Vitalist Statues and the Belly Pad of 1793

Amelia Rauser


In the spring of 1793, a strange fad swept London: women began to wear belly pads under their dresses. Although no pads are known to survive today, a contemporary described one as “a linen bag, about the size and shape of a small pillow case… left open at one end, which either ties or buttons for stuffing.”[1] A satirical engraving by Isaac Cruikshank published on May 1, The Frailties of Fashion (Fig. 1), shows pads in use on a group of ladies promenading—although some wear the fashion more elegantly than others. Indeed, the woman in white in the center of the print wears it the best: her tall, elegant figure is not disfigured by a protuberance but rather swells gracefully at the breasts and belly, while her white muslin gown drapes across her thighs and flutters above her flat slippers. Beyond her chic companion, the other women depicted create a less fortunate effect: they wear old-fashioned open robes with petticoats and layers of bodices, bonnets, and aprons, and yet they have stuck a pad under these more conservative garments, hiking up their skirts in front and creating a profile that the printmaker makes us understand is ridiculous.

Fig. 1. Isaac Cruikshank, Frailties of Fashion, 1793. Hand-colored etching, 299 x 518 mm. British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Between late February 1793 and the summer of 1794, numerous squibs, ballads, and satires appeared in the London press lampooning the fashion for a padded belly. In May 1793, a new play, “The PAD; a Farce,” opened at the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, and ran throughout the summer to large audiences.[2] Commentators delighted in the general spectacle, chortling over a fashion that caused women to appear pregnant. But was it women’s intention to imitate pregnancy in adopting the fashion? If so, why would women embrace such a style? And if not, what was their aim, and how and why did it go wrong, as Cruikshank’s print suggests? In this essay, I will argue that the pad fad was not actually meant to imitate pregnancy, but rather was an initial, clumsy attempt to wear the artistic attire of radical neoclassicism as street dress. In fact, I will show that the short-lived pad fad was an innovative, vitalist intervention in the cultural fascination with the permeable boundary between art and life, animate and inanimate, albeit one that stumbled over how to translate a particular effect of contour and outline, then current in printed representations, into a three-dimensional body.


The Pad Fad of 1793

Chroniclers and satirists of the pad fad in both word and image isolated the pad from the overall ensemble, concentrated on the strange new silhouette it created, and mused on its implications. Some critiques adopted a venerable argument frequently lodged against new fashions: that such silliness was merely the meaningless whim of fickle female taste. William Dent’s satire, Female Whimsicalities (Fig. 2), published in May 1793, at first seems to take this line, as “Prominence 1785,” with the cork rump and padded pigeon breast, contrasts with “Prominence 1793,” and its swelling, padded belly. Both of these excrescences compare with “Virgin Shape” at the rear, whose dress is cinched below the breasts and then falls unimpeded to the ground. This argument was echoed in doggerel, like the Epistle from Mrs Bustle to Mrs. Pad:

You pride yourself much my dear BETTY PAD,
And thus say to me, now forsaken and sad:
‘That you’re all the fashion, and I in the dumps,
Cause ladies no longer put on their FALSE RUMPS.’
The fact I allow—but pray Betty, mind,
You’re only BEFORE, that which I was BEHIND;
A horse-hair protuberance made up by folly,
Now wore from my Lady, to mopsqueezing Molly;
A projection much better, behind than before,
Because it make virgins now look like a —–.[3]

Yet, both the poem and the print betray a deeper anxiety about the pad. This style is not merely the turn of the wheel of fashion, “a horse-hair protuberance made up by folly.” Rather, Dent’s “Virgin Shape” and the morally charged ending of the doggerel both suggest that the unpadded woman represents not only undistorted nature, but sexual innocence as well.

Fig. 2. William Dent, Female Whimsicalities, 1793. Hand-colored etching, 244 x 351 mm. British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Fig. 3. James Gillray, Miss, I have a monstrous Crow to Pluck with You!, 1793. Hand-colored etching, 240 x 295 mm. British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Commentators’ central concern was that in seeming to simulate pregnancy, the pad signaled its wearer’s sexual knowledge and experience, and concealed the visible results of illicit dalliances. One poem in the Sporting Magazine took the form of a man replying to a young lady who had asked him to send her a pad from town in order to be fashionably up to date: “Good Lord! if you have stood in need/ Of any requisites to breed,/ But hint it, and from any distance/ I’ll come to lend you my assistance.”[4] In James Gillray’s Miss, I have a monstrous crow to pluck with you! (Fig. 3), a girl in a white round gown and a pad is lectured by her mother or mistress, who wears a more outmoded dress with a stomacher and an apron. The older woman thinks the girl has made what was known in the period as a “faux-pas”—that is, become pregnant out of wedlock. In fact, the pad itself was sometimes known as a “faux-pas,” as noted in the London paper the True Briton: “The pad, alias the faux-pas, is said to have originated with some young Ladies of Fashion. Whatever their age might be, their ideas were perfectly matured. Those who advertise a snug retreat for Ladies in a certain situation will be ruined by the pads; for a Lady who has accidentally committed a faux-pas, has only provided herself with a natural pad.”[5]

Indeed, a moral panic over the pad seems to have ruled the commentary of the day, as writers fantasized about how the pad might hide the sins of wayward wives and daughters. A writer in the London Sun recounted in April:

One day… standing in a shop of one of my acquaintance, a genteel young lady came in, and asked for a Pad. The man asked her what size: She replied, about Six Months… That any young lady can have the face to ask for such a thing in a public shop, is shocking indeed.

Question—What are we to expect from it?

Answer—That, as they are rather dear, young ladies will say, ‘as they can get an original for nothing, there is no reason to give money for a false one.’[6]

Such a “pad warehouse” is represented in the anonymous print Cestina Warehouse; or Belly-Piece Shop, published on April 16, 1793 (Fig. 4). It portrays French-accented shopkeepers (as represented by the text below) who help fit eager customers with pads labeled for their different sizes: two months, six months, nine months—even “twins.”[7]

Fig. 4. Anon., Cestina Warehouse, or Belly-Piece Shop, 1793. Hand-colored etching, 351 x 465 mm. British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum.

A few artists and writers eschewed a censorious tone and instead ironically celebrated the sexual freedom the pad provided for women. One poet, signed “A Friend to the Sex,” noted how virgins, widows, and wives whose husbands are far away are now free to dally without fear of public censure:

The Pads, the Pads, so artfully protect ‘em…
As her waist swells, the Pad is smaller shewn,
And as months glide, it more becomes her own,
Till (O! what fame and glory do await her)
What first was fashion soon is simple Nature.[8]

In moral commentaries of the time, “nature” was often a rhetorical foil to the artifice of fashion. But here, the artifice of the pad mimics and then gives way to nature as the woman’s secret pregnancy ripens over time. Indeed, perhaps the pad was such a juicy target for satire because it used artifice to mime a shape, the pregnant belly, that the culture otherwise deemed the most essentially natural.

Few scholars have noticed the pad fad.[9] Historian Dror Wahrman has briefly analyzed the phenomenon, linking it to growing gender essentialism in the 1790s and positing that the rise of a Rousseauian ideal of maternity may have inspired women to fake being a natural mother.[10] Yet not a single contemporary commentary lauds padded women as maternal ideals. In contemporary discussions, maternity is just the scandalous byproduct of the pad, not its reason for being, and critics are alternately worried and excited by the new bodily freedom the pad provided women.[11] Indeed, a close reading of eighteenth-century commentary and an understanding of the larger aesthetic context reveals that the early adopters of the pad were not, in fact, trying to look pregnant. Rather, they were trying to look like statues.


The Statuesque Contour

The first clue to this original intention comes from the politician Sir Gilbert Elliot, whose letters to his wife describe the fashionable London scene. On April 25, 1793, he wrote:

I was, last night, at a ball… and I stayed just long enough to see some of the dancing generation. There were one or two instances of the modern fashion of dress for young ladies, by which they are made to appear five or six months gone with child. Perhaps you do not believe this fashion, but it is quite literally true. The original idea seems to have been an imitation of the drapery of statues and pictures, which fastens the dress immediately below the bosom, and leaves no waist. The consequence of which is a slight swell of the figure, as you may see in pictures; but this being attempted by artificial means of pads placed on the stomach is an exact representation of the state of pregnancy. The dress is accompanied by a complete display of the bosom—which is uncovered, and supported and stuck out by the sash immediately below it.

I am giving you a faithful description of Lady C— C— as she was at the ball last night. She is the most exaggerated in this fashion, but it is followed in considerable degree by many others.[12]

Elliot states plainly that “the original idea” behind this new style was “the imitation of the drapery of statues and pictures.” His “faithful description” of the new fashion includes not only the pad, used to accentuate the swell of the stomach seen in classical statues and pictures, but also a high waist (belted just under the breasts) and a completely uncovered bosom. Perhaps the intended effect was something like that created by Joseph Nollekens’ 1775 sculpture Minerva, whose rounded belly is accentuated by the clinging of her carved draperies beneath a high waist (Fig. 5). A satire by Cruikshank called The Graces of 1794 features a figure with a strikingly similar draped belly coupled with exposed breasts (Fig. 6).

LEFT: Fig. 5. Joseph Nollekens, Minerva, 1775. Marble, 144 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.
RIGHT: Fig. 6. Isaac Cruikshank, The Graces of 1794, 1794 (detail). Hand-colored etching, 379 x 218 mm. British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Elliot’s “Lady C—C—” is Lady Charlotte Campbell, a renowned beauty who had inspired artists as a teenager in Naples with her “natural movement” and clinging dress.[13] Returning to England in 1791 after the death of her mother, she almost immediately entered the public scene upon turning eighteen, and became a leader of fashion in London. In fact, it is Lady Charlotte who is portrayed as the elegant woman in white at the center of the Frailties of Fashion print discussed above (Fig. 1), demonstrating to her promenading imitators the chic way to wear the pad. Her fashionable innovations emerge directly from the Neapolitan experience of “living” classicism, most notably the example of Emma Hart’s “attitudes” and the performance costumes she witnessed there.[14] Yet as a high-born aristocrat, Charlotte Campbell brought this fashion from the artistic periphery to the center of London society—the elite “dancing generation” noted by Elliot above.

Her fashionable companion in the 1793 print is probably intended to be Lady Abercorn. Formerly Cecil Hamilton, she was the poor relation (and likely mistress) of the Marquis of Abercorn before the death of his first wife, and was newly married to him in 1792. She was part of the fashionable circle that propagated the pad fad. Indeed, a few weeks after the ball mentioned above, Elliott recounted to his wife:

Lady Abercorn had a ball the other night at which there were twelve ladies in the garb of statues—that is to say, with the girdle close up to their breast and the drapery falling, or intended to fall, statue-fashion below. They were not uncovered, but by all accounts it produced almost all the effect of nakedness. George Ellis asked Mrs. Poole, who was one of them, whether she was really as naked as she appeared to be, and she said she really was very near.[15]

What had been only “one or two instances” of padded dress in the first ball was now an organized phalanx of “twelve ladies in the garb of statues”—a garb that paradoxically gave the appearance of nakedness.

The connection between the belly pad and antique statuary was also obliquely made by James Gillray in a contemporary satire of the fad. A Vestal of 93, Trying on the Cestus of Venus shows a vain older woman strapping on a pad (Fig. 7). Like the women in the pad warehouse, this lady wears her conservative undergarments—stays, shift, pocket—but ties a pad on over the top, presumably with a traditional open robe and petticoat to go over that. Thus, her attempt to be fashionable is both unnatural and clueless. Her pretentions are satirized by the classical references in the print: the “vestal” ties on the “cestus of Venus,” the enchanted sash which makes all men desirous, and which, when borrowed by Juno, emblematizes wedded love. As a flaming altar of Venus lies overturned, winged cherubs help her dress in this composition supposedly “copied from an ancient basso-relievo lately found upon some fragments of antiquity.”

Fig. 7. James Gillray, A Vestal of 93, Trying on the Cestus of Venus, 1793. Hand-colored etching, 310 x 377 mm. British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum.

On one level Gillray’s image represents simply one more way to ridicule the pad as being against nature: even elderly women long past fertility were wearing it. But the artist also gives us a sense of the fad’s larger aesthetic context. To claim that this print is copied from an ancient bas-relief is not only to lampoon the sitter’s pretentions to artistic beauty, but also to place the fashionable fad within the visual culture of neoclassicism. Cosmopolitan centers like London were teeming with reproductive engravings and new works on antique themes in the 1790s, and the pad wearers were participants within a broader neoclassical culture of copy, reproduction, homage, and exchange.[16] Indeed, Gillray’s print itself compositionally and thematically resembles the much-reproduced Seller of Cupids, a wall painting unearthed in the excavations at Stabiae and copied in painting and low relief by Joseph-Marie Vien, Josiah Wedgwood, and many others across Europe, appearing on objects ranging from wallpaper to snuff boxes to crystal plaques (Fig. 8). Pad-wearing women, Gillray suggests here, saw themselves—ludicrously—as living works of classical art.

Fig. 8. Anon., Rock crystal plaque engraved with a copy of the fresco of the Cupid Seller; gold enameled mount. Made in Vienna or Rome, c. 1800-1830. 12 cm x 15.5 cm. British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum.

In fact, “statue-ness” in neoclassicism was visualized primarily through two-dimensional representations such as prints, drawings, and paintings, as well as low-relief three-dimensional objects like chimneypieces, stucco work, Wedgwood pots, and plaques. Elite European women and men interacted intimately with these art objects in the material culture of their daily lives. In one sense, of course, classical sculpture was everywhere in eighteenth-century aesthetics, serving as the basis for all aesthetic experience as theorized in treatises by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and leading in prestige among scholars, collectors, and aesthetes.[17] Yet life-size classical sculptures were not exactly thick on the ground in London, Paris, or Weimar during the late eighteenth century. Some artists and Grand Tourists saw them in Rome and Naples; a few private and royal collections of ancient sculpture allowed visitors; and art academies and private collectors amassed groups of life-size casts. But most literate aesthetes across Europe participated in neoclassicism via flat or low-relief representations. Wall paintings and vase paintings, reproduced in deluxe books of engravings or inexpensive pirated knock-offs, popularly reinscribed on marquetry pianos or painted on dining chairs—these were the sources par excellence for neoclassical visual culture, with items like low-relief Wedgwood vases and plaster chimneypieces the most common sculptural expressions of neoclassicism (Fig. 9).[18] These decorative items translated the swell and taper of a rounded belly and defined hips and thighs, typical of the eighteenth-century ideal of the classical sculptural body, into the crisp contours of a two-dimensional silhouette.

Fig. 9. Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, modeled by John Flaxman, Jasperware vase and cover with relief of “The Dancing Hours,” 1800-1830. 20.3 cm high. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This, I argue, explains the innovation of the belly pad as well as its failure as a statuesque fashion. The pad fad entailed a misapplication of the strong contour appropriate to neoclassical drawing or relief—that is, two-dimensional media—to the three-dimensional body. It focused on outline, just as other innovative neoclassicists such as John Flaxman were then doing, without taking into account the changing visual effects created by a flesh-and-blood woman’s roundness and mobility.[19] On the body, such a shape could be created by the use of a pad, a tool with which fashionable women were quite familiar after decades of wearing hip pads and bum rolls. But in life it clearly did not have the desired effect, instead provoking ridicule for its ungainly artifice and mistaken signification. Something went awry in the translation from rock (marble sculpture) to paper (reproductive engraving) to scissors (fashionable dress): the belly pad created an exaggerated contour that considered only the two-dimensional representation of the classical sculptural body, not the three-dimensional one. Within months women settled instead on another approach to creating the same desirable silhouette, one that the most fashionable innovators had coupled with the pad from the beginning: the high waist.

By late 1795, high or “short” waists had become so common that the long waists still worn by foreigners seemed ugly and deformed. “The long shapes of the foreign figurante, have the appearance of absolute deformity, when compared with the Grecian zone, now adopted by our lovely countrywomen,” The Oracle remarked.[20] When combined with a limp, clinging fabric and an absence of restraining undergarments, a high-waisted gown created the sculptural contour of a rounded belly and thighs amply enough, and successfully connoted the intended “Grecian” and statuesque significations.[21] Belly pads disappeared from the cultural conversation by mid-1794, supplanted by a clinging, high-waisted silhouette that would go on to dominate women’s fashionable dress for more than a decade (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10. Muslin dress embroidered with white thread, c. 1800. Textile made in Bengal, dress made in England. Item 444-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Vitalist Bacchantes

If we now see more clearly why the belly pad failed and the high waist succeeded as methods for fashionable women of the 1790s to construe themselves as living statues, we still have not yet addressed the larger question: why? What, exactly, does it mean to enact or embody a work of art, and why might women have wanted to do so? What impelled the fascination with bringing artwork to life—or, alternatively, with stilling and marmorealizing bodies into sculptures? Vitalist aesthetics, which rooted the intellectual apprehension of beauty in physical sensation and posited the entire sensate body as the engine of cognition, provided both inspiration and justification for neoclassical dress.[22]

In fact, the idea of the living statue had tremendous cultural weight and explanatory capacity in European eighteenth-century thought. [23] “What is the difference between a man and a statue?,” D’Alembert asked Denis Diderot in his imagined dialogue of 1769. “Not much,” Diderot replied. “Flesh can be made from marble, and marble from flesh.”[24] For the philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, the “statue-man” figured as a productive thought experiment—a statue as a Lockean blank slate, without senses and thus without ideas. Gradually endowing his inanimate marble creature with one sense at a time, Condillac watched as the statue came alive, transmuting sensation into cognition and working out the ontological implications of empiricist science.[25] This same imagined enlivening was central to aesthetic theory of the period: “A statue must live,” Herder argued, “its flesh must revive: its face and mien must speak. We must believe we can touch it and feel that it warms itself under our hands.”[26] Aesthetic experience, like all knowledge, was understood as embodied, fed by the senses. Yet in the long history of living statues in the Western tradition, as George L. Hersey has noted, the statues men experienced as enlivening were almost always female figures.[27] And because desire was theorized as the core of aesthetic experience, the Pygmalion myth of the animated love object, a parable of vitalist aesthetics, structured the way the eighteenth century experimented with the concept of the living statue.

The powerful image of the living statue was based in a philosophical sensationism that shaped diverse thinkers across the spectrum of eighteenth-century thought, British and continental, including theorists of the body, health, and the nature of life itself.[28] The body was posited as invested throughout with vitalist life force, with its contour, the skin, as the key interface between self and world. Far from being a source of moral depravity, the body’s sensations were the very stuff of moral, intellectual, and physical knowledge.[29] Indeed, it was not only statues that could be placed on a potential continuum between animate and inanimate, but humans as well. As Condillac noted, not all people experience sensations with the same vividness or reflect on them with the same precision, and thus, “some live so much more than others do”—some of us are stonier than others. [30] Those who were the most attuned to their sensations, then, were not only the most alive, but also possessed the greatest capacity for learning and knowledge.

Women (and artists) were perceived to be among the least stony, as a result of their longtime association with emotionalism, sensibility, and embodiment. This idea was visually expressed in a British mezzotint after a painting by George Romney called Sensibility, which featured the mimosa, also called the sensitive plant (Fig. 11).[31] The mimosa pudica, a creeping herb native to Central and South America, does, in fact, shrink back when touched, temporarily folding up to defend itself, and its association with sensibility was not only gendered female. In a poem by Anna Seward published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1783, the painter Joseph Wright of Derby was likened to a “coy Mimosa,” a gesture to his artistic sensibility.[32] Romney’s depiction was inspired by a scene in a long poem by his friend, William Hayley, called The Triumphs of Temper.[33] In the image, the mimosa’s sensitivity is mirrored by the beautiful and sensitive woman, not-so-coincidentally embodied by Emma Hart, Romney’s favorite model at the time. Hart herself loved Hayley’s book and its main character, tender Serena, and credited it with helping her land her husband. As she wrote to Romney soon after her marriage to Sir William Hamilton in 1791: “Tell Hayley I am always reading his Triumphs of Temper; it was that that made me Lady H, for God knows, I had enough for five years to try my temper, and I am afraid if it had not been for the good example Serena taught me, my girdle would have burst.”[34] Girdle-bursting emotion is harnessed by the woman of sensibility, transmuted into a vitalist communion with all living things. With one hand on her feeling heart, Romney’s Emma/Serena reaches out the other hand nearly to touch the tip of the mimosa, as the plant in turn arcs toward her. In another instant, one imagines, a spark of vital electricity will jump across the gap, and both woman and plant will sensitively recoil from the jolt. Vitalist life force, extolled by both popular and philosophical theorists and aesthetes of sensibility, surged through and animated all living things—and might even be imagined to enliven inanimate ones.

Fig. 11. George Romney, engraved by Richard Earlom, Sensibility, 1789. Colored stipple engraving, 375 x 286 mm. British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum.

We have perhaps not sufficiently considered the extent to which the sensationist aesthetics of the late eighteenth century could be applied by women to the social presentation of their own bodies. Harnessing their exquisite sensitivity, women cloaked the vitalist membrane of their skin in diaphanous white, thematizing the neoclassical contour and reenacting for their beholders the exciting enlivening that was the kernel of all aesthetic experience and, indeed, the foundation of all knowledge. Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby has rightly noted women’s neoclassical dress as a bid to reclaim public visibility in late 1790s Paris, but, as the belly pad episode demonstrates, this gesture predated the French Revolution and occurred in multiple centers across Europe. Though it was ridiculed by some observers as licentious or silly, and though it worried others for the ways it delegitimized classical theory, women’s self-construal as living statues was powerful and successful enough to undergird a dramatic and long-lasting change in the way women presented their bodies.[35]

The idea of the living statue was attractive to women during the 1790s, then, not only because it encapsulated vanguard philosophical, artistic, and scientific understandings, but also because it valorized qualities they were already said to have: sensibility, closeness to nature, and a privileging of body over mind. It is easy to imagine our padded women as so many vitalist Galateas, sparked to life by the desire of their beholders and yet shielded from accusations of licentiousness by their virtuous cultivation of haptic and embodied sensibility. As Susan L. Siegfried has argued about the work of the painter Denise Villers, yoking fashion to classical art enabled women to intervene creatively via the prestigious social capital of gesture and reference.[36] Embodying a living statue offered women emancipatory possibilities that were anxiously alluded to in the licentious doggerel aimed at the padded women of 1793. The relative nudity of neoclassical dress increased bodily freedom and removed impediments to sensation, while the whiteness of its textile construed the body as warming marble, emphasizing its capacity for haptic learning. The transparent lightness of muslin and the swell of body (and pad) beneath it drew attention to the body’s contour, highlighting the skin as the sensitive interface between self and world, as well as the engine of cognition. Finally the impersonation of ancient sculpture allowed women to identify their bodies and their selves with their era’s most prestigious and significant cultural form.

Neoclassicism is often characterized as a cold and rational art, expressive of masculine publicness and associated with presidential portraits and dreary bank buildings. Yet the radical neoclassicism of the 1790s was hot and emotional, bacchantic rather than Apollonian, and rooted in a vitalist conception of sensation as the basis for all understanding. At this crucial flexion point in modernity, in conjunction with an aesthetic that later became the house style of religious disenchantment and positivism, the fashion for living statues pointed instead to a vitalist communion between body and mind, art and life, desire and thought, antiquity and modernity, marble and flesh. Animism was actually there at the formation of Enlightenment modernity—a communal, boundary-crossing, ecstatic path not taken, in which aesthetic experience was not the ghettoized place where mere pleasure happened but a central way of knowing the world.[37] Drawing on the neoclassical exemplars circulating all around them on paper and in low relief, women in London at first seemed to err in exaggerating the sculptural contour with a misplaced belly pad. Yet the interest in styling oneself as a living statue endured, and went on to shape women’s aesthetic self-conception for a fraught and fruitful decade.

Amelia Rauser is Professor of Art History at Franklin & Marshall College, PA


Acknowledgements: Earlier versions of parts of this paper were presented at Yale University, the University of York (UK), the College Art Association annual meeting in 2015, and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies meeting in 2013. I’m grateful for valuable feedback from participants at those events, as well as for the insightful comments from the editors and the anonymous reviewers for this journal, all of which have improved this essay.

[1] Diary or Woodfall’s Register (London), April 20, 1793, issue 1274. This is part of a rather satirical description of the pad phenomenon and thus could be apocryphal, but the level of detail persuades me that it is an account written by a bemused observer of a novel contemporary phenomenon. The writer goes on to recount that, to avoid the embarrassment of having a pad fall off, the wearer can purchase “a pair of elastic straps, such as are worn by every fine Gentleman, to prevent similar misfortunes with his SMALL CLOTHES; these cross the shoulders and button to the band of the petticoat, so as to prevent the possibility of its coming to the ground without the wearer.” It is possible a surviving belly pad might have been mistaken for half a pannier or a hip pad missing its twin and catalogued by a museum erroneously. In April 1793, while speaking an epilogue to the play “How to Grow Rich,” Mr. Lewis produced a pad onstage as a prop to his satire on the follies of the day (Sun [London], April 19, 1793).

[2] As noted in the Monthly Review or Literary Journal (London), Monthly Catalogue for July 1793, 348.

[3] Times (London), May 4, 1793.

[4] Sporting Magazine (London), 1793, 259. The poet also likens the young lady to Pygmalion, since she has such youth and loveliness that she can “give to a statue animation.”

[5] True Briton (London), April 17, 1793.

[6] Sun (London), April 3, 1793.

[7] While it is unlikely such “pad warehouses” existed and no ads for them have been located in London newspaper classified sections, one contemporary notes that pads were sold by an unnamed “Giant Man Milliner of Cockspur-Street.” See Diary or Woodfall’s Register (London), April 20, 1793, issue 1274.

[8] Gazetter and New Daily Advertiser (London), July 26, 1793.

[9] For example, it does not surface in the important works on the history of eighteenth-century dress by Aileen Ribeiro, nor in Anne Hollander’s crucial Sex and Suits: The Making of Modern Dress (New York: Kodansha Globe, 1995), which first made the argument that women and men were dressing to resemble sculptures in the late eighteenth century. C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington briefly mention the episode in The History of Underclothes (New York: Dover, 1992), 111.

[10] “…It is at least suggestive to consider the pad as a perhaps extreme indication—even a parody—of the extent to which maternity, albeit fabricated, acquired an increased weight in defining womanhood at this juncture, an essential foundation of feminine identity which could therefore be shared by all women.” Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 68-69.

[11] While the ideal of the natural Rousseauian mother does collide with and influence the fashion for neoclassical dress later in the 1790s, it was not part of the cultural resonance for the pad fad of 1793, neither for the women who wore it nor for those who saw and wrote about them.

[12] The Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot, First Earl of Minto, 1751-1806 (London, 1874), vol. 2, 133.

[13] For a fuller account of Lady Charlotte Campbell’s encounter with artists and aesthetes in Naples and of the influence of the bacchantic neoclassicism of that city on the adoption of neoclassical dress, see Amelia Rauser, “Living Statues and Neoclassical Dress in Late Eighteenth-Century Naples,” Art History 38:2 (2015), 462-487.

[14] Hart herself had just been in Britain the previous summer, as Hamilton secured permission from the king to marry her. While in the country she performed the attitudes several times and drew admiring responses from major fashionable figures, including the Duchess of Devonshire. These appearances may have paved the way for Lady Charlotte Campbell’s radical fashionable innovation in the following spring of 1793 by giving more British observers a taste of the living classicism experienced by Grand Tourists.

[15] The Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot, vol. 2, 142-3. Letter of May 11, 1793.

[16] On the visual culture of neoclassicism in Britain see Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981); and Viccy Coltman, Fabricating the Antique: Neoclassicism in Britain, 1760-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

[17] Haptic aesthetics and neoclassical sculpture theory have been sensitively explored in several recent studies. See Jacqueline Lichtenstein, La tache aveugle: essai sur les relations de la peinture et de la sculpture à l’âge moderne (Paris: Gallimard, 2003); Sarah R. Cohen, “Chardin’s Fur: Painting, Materialism, and the Question of Animal Soul,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 38:1 (2004), 39-61; Alex Potts, The Sculptural Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000); Sarah Betzer, “Ingres’s Shadows,” Art Bulletin 95:1 (2013), 78-101; Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, “Pompadour’s Touch: Difference in Representation,” Representations 73:1 (2001), 54-99; and Victor Stoichita, The Pygmalion Effect: From Ovid to Hitchcock, trans. Alison Anderson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[18] Besides the example of the Cupid Seller mentioned above, one could trace the influence of the so-called Herculaneum Dancers, actually fragments of wall paintings unearthed in Pompeii, which were reproduced in deluxe (and then cheap) pirated illustrations and translated into decorative motifs for furniture, Wedgwood plaques, and mantelpiece stuccoes. See Rauser, “Living Statues,” 466-470, and Nancy H. Ramage, “Flying Maenads and Cupids: Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Eighteenth-Century Decorative Arts,” in Carol C. Mattusch, ed., Rediscovering the Ancient World on the Bay of Naples (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2013), 161-176.

[19] There is much more to say about the significance of contour and outline in the radical neoclassicism of the early- and mid-1790s, but space constraints preclude doing so here. Suffice it to say that the belly pad fad can be seen as an aesthetic exploration of outline and contour in dialogue with the outline drawings of Flaxman, the antiquarian prints of Tommaso Piroli, and the vogue for silhouette-taking, among other contemporary cultural expressions. Conceptually, there is also a connection to sensationist philosophy’s understanding of skin as a vital interface between self and world, as will be discussed further below.

[20] The Oracle (London), December 24, 1795.

[21] As Susan L. Siegfried has recently noted, women did often sew a small pad into the rear of their high-waisted neoclassical dresses in order to encourage the trains to trail artfully at the rear; see “The Visual Culture of Fashion and the Classical Ideal in Post-Revolutionary France,” Art Bulletin 97:1 (2015), 87. But the rounded belly in front was amply disclosed by the unpadded thin fabric draping from a high waist.

[22] Vitalism is an umbrella term with evolving meaning. In this essay I do not refer to the nineteenth-century vitalism that arose in the wake of Charles Darwin, associated with Henri Bergson and the aesthetics of Friedrich Nietzsche. Rather, this vitalism emerged in reaction to the mechanistic empiricism of René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and others, and was a diverse and disunified movement during the eighteenth century. Many cultural historians have recently explored the ways this philosophical and medical history intersects with art and literature; see Catherine Packham, Eighteenth-Century Vitalism: Bodies, Culture, Politics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Charles T. Wolfe and Ofer Gal, eds., The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge: Embodied Empiricism in Early Modern Science (Dordrecht: Springer Verlag, 2010); Anne C. Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); and Peter Hanns Reill, “Death, Dying, and Resurrection in late Eighteenth-Century Science and Culture,” in Wissenschaft als kulterelle Praxis, 1750-1900, ed. Hans Erich Bödeker, Peter Hanns Reill, and Jürgen Schlumbohm (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999). The powerful emotionalism and theatricality of aesthetic experience, related to both sensibility and vitalism, is the focus of David Marshall’s The Frame of Art: Fictions of Aesthetic Experience, 1750-1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

[23] Often the Pygmalion myth was invoked to explore the concept of the living statue in the eighteenth century; see J. L. Carr, “Pygmalion and the Philosophes: The Animated Statue in Eighteenth-Century France,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 23:3/4 (1960), 239-255; and Oskar Bätschmann, “Pygmalion als Betrachter: Die Rezeption von Plastik und Malerei in der zweiten Hälfte des 18. Jahnhunderts,” in Der Betrachter ist im Bild: Kunstwissenschaft und Rezeptionästhetik, ed. Wolfgang Kemp (Cologne: DuMont, 1992). For a theoretical account linking the Pygmalion story to animation and the simulacrum, see Stoichita, The Pygmalion Effect. George L. Hersey’s Falling In Love with Statues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) situates the West’s long fascination with Pygmalion and the living statue in the classical inheritance rooted in ancient sculptural practices of Cyprus and Sicily. Of course, homoerotic desire for male figural sculpture also played a key role in neoclassical aesthetics (and in art history itself), as readers of Winckelmann have long understood; see Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994). Race is also a factor. In “Visceral Culture: Blushing and the Legibility of Whiteness in Eighteenth-Century British Portraiture,” Art History 27:4 (2007), 563-592, Angela Rosenthal notes the significance of the Pygmalion myth in the eighteenth century as a racializing discourse central to the creation of the idea of the “fair sex.”

[24] For Diderot, this is not a Pygmalion-like transformation, but a reciprocity that happens over time as people eat plants containing traces of crushed stone and eventually return themselves to the dust of the earth. Denis Diderot, “Conversation Between d’Alembert and Diderot,” in D’Alembert’s Dream, trans. Francis Birrell (New York: Capricorn Books, 1969), 23.

[25] Étienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, “Treatise on the Sensations” (1754), in Philosophical Writings of Etienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, trans. Franklin Philip (London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1982), 155-339.

[26] Johann Gottfried Herder, “Studien und Entwürfe zur Plastik: I. Von der Bildauerkunst furs Gefühl [1769],” in Sämmtliche Werke (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1892), vol. 8, 88. Translation mine.

[27] Hersey, Falling In Love with Statues, 4.

[28] Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology, 44. Joan B. Landes notes that medicine was a kind of master discourse in the eighteenth century, similar to theology in the Middle Ages; see “Wax Fibers, Wax Bodies, and Moving Figures: Artifice and Nature in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy,” in Ephemeral Bodies, ed. Roberta Panzanelli (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2008). See also Elizabeth A. Williams, A Cultural History of Medical Vitalism in Enlightenment Montpellier (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Press, 2003) and John C. O’Neal, The Authority of Experience: Sensationist Theory in the French Enlightenment (University Park: Penn State Press, 1996).

[29] The replacement of the mechanistic with the sensationist model of perception and cognition lent itself to political, as well as aesthetic, analogies. Montpellier physician Théophile Bordeu described it as a “federated” rather than “monarchic” system of intellectual centers. See Serge Moravia, “From Homme Machine to Homme Sensible: Changing Eighteenth-Century Models of Man’s Image,” Journal of the History of Ideas 39:1 (1978), 59.

[30] Condillac, Philosophical Writings, 338.

[31] For discussions of this artwork in the context of Emma Hamilton’s relationship with Romney and in dialogue with other portraits of her, see Ulrike Ittershagen, Lady Hamiltons Attitüden (Mainz: Zabern, 1999), and Amber Ludwig, Becoming Emma Hamilton: Portraiture and Self-Fashioning in Late Enlightenment Europe (PhD dissertation, Boston University, 2012). For the print in particular, see David Alexander, “A Reluctant Communicator: George Romney and the Print Market,” in Alex Kidson, ed., Those Delightful Regions of the Imagination: Essays on George Romney (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 251-288.

[32] See John Barrell, “’The Eye of Delicacy:’ Joseph Wright of Derby Reviewed,” in Living with the Royal Academy: Artistic Ideals and Experiences in England, 1768-1848, ed. Sarah Monks, John Barrell, and Mark Hallett (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Press, 2013), 98. The plant is also popularly known as the “shame plant” or the “touch me not.” It was first described by Carl Linneaus in his Species Plantarum in 1753. See the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, (accessed February 6, 2017).

[33] “The leaves, as conscious of their queen’s command,/ Successive fall at her approaching hand;/Her tender breast with pity seems to pant,/And shrinks at every shrinking of the plant.” William Hayley, The Triumphs of Temper; A Poem in Six Cantos, 10th ed. (London: T. Cadell, 1799), Canto V, 113.

[34] Letter from Emma Hamilton to George Romney, Caserta, December 20, 1791. In Alfred Morrison, ed., The Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents, second series, Hamilton and Nelson Papers (Privately printed, 1893), vol. 1, 159.

[35] See Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, “Nudity à la grecque in 1799,” Art Bulletin 80:2 (1998), 311-335. Grigsby insightfully evidences the fear that women’s neoclassical dress would strip the classical idiom of its legitimacy and meaning in the late 1790s, but there is already evidence for this panic earlier in the decade and in other locales. For example, both Goethe and Herder expressed dismay when they first saw Emma Hart’s “attitude” performances in Naples in the late 1780s. For a fuller discussion of this episode, see Rauser, “Living Statues,” 477-479.

[36] Siegfried, “Fashion and the Classical Ideal,” 82-84. Siegfried notes that in art, this was a short-lived phenomenon enabled by the disruption of hierarchies provided by the French Revolution and swiftly repressed (94).

[37] For a striking analysis of the unsuccessful displacement of animism onto primitives and pre-moderns by Europeans and Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Anselm Franke, “Animism: Notes on an Exhibition,” e-flux journal 36 (July 2012), (accessed February 6, 2017). I am grateful to Stefaan Vervoort for this reference. Andrei Pop’s account of the “neopaganism” in neoclassical art also compellingly explicates aspects of this phenomenon; see Antiquity, Theatre, and the Painting of Henry Fuseli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).


Cite this article as: Amelia Rauser, “Vitalist Statues and the Belly Pad of 1793,” Journal18, Issue 3 Lifelike (Spring 2017), DOI: 10.30610/3.2017.2

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