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Ageing women walked along a knife edge when they sat in front of the mirror to choose which garment to wear. When should a woman change her dress to reflect her age? What factors influenced her choices? How was she supposed to engage with the fashion system? And what were the consequences of not dressing one’s age?

This paper will show that despite being often invisible in histories of dress, the sartorial choices of ageing women were subject to a high level of scrutiny and often ridicule. Building upon and expanding the concept of dress literacy to include dress practices, the importance of knowing who was supposed to wear what when shall be shown. Rather than abdicate from the world of dress and fashion, ageing women were expected to be experts in navigating the complex, shifting sartorial landscape.

Punch shows, however, that when making the choice of what to wear, ageing women did not always make what was seen to be the right choice. Compared to other forms of costume illustration, the satirical cartoons of Punch offer a chief unique characteristic – the ability to show dress at its worst. Paying particular attention to Punch’s so-called ‘Hideous Old Ladies of Fashion’, those women dressing younger and more fashionably than they ought, we will investigate the skill needed to dress the ageing body, and demonstrate how misjudgements could jeopardise one’s respectability, femininity, and class position.


All welcome- this seminars is free to attend but registration is required.