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