Mattingly, Carol. Appropriate[ing] Dress: Women’s Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-Century America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002.

Note: I didn’t read this book in its entirety. I have read “Introduction: Fabricated Gender” (1-16) and “Conclusion: Dress and Body as Spectacle” (135-44).


Mattingly’s book is generally focused on the way that women used dress as a means of negotiating their precarious positions as speakers in 19th c. America. In the book’s introduction, Mattingly situates herself within a line of feminist rhetoricians who have sought to simultaneously challenge a rhetorical tradition that has taken the masculine body for granted while also recovering the work of female rhetors to learn more about the specific challenges they faced and the strategies they employed to answer those challenges. Concerned with the way women’s bodies have been overlooked, Mattingly pursues a greater understanding of women’s rhetorical strategies by examining the role dress played as women began to assume the position of public speaker. Contextualizing her argument in a historical analysis of the way women’s dress functioned, Mattingly expands on the common notion of women’s dress in the 19th c. as a cruel means of confinement and argues that it served as an important signal of women’s proper place, as well as of their social status. Women’s dress served a paradoxical function in which it simultaneously denoted women as chaste and private while also making them highly visible under a masculine gaze. For the 19th c. woman speaker, then, dress not only gendered her body but served as a reminder to the audience of her proper, private place in life. But instead of producing an irreconcilable tension, Mattingly argues that women appropriated traditional dress as a means of establishing their ethos as speakers, using traditionally feminine clothing to assure anxious audiences as they simultaneously challenged their station in society. While women’s dress remained a focal point for audiences and commentators, Mattingly argues that women’s high level of visibility gave them a deep understanding of the role dress played in the way they were perceived and earned their public speaking enough media attention to help normalize the position of the woman speaker. Mattingly’s work further challenges our own contemporary understanding of women’s dress as she argues in the book’s conclusion that if what is traditionally feminine is most rhetorically powerful for women speakers, then we must rethink the associations we so often make between the traditionally feminine and weakness.

Quotable Quotes:

“The title for this book illustrates my belief that because dress for women already has an established and well-defined rhetoric, one especially important for ethical presentation, many women speakers readily appropriated and capitalized on that rhetoric.” (6)

“If the more effective style was a more conventionally feminine one, then the more feminine was the more powerful, and our perceptions of the ‘womanly’ style as weak or as capitulation may reflect our own gender biases rather than the actual power of women’s rhetoric.” (143)

Other Notes:

The other chapters in this book address topics like the rhetoric of Quaker dress, the connection between dress reform and national identity, backlash against dress reform, and cross dressing.