When Joseph Addison first set up his lion’s head in Button’s coffeehouse he told his readers in The Guardian that it would only feed on “wholesome food” and not nonsense, obscenity or scandal. But as anyone who has ever edited or animated user-generated content knows, you don’t always get what you ask for.
The stories and comments posted in the lion’s mouth showed readers were much more interested in topics like the fashions of the day than news and politics. Some correspondents urged the lion to roar against the fashion for shorter petticoats and plunging necklines.
The very first letter through the lion’s mouth, published on 22nd July 1713, was about the “monstrous fashion” for hooped petticoats. Tom Plain complained they were “hurting men’s shins” and causing issues: “I saw a young lady fall down the other day and believe me sir, she very much resembled an overturned bell without a clapper.”
As the fashion debate raged across London that summer Tom’s letter prompted others to post their opinions through the lion’s mouth – and enabled Addison to create his own “outraged” personas.
At the time women were wearing a dress called a mantua that had been popular since the late 17th century because it was more comfortable to wear than the previous fashion for tight bodices and stays.
The mantua was a dressing gown-style robe with long sleeves, closed at the bodice, tied with a sash and folded back at the waist to reveal floor-length petticoats in a co-ordinating fabric. As the fabric was draped rather than cut, it could show off elaborately decorative silk designs. The gown was thought to be named after the Italian city of Mantua, famed for its embroidered silks, or to take it its name from the French word “manteau” meaning coat. Ladies would also have worn a tucker, or frill, at the neckline.
The style had proved so popular that dressmakers were referred to as mantua makers. As fashions changed – led by the first couturiers in Paris – the tucker was dropped and necklines lowered to reveal the neck and upper. At the same time petticoats were shortened from floor length to above the ankle. They also became fuller and increasingly imposing, needing hoops and panniers to support and shape them. By the time of Marie Antoinette the gowns and the fashion for high hair made the women “three times the size of men”.
The Guardian’s fictional editor Nestor Ironside had previously voiced his disapproval for such fashions and many of the letters submitted praised him and urged him to keep campaigning.
A quaker called Tom Tremble told him the lion had roared as far away as Rome where the priests had banned women without tuckers from taking confession: “Rome: A Placard is published here forbidding women of whatsoever quality to go with naked breasts; and the Priests are ordered not to admit the transgressors of this law to confession, nor to communion; neither are they to enter the cathedrals under sever penalties.”
He praises Ironside and urges him to carry on campaigning: “Seeing thy lion is obeyed at this distance we hope the foolish women in they own country will listen to thy admonitions. Otherwise thou art desired to make him still roar till all the beasts of the forest shall tremble.”
The following Monday Ironside reports a full mailbag. The first of these contributions is from Leonilla Figleaf, a “mantua-maker” and quite probably a figment of Addison’s imagination. She offers to spy on her ladies and report back on the fashion front, confirming:
“At a late meeting of the stripping ladies in which were present several eminent toasts and beauties it was resolved for the future to lay the modesty piece wholly aside. It is intended at the same time to lower the stays considerably before, and nothing but the unsettled weather has hindered this design from being already put in execution.”
The next day an anonymous female writer agrees that the fashions have gone too far:
“Now you must know, dear sir, that if you don’t take care to suppress this exorbitant growth of the female chest all that’s left of my waist must inevitably perish. It is at the time reduced to the depth of four inches by what I have already made over to my neck. But if the stripping design mentioned by Mrs Figleaf yesterday should take effect, sir, I dread to think what it will come to.”
Later a despairing husband urges Ironside on:
“When my wife comes home late from cards or commits any other enormity I whisper in her ear, partly betwist jest and ernest, that I will tell the lion of her. Dear sir, don’t let ‘em alone until you have made ‘em put on their tuckers again. What can be a greater sign that they themselves are sensible they have stripped too far, then they’re pretending to call a bitt of linen which will hardly cover a silver groat their modesty-piece? It is observed this modesty piece falls lower and lower and who knows where it will fix at last.”
Another correspondent said that if the fair sex wish to go uncovered they should imitate their Great-Grandmothers the Picts "and paint the parts of their bodies which are uncovered with such figures as shall be most to their fancy”.
And spare a thought for this poor young man who doesn’t know where to look: “Yesterday, about seven in the evening I took a turn with a gentleman just come to town in a publick walk. We had not walk’d above two rounds when the Spark, on a sudden, pretended weariness and, as I importun’d him to stay longer, he turn’d short and pointed to a celebrated beauty. “What” (said he) “do you think I am made of that I should bear the sight of such snowy breasts? Oh! She is intolerably handsome!” Upon this we parted and I resolv’d to take a little more air in the garden, yet avoid the danger by casting my eyes downwards; but, to my unspeakable surprise, I discovered in the same fair creature, the fairest ankle and prettiest foot that ever fancy imagined. If the petticoats as well as the stays thus diminish what shall we do dear Nestor? If ‘tis neither safe to look at the head nor the feet of the charmer whither shall we direct our eyes?”
In late August Addison writes about a letter he’s received from an astrologer in Moorfields who predicts that “in a few months, there will not be a female bosom or ankle uncovered in Great Britain.”
The Guardian folded in October 1713 but the fashion debate still rages on.