago

Figure 1.  John Hoppner, Mary Robinson as Perdita (1782), Chawton House Library.

Sean John, DASH, Material Girl, William Rast, OVO, House of Harlow, Yeezy, Paper Crown, the Jessica Simpson Collection, Rocawear, The Row, Twenty8Twelve.  Celebrity fashion labels are flooding the sartorial marketplace, and the phenomenon shows no sign of stopping.  Rihanna recently announced a collaboration with Chopard for a joint collection of jewelry, combining “urban chic and classic glamour.”[1]  And this coming October, Sarah Jessica Parker will launch her new SJP footwear collection on the Internet behemoth Amazon, featuring the exclusive designs “Dash,” “Flirt,” and “Wink.”[2]  InStyle.co.uk broadcasted the affair with the texty title “OMG!  Soon You’ll Be Able to Shop SJP’s Shoes On Amazon.”

Not everyone, however, is a fan of the pop-up celebrity designer.  Upon receiving the Couture Council’s Award for Artistry in 2012, the late Oscar de la Renta spoke out against the trend:  “Today, if you play tennis, you can be a really good designer,” he said, “Or, if you’re an actress, you can be a designer.  I’ve been at it for 45 years and I’m still learning my craft.”[3]  In addition to suggesting that upstarts are infiltrating the fashion world, de la Renta’s statement imagines a time—his time—when the art of fashion recognized quality design that bespoke training, skill, and experience, rather than sheer fame.

Elegiac musings may have their appeal, but do they reflect reality?  There’s no question that celebrity style has long had an impact on the fashion world—think Beau Brummell, Lillie Langtry, Jean Harlow, Katherine Hepburn.  The question is how new is the celebrity-cum-couturier?  The life of the British actress Mary Robinson (1757?-1800) (Figure 1) would suggest that celebrity clothing and accessory lines are, in fact, nothing new.

Mary Robinson’s meteoric rise to fame began in 1776 with her dazzling performance on the London stage as Juliet, and in 1779 with her spirited rendering of Perdita in David Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.  The latter representation captivated the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), and an infamous romance between the newly styled “Perdita” and “Florizel” ensued.

Like many starlets today, her love life became a source of scandal and intrigue.  When the Prince’s affection waned, Robinson left the stage and travelled to France.  She befriended Marie Antoinette and was courted by the wealthiest man in Europe, the Duke de Chartres.  In 1782, after her return from the Continent, Robinson indulged in romances with the dashing young dragoon Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a leading commander of British troops in the war against the American colonies, and Charles James Fox, the charismatic leader of the Whig party.

Robinson’s stage career, though brief (she retired from the boards at the close of the 1779-1780 season), was a tour de force. Her performances—both as an actress and a mistress—earned her widespread acclaim and notoriety.  In the manner of magazines such as Hello! or People, the newspapers reported continually on her whereabouts.  And while paparazzi did not yet exist, painters did.  Top artists of the day, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner, Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney, all painted portraits of her.

But while Robinson’s acting and amours sparked her popularity, it was her fashion sense and style that kept the flame ablaze.  By decorating herself in stunning confections known as the “Perdita Hood,” the “Robinson hat for Ranelagh,” the “Perdita handkerchief,” and the “Robinson gown,” she transformed herself into one of the foremost fashion icons of her day and sent the stylish set into a frenzy.[4]

Her most voguish look was the 1782 “Perdita chemise,” a hoop-free muslin tube cinched at the waist and styled after Marie Antoinette’s version of the gown:  the Chémise à la Reine (Figure 2).  This design—later promoted in England in a different form by the Duchess of Devonshire (remember Keira Knightley in The Duchess?)—paved the way for the neoclassical gowns of the 1790s and early 1800s.  According to one London newspaper, Robinson’s trend-setting styles “set the whole world ‘a madding.’”[5]  Women eager to appear à la mode began adorning themselves in her sartorial creations.

Figure 2.  Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress (1783), Hessische Hausstiftung [The Hessian House Foundation], Kronberg.

Robinson’s fashions attest to her desire to ensure unending media buzz.  But they also demonstrate the fact that she literally made a name for herself in the world of fashion.  Her signature designs were both recognizable and reproducible.  They were, after all, labeled “the Perdita” or “the Robinson”—a form of proto-celebrity branding.

Unlike modern celebrities, Robinson did not profit financially from her designs.  Yet her savvy marketing of them ensured her decisive impact on contemporary couture.  Robinson made her mark in other artistic circles as well, becoming one of the top authors of her day—a playwright, a novelist, and a poet.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge deemed her a woman of “undoubted Genius.”[6]  Ultimately, Robinson ensured her legacy in the world of fashion and in the world of letters.  Victoria Beckham—eat your heart out.

[1] Erica Gonzales, “Rihanna is Designing a New Jewelry Collection,” Bazaar (7 April 2017) http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/designers/news/a21876/rihanna-collaborates-with-chopard/

[2] Chloe Mac Donnell, “OMG!  Soon You’ll Be Able to Shop SJP’s Shoes On Amazon,” InStyle.co.uk (18 July 2017) http://www.instyle.co.uk/news/youll-soon-be-able-shop-sjps-shoe-collection-amazon-fashion#9ClsHusWo6Kqg9iC.99

[3] Ella Alexander, “Oscar de la Renta Honored,” Vogue (6 Sept. 2012) http://www.vogue.co.uk/article/oscar-de-la-renta-receives-couture-council-artistry-award

[4] The Lady’s Magazine began reporting on Robinson in 1780 and continued throughout the decade.  For coverage of Robinson’s fashions during the 1782-1783 season, see the Lady’s Magazine, or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex 14 (1783):  187, 268, 331, 650-651.

[5] Morning Herald (17 December 1781), p. 2.  Additionally, on 15 October 1782, the Morning Herald reported, “An amateur of the Cyprian Corps recommends to our fair countrywomen a total abolition of the large hoop and long petticoat, and to adopt the PERDITA, a system of elegant simplicity and neatness, which has ever so conspicuously marked the dress of that celebrated leader of the wantons of the age!”.  Just one month later, the same newspaper was predicting the pervasiveness of Robinson’s fashion trend:  “The Chemise de la Reine, in which Mrs Robinson appeared at the Opera, is expected to become a favourite undress among the fashionable women” (Morning Herald, 20 November 1782).  Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire was also instrumental in popularizing the chemise in England.  In 1784, she reported having gone “to a concert in one of the muslin chemises with fine lace that the Queen of France gave me”; qtd. Georgiana:  Extracts from the Correspondence of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, ed. Earl of Bessborough (London, 1955), 91.  In 1786, Angelica Kauffman painted Lady Elizabeth Foster, a close friend of the Duchess, in a version of the chemise with a double falling collar.  By 1787 the Lady’s Magazine reported that “all the Sex now . . . appear in their white muslin frocks with broad sashes”; see the Lady’s Magazine (London, 1787), 331.

[6] Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Robert Southey (25 Jan. 1800), The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Ed. Earl Leslie Griggs.  6 vols.  (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1956).  1:  562-564.

Fashionable Vice in 1790s England: Mary Robinson’s “Nobody”

The Graces of 1794. Issac Cruikshank. British Museum.

The Graces of 1794. Issac Cruikshank.  British Museum.

Picture this.  It is November 1794.  The French Revolution has taken a sharp turn for the worse, and Britain and France have been at war for well over a year and a half.  The English have recently witnessed the Treason Trials and the suspension of Habeas Corpus at home and the September Massacres, the Reign of Terror, the Glorious First of June, and the execution of Robespierre across the Channel.  Soldiers are dying, the British government is locking up radicals, and the nation is in a state of social and political unrest.

It is at this time, at the very height of this tension, that Mary Robinson—the former actress, fashion icon, celebrity sensation, and mistress of the Prince of Wales—debuted her two-act comedy Nobody at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.  The 29 November 1794 performance did not go well.  “On the drawing up of the curtain,” Robinson recounts in her Memoirs, “women of distinguished rank hissed through their fans.”  And while they were temporarily hushed, they soon resumed their vocalizations “with redoubled violence” (Memoirs 141).  Dorothy Jordan, one of the play’s comic leads, became so “agitated” by the audience’s “ill-humour” that she omitted lines from the Epilogue and botched it altogether (The Sun).  The Times reported that “the little effect intended, was utterly destroyed.”  In the course of only three performances, Drury Lane increasingly “presented a scene of confusion,” with the final staging culminating in a near riot (Memoirs 142).

For modern readers, Nobody may appear merely to offer a lighthearted gibe at voguish faux pas.  Fashionable life—comprised of narcissistic daily rituals, risible clothing choices, theatergoing, outings in carriages, and high-stakes gambling—proves, over the course of the drama, both farcical and foolhardy.  But what Nobody’s riotous reception makes clear is that Robinson’s spotlighting of fashionable excess was no laughing matter, particularly for some of the play’s aristocratic spectators.  Indeed, once the drama is placed within the timeframe of the French Revolution, it becomes clear that Robinson’s critique of fashion is, in fact, a political critique—one that links aristocratic behavior with the welfare of the nation, questions established social hierarchies, and advocates a more meritocratic form of leadership.  Even more surprising than its message is that Robinson managed to get the drama staged at all.  Produced during the time of the Licensing Act, Nobody reveals how playwrights found ways to circumvent censorship through allusive techniques—a fact that challenges the notion that licensed theater during this time was wholly apolitical.

Over the past twenty years, Robinson’s life and work have received fresh attention from scholars and biographers who have become fascinated, as her contemporaries once were, with her dazzling personality, social prowess, thespian skill, and literary artistry.  Despite this resurgence in interest, however, relatively little is known about what was one of her most striking productions: Nobody.  It is for this reason that I have recently recovered the play, the controversy surrounding it, and its socio-historical context by publishing an edition of it, along with explanatory notes, contemporary newspaper accounts, visual satire, and other relevant commentary on the academic website Romantic Circles.

A Gaming Table at Devonshire House. Thomas Rowlandson (1791). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941.

A Gaming Table at Devonshire House. Thomas Rowlandson (1791). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941.

Readers of the edition will notice that a central area of fashionable excess the comedy showcases is female gambling.  In fact, Nobody focuses attention on the Faro Ladies—a notorious group of high-society women who regularly held gaming parties.  Pre-show puffs for the play highlight this element of the comedy.  Two-and-a-half weeks before its premiere, The Morning Post, for instance, observes,

The scarcity of Ladies in the lower Side Boxes, may be attributed to the rage from Plays amongst our Dames of haut ton. Faro, and rouge et noir, have wholly banished a gout for rational amusements. This is indeed a serious, disgraceful evil; that “has encreased, is encreasing, and ought to be diminished.” (10 Nov. 1794)

And after mentioning, in a separate issue, that upcoming soirées are to be hosted by Mrs. Concannon, Lady Buckinghamshire, and Lady Archer, The Morning Post remarks,

The proud excesses of the Gay World this Winter will occasion no inconsiderable number of Bankrupts the next. Since the War, the Tradesmen’s Books are over-laded with Debts, and if one of them should press a Nobleman for his money, he is immediately denounced, ‘a Jaçobine!’ (12 Nov. 1794)

By linking aristocratic profligacy with the country’s wartime ills, these lines boldly assert that high-society socialites drain the nation’s coffers, and what’s worse, claim justification in doing so.

Just days before the curtain rose on Nobody, The Morning Post optimistically proposed that dramatic comedy could prove “beneficial to Society” when “the preposterous manners of high life and Fashionable Folly” are “checked by the pen of fair and unoffending satire” (13 Nov. 1794).  While Robinson certainly intended this outcome for her play, it was, perhaps, too lofty a goal.  In the weeks following its condemnation, The Morning Post contained the following entry: “If certain persons, in high life, are allowed to damn every piece that aims to correct their follies, the Stage will cease to be the mirror of the times, and vice will triumph over public opinion” (9 Dec. 1794).  While Nobody may not have achieved theatrical success, recovery of the drama reveals how it can yet serve as a “mirror of the times”—one in which domestic welfare contended with aristocratic vice.

Works Cited

For Further Reading

On Mary Robinson’s Nobody:

On Mary Robinson and Her Literature:

  • Brewer, William D., ed. The Works of Mary Robinson. 8 vols. Pickering & Chatto, 2009-2010.
  • Byrne, Paula. Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, and Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson. New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Davenport, Hester. The Prince’s Mistress: Perdita, a Life of Mary Robinson. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2004.
  • Gamer, Michael, and Terry F. Robinson. “Mary Robinson and the Dramatic Art of the Comeback.” Studies in Romanticism 48.2 (Summer 2009): 219-256.
  • Gristwood, Sarah. Perdita: Royal Mistress, Writer, Romantic. London: Bantam, 2005.
  • Ledoux, Ellen Malenas. “Florizel and Perdita Affair, 1779-80.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 2 June 2013.
  • Pascoe, Judith. Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1999.
  • Robinson, Daniel. The Poetry of Mary Robinson: Form and Fame. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

On the Faro Ladies:

  • Russell, Gillian. “‘Faro’s Daughters’: Female Gamesters, Politics, and the Discourse of Finance in 1790s Britain.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (Summer 2000): 481-504.