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Capturing Modern Life

The Grisette

Several of Guys’ drawings of the mid to late nineteenth century also capture the nuances of dress as a social language for women in the lower classes and the ways in which dress reveals the differences in social status for lower class women and courtesans. A pen and ink drawing entitled Two Courtesans in a Doorway shows some of the characteristic elements of dress for lower class women and an exploration of a drawing of a grisette with her hands in her apron pockets reveals the ways in which dress could define a woman’s position in social terms. In socio-economic terms, the grisette was recognised in her role as a milliner’s assistant or seamstress by a grey muslin dress. This cheap dull garment also defined the grisette in linguistic terms: the social name being taken from their dress.

Although the garment industry was one of the most common forms of employment for women in the nineteenth century, the harsh economic reality and the lack of prospects for grisettes meant that women in this position were often engaged in casual prostitution. This is apparent in Guys' image as the grisette wears a short wide skirt, a very close fitting bodice and short full sleeves. Her hair is worn high on her head but there are two side sections worn in large rolls. A short apron around her waist reveals the need for practical clothing in an industry of manual labour. The old fashioned form of the showy, complex hairstyle, divided into three main sections in a style more reminiscent of the 1830s demonstrates how the grisette is excluded from the language of fashionable dress.

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