Culture War Commonalities: Personal Appearance in Commonwealth England

Thumbnail Image
Sedge, Andrew
Early Modern England , Personal Appearance
The swift social, political, and religious changes that encompassed England’s Civil Wars, and later the Puritan-dominated Commonwealth, during the seventeenth-century led to a surge of moralist literature, published during a period with little to no press censorship. Against a backdrop of social upheaval and failing moral reformation, commentators increasingly perceived personal appearance as a source of moral failing throughout England. While the campaign of moral reformation at the time can most strongly be attributed to Puritan influences, on the interconnected questions of hair, dress, and cosmetics, political and religious fault-lines appear relatively few. While writers waged a propaganda war against one another through the press, when it came to the topic of appearance, their proscriptions appear have been largely similar. Though significant differences did still appear on a handful of key issues, it becomes apparent that few writers, regardless of how permissive or restrictive their ideologies may otherwise have been, were able to stomach the perceived, rising tide of subversive practices in self-presentation. Though these subversive practices could be leveraged as political insults in attempts to associate opposition with illicit fashion, this was not exclusive to any one side, nor did these insults necessarily reflect their intended target’s actual outlook. Fashion was a site of significant cultural tension and appeared as one battleground in the ongoing culture war of the time, but it was one in which moralists, pamphleteers, and other writers shared a familiar fear: that the age they were living in had become licentious, permissive, and morally backwards.
External DOI