On Fashion (and Johnny Gilpin)

The Hampshire Chronicle, Saturday 17th March, 1798, p.3.

On Fashions

(Click to enlarge)




I HAVE lived sixty years in the world, and, of course,
have seen an infinite variety of fashions, like flowers in
the fields, spring up, flourish, and decay; not one of
which can I recollect, that was not applauded on its first
appearance for its beauty and its convenience, and as uni-
formly condemned, when out of vogue, as horridly ugly
and inconvenient.

I have seen the Ladies with stiff stays up to their chins,
and with hoops of five yards diameter: How graceful!
How convenient! It gave a dignity to the person, and
kept the men at an awful distance. We now see them
with their bosoms bare, and with a transparent drapery
which displays the symmetry of their limbs will all the
delicacy of a Grecian statue, and invites the most bashful
to a closer union.

As for the Gentlemen –

“Angels and ministers of grace defend us!”

Is this a man of fashion? a Neapolian [sic] fisherman? or
Harlequin escaped from the Devil and Dr. Faustus?
Thirty years ago, the Gentlemen were long sleeves to
their coats stiffened with whalebone, and sleeves, the cuffs
of which were large enough to make a pair of breeches,
with an embroidered waistcoat hanging below the knee.-
Behold them now, with a coat dwindled to a waistcoat;
the waistcoat to a sailor’s jerkin; with trowsers, to ob-
struct the freedom of their gate and heat them in the sum-
mer, and to collect the wind and dirt about their ankles
in the winter.

As for the short great-coat! (that rag of abomination)
I cannot speak of it with patience. Though it might be
some little convenience to a sportsman after a fox-chace,
yet why a sober citizen, who seldom extends his ride far-
ther than Johnny Gilpin, should expose himself in the
dirt in winter, or to the dust or sudden thunder-storms in
summer; and expose his prominent rump as he walks
the street; is difficult to explain. But fashion and parsi
mony have prevailed over taste; and the young fox that
had lost his tail has inveigled the whole assembly to keep
him in countenance!     (See the fable.)

I have said parsimony; because the experiment of a
sensible young nobleman proves, that if it might be had
at the same expence, no one would chuse a short coat be-
fore a long one. His lordship was ambitions of having the
gentlemen of his hunt in the same uniform; and also to
make the experiment alluded to. He therefore prevailed
on a gentleman of the largest fortune in the country to fa-
vour his project, and accept of a great-coat. Accordingly,
when they assembled to breakfast before the chace, there
were a dozen coats, ready-made, half of them surtouts a
little below the knee; the other half spencers down to the
waist; lots were thrown for the order of chusing, when,
lo! the six gentlemen who got the first choice – took the
six surtouts; and the spencers, or short-coats, were left
to the less fortunate casts.


Q.E.D. likely standing for the Latin quod erat demonstrandum [“which was to be demonstrated/proven”]. This fantastic polemic against the fashions of the day is something we can all imagine an older relative or curmudgeon say about our own fashion standards. Similar to teachers bemoaning that latest cohort of children as the worst they’ve ever seen (I was tempted to quote Socrates and “The children… have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise” until I read this), these are seen throughout history, usually indicative of wider fears about the general decline of civilisation and dismay at the ineptitude of the current generation.

The reference to Johnny Gilpin is interesting in itself. The English poet, William Cowpar upon hearing the story from a friend, put into verse ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin Shewing how he went Farther than he intended, and came safe Home again’. The story, reproduced below, first been appeared in print 1782 and became a well known tale and, when reprinted in the later 1800s, included illustrations by Randolph Caldecott (the most famous directly below).



Illustration by Randolph Caldecott (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Diverting History of John Gilpin2

William Cowper (1731–1800)

JOHN GILPIN was a citizen
Of credit and renown,
A train-band captain eke was he
Of famous London town.

John Gilpin’s spouse said to her dear,
‘Though wedded we have been
These twice ten tedious years, yet we
No holiday have seen.

‘To-morrow is our wedding-day,
And we will then repair
Unto the Bell at Edmonton,
All in a chaise and pair.

‘My sister, and my sister’s child,
Myself, and children three,
Will fill the chaise; so you must ride
On horseback after we.’

He soon replied, ‘I do admire
Of womankind but one,
And you are she, my dearest dear,
Therefore it shall be done.

‘I am a linen-draper bold,
As all the world doth know,
And my good friend the calender
Will lend his horse to go.’

Quoth Mrs. Gilpin, ‘That’s well said;
And for that wine is dear,
We will be furnished with our own,
Which is both bright and clear.’

John Gilpin kissed his loving wife;
O’erjoyed was he to find,
That though on pleasure she was bent,
She had a frugal mind.

The morning came, the chaise was brought,
But yet was not allowed
To drive up to the door, lest all
Should say that she was proud.

So three doors off the chaise was stayed,
Where they did all get in;
Six precious souls, and all agog
To dash through thick and thin.

Smack went the whip, round went the wheels,
Were never folk so glad,
The stones did rattle underneath,
As if Cheapside were mad.

John Gilpin at his horse’s side
Seized fast the flowing mane,
And up he got, in haste to ride,
But soon came down again;

For saddle-tree scarce reached had be,
His journey to begin,
When, turning round his head, he saw
Three customers come in.

So down he came; for loss of time,
Although it grieved him sore,
Yet loss of pence, full well he knew,
Would trouble him much more.

’Twas long before the customers
Were suited to their mind,
When Betty screaming came down stairs,
‘The wine is left behind!’

‘Good lack,’ quoth he—‘yet bring it me,
My leathern belt likewise,
In which I bear my trusty sword,
When I do exercise.’

Now Mistress Gilpin (careful soul!)
Had two stone bottles found,
To hold the liquor that she loved,
And keep it safe and sound.

Each bottle had a curling ear,
Through which the belt he drew,
And hung a bottle on each side,
To make his balance true.

Then over all, that he might be
Equipped from top to toe,
His long red cloak, well brushed and neat;
He manfully did throw.

Now see him mounted once again
Upon his nimble steed,
Full slowly pacing o’er the stones,
With caution and good heed.

But finding soon a smoother road
Beneath his well-shod feet,
The snorting beast began to trot,
Which galled him in his seat.

So, ‘Fair and softly,’ John he cried,
But John he called in vain;
That trot became a gallop soon,
In spite of curb and rein.

So stooping down as needs he must
Who cannot sit upright,
He grasped the mane with both his hands,
And eke with all his might.

His horse, who never in that sort
Had handled been before,
What thing upon his back had got
Did wonder more and more.

Away went Gilpin, neck or nought;
Away went hat and wig;
He little dreamt, when he set out,
Of running such a rig.

The wind did blow, the cloak did fly,
Like streamer long and gay,
Till, loop and button failing both,
At last it flew away.

Then might all people well discern
The bottles he had slung;
A bottle swinging at each side.
As hath been said or sung.

The dogs did bark, the children screamed,
Up flew the windows all;
And every soul cried out, ‘Well done!’
As loud as he could bawl.

Away went Gilpin—who but he?
His fame soon spread around;
‘He carries weight! He rides a race!’
‘’Tis for a thousand pound!’

And still, as fast as he drew near,
’Twas wonderful to view,
How in a trice the turnpike-men
Their gates wide open threw.

And now, as he went bowing down
His reeking head full low,
The bottles twain behind his back
Were shattered at a blow.

Down ran the wine into the road,
Most piteous to be seen,
Which made his horse’s flanks to smoke
As they had basted been.

But still he seemed to carry weight,
With leathern girdle braced;
For all might see the bottle-necks
Still dangling at his waist.

Thus all through merry Islington
These gambols he did play,
Until he came unto the Wash
Of Edmonton so gay;

And there he threw the Wash about
On both sides of the way,
Just like unto a trundling mop,
Or a wild goose at play.

At Edmonton his loving wife
From the balcony spied
Her tender husband, wondering much
To see how he did ride.

‘Stop, stop, John Gilpin!—Here’s the house!’
They all at once did cry;
‘The dinner waits, and we are tired;’—
Said Gilpin—‘So am I!’

But yet his horse was not a whit
Inclined to tarry there!
For why?—his owner had a house
Full ten miles off at Ware.

So like an arrow swift he flew,
Shot by an archer strong;
So did he fly—which brings me to
The middle of my song.

Away went Gilpin, out of breath,
And sore against his will,
Till at his friend the calender’s
His horse at last stood still.

The calender, amazed to see
His neighbour in such trim,
Laid down his pipe, flew to the gate,
And thus accosted him:

‘What news? what news? your tidings tell;
Tell me you must and shall—
Say why bareheaded you are come,
Or why you come at all?’

Now Gilpin had a pleasant wit,
And loved a timely joke;
And thus unto the calender
In merry guise he spoke:

‘I came because your horse would come,
And, if I well forebode,
My hat and wig will soon be here,—
They are upon the road.’

The calender, right glad to find
His friend in merry pin,
Returned him not a single word,
But to the house went in;

Whence straight he came with hat and wig;
A wig that flowed behind,
A hat not much the worse for wear,
Each comely in its kind.

He held them up, and in his turn
Thus showed his ready wit,
‘My head is twice as big as yours,
They therefore needs must fit.

‘But let me scrape the dirt away
That hangs upon your face;
And stop and eat, for well you may
Be in a hungry case.’

Said John, ‘It is my wedding day,
And all the world would stare,
If wife should dine at Edmonton,
And I should dine at Ware.’

So turning to his horse, he said,
‘I am in haste to dine;
’Twas for your pleasure you came here,
You shall go back for mine.’

Ah, luckless speech, and bootless boast!
For which he paid full dear;
For, while he spake, a braying ass
Did sing most loud and clear;

Whereat his horse did snort, as he
Had heard a lion roar,
And galloped off with all his might,
As he had done before.

Away went Gilpin, and away
Went Gilpin’s hat and wig;
He lost them sooner than at first;
For why?—they were too big.

Now Mistress Gilpin, when she saw
Her husband posting down
Into the country far away,
She pulled out half a crown;

And thus unto the youth she said
That drove them to the Bell,
‘This shall be yours, when you bring back
My husband safe and well.’

The youth did ride, and soon did meet
John coming back again:
Whom in a trice he tried to stop,
By catching at his rein;

But not performing what he meant,
And gladly would have done,
The frighted steed he frighted more,
And made him faster run.

Away went Gilpin, and away
Went postboy at his heels,
The postboy’s horse right glad to miss
The lumbering of the wheels.

Six gentlemen upon the road,
Thus seeing Gilpin fly,
With postboy scampering in the rear,
They raised the hue and cry:

‘Stop thief! stop thief!—a highwayman!’
Not one of them was mute;
And all and each that passed that way
Did join in the pursuit.

And now the turnpike gates again
Flew open in short space;
The toll-men thinking, as before,
That Gilpin rode a race.

And so he did, and won it too,
For he got first to town;
Nor stopped till where he had got up
He did again get down.

Now let us sing, Long live the King!
And Gilpin, long live he!
And when he next doth ride abroad
May I be there to see! 3

Acknowledgement: It goes without saying that I am hugely indebted to the British Newspaper Archives for allowing the public free usage of their electronic copies of the eighteenth century press. Find out more on their website: http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

1. The Hampshire Chronicle, Saturday 17th March, 1798, p.3. Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive
2. http://www.bartleby.com/41/
3. English Poetry II: From Collins to Fitzgerald. The Harvard Classics.  1909-14. http://www.bartleby.com/41/324.html 


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