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Aphra Behn on Women's Dress
    In M. Aphra Behn’s article, The Lady's Looking-Glass, To Dress Herself by: or The Art of Charming, is a clever combination of poetry and prose which, using the perspective of a mirror, clearly outlines Behn’s ideal for female beauty and character. Dated 1697, she begins with the shape of Iris (the image in the looking-glass), and ends with the modesty or Iris. It is clear that the author is an advocate for unrestricted clothing and manner. When speaking of Iris’ form she draws attention to “how free and easie it is, without Constraint, Stiffness, or Affectation . . . ” she then goes on to describe other beauties who “are more obliged to the tailor, than to Nature . . . ” What follows is a humorous description of another fine lady’s methods of achieving such a figure: “[She] has screw'd her Body into so fine a Form (as she calls it) that she dares no more stir a Hand, lift up an Arm, or turn her Head aside, than if, for the Sin of such a Disorder, she were to be turn'd into a Pillar of Salt; the less stiff and fix'd Statue of the two.” Quite obviously, Behn was never enthralled with the Fontage nor the heavily boned corsetry and padded hip rolls of the times. She moves on through physical loveliness (such as that of Iris’ snowy, dimpled complexion often cast with the blush of two perfect roses), to the ease of Iris’ air and grace; “Charms without art, a Motion unconfin’d; / Without Constraint, she smiles, she looks, she talks; / And without Affectation, moves and walks.” Here again we see the thematic anti-confinement statement and realize that the author must never have been a prominent courtesan. In fact, Behn was a highly unpopular playwright and author, her ill-reputation largely due to the fact that she paid little heed to the social restrictions of the time. Her unconformed, and unconfined nature led her to be seen as a rebel, and was considered a lewd and shoddy writer because of her openness to sexual and gender-oriented topics. But despite this opposition, Behn became the first female author England had yet known. Her works were truly witty and lyrical and she definitely possessed great talent with the pen. In The Looking-Glass she gives us a tiny reflection of herself hidden away in the text: “The Muses have blest you, above your Sex; and you know how to gain conquest with your Pen, more absolutely, than all the industrious Fair, who trust Dress and Equipage.”  Far above any physical beauty or charm, Aphra Behn valued her skill with words. So while she can never be called a “woman of her times,” she can certainly hold the honorable title of “a woman far beyond her times.”

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