These prints mock the towering hairstyles, wigs and extravagant fashions of late 18th-century Britain. They come from the former collection of Sarah Sophia Banks (1744–1818), who assembled a huge store of newspaper cuttings, calling cards, coins and prints as a vibrant piece of social history.

Fashion and towering hairstyles

This was an age of consumerism and ostentatious display. In London and other fashionable towns, there were many new public spaces – pleasure gardens, assembly rooms and shops – where people vied to be admired by others. Fops and ‘macaronis’ wore the latest European fashions, and people lavished money on ribbons, buttons and fabric. In the 1770s, women’s hairstyles reached heights of 24–36 inches, elaborately sculpted into inverted pyramid shapes. Hair was piled over a cushion, decorated with trimmings, held together with wire and pomatum paste (often made from animal fat) and then dusted with powder.

Satirical prints

Artists seized on such fashions as easy targets for satire. Hundreds of single-sheet prints like these were displayed in print-shops, pasted in private albums or stuck on walls. They show the moral failings of vain people – especially women – who taint their natural beauty with pretence and artifice. Women’s hair is seized by monkeys, weighed down with fruit and tea-sets or burned by candelabras. The French are often stereotyped as thin and fashion-conscious, trying to outdo the British in style, as well as in commerce and war. At the same time, these prints delight in excessive clothes and colours, offering light entertainment alongside social critique.

Satirical writers

18th-century authors such as Oliver Goldsmith and Frances Burney satirised the fashionable urban elite, and those who imitated them. Burney herself fell prey to the extremes of fashion when she worked as Queen Charlotte’s Keeper of the Robes. In her diary of August 1786, she says that she felt obliged to order ‘a hairdresser from Oxford at six o’clock in the morning’, who worked on her hair for a ‘full two hours’.

Which prints are shown here?

  1. ‘The French man in London’ (1772, after Elias Martin)
  2. Steel buttons’ (1777)
  3. ‘The English lady at Paris’ (1771, after Samuel Hieronymus Grimm)
  4. ‘The Englishman in Paris’ (1770, after John Collet)
  5. ‘Grown gentlemen taught to dance’ (1768, after John Collet)
  6. ‘Grown ladies taught to dance’ (1768, after John Collet)
  7. ‘A beau 1700’ (printed in 1791)
  8. ‘A beau 1791’ (attached to the previous print of 1791; a hole is cut in the upper print and the same face serves for both)
  9. ‘Out of fashion / In fashion’ (1772)
  10. ‘A new fashion'd head dress for young misses of three score and ten’ (1777)
  11. ‘Sleight of hand by a monkey, or the lady’s head unloaded’ (1776)
  12. ‘Can you forbear laughing’ (1776)
  13. ‘A hint to the ladies to take care of their heads’ (1776)
  14. ‘A speedy and effectual preparation for the next world’ (1777)
  15. ‘The farmer’s daughter’s return from London’ (1777)
  16. ‘The French lady in London’ (1771, after Samuel Hieronymus Grimm) 
  17. ‘The lady's maid, or toilet head-dress’ (1776)
  18. ‘The village barber’ (1778)
  19. ‘This is something new’ (1777)
  20. ‘Fruit stall’ (1777)
  21. ‘The flower garden’ (1777)
  22. ‘The ladies contrivance or the capital conceit’ (1777)
  23. ‘The vis-a-vis bisected, or the ladies coop’ (1776)
  24. ‘Chloe's cushion or the cork rump’ (1777)
  25. ‘Ridiculous taste or the ladies' absurdity’ (1771)
  26. ‘The preposterous head dress, or the featherd lady’ (1776)
  27. ‘Les dames Anglaises après-diné: English ladies take tea after dinner’ (Paris, 1814)

All of these prints, except the last, were printed in London.