Hidden in Plain Sight: Material Culture in A Harlot's Progress

The plates of A Harlot’s Progress use pictures to tell the story of Moll Hackabout, and the elements of material culture in each plate tell a story within this tragic narrative. William Hogarth’s visual tale stands opposed to the notion that materials are used solely for the expression of individual identity. Material culture in these plates is rather used to conceal personas, as well as underlying issues. By doing this, Hogarth shows a side of the eighteenth century that involved a considerably more homogenous population. Moll’s use of the masquerade mask in Plate 2 points to the concealment of identity in social settings. Her dress in Plate 1 reveals how easy it was to hide ones class. Plate 6 shows occupational dress, such as the parson’s clerical cloths, a uniform that alluded to virtuous characteristics. Pet ownership concealed abuse and cruelty, as seen with the dog in Plate 4. Materials were used to conceal identities, and later to conceal actions. 

People in the eighteenth century would often hide their class position in order to be treated better in social settings. An excellent example of this is Moll’s use of the masquerade mask in plate 2. Masquerades were very popular in England during the eighteenth century, and enabled people of any class to mingle. To individuals who would pride themselves on purity and sensibility these parties were dens of sin. To others this blending of the social classes was exciting, and even liberating. Disguised identities allowed the individuals at the masquerade to interact with each other in ways that did not require revealing their classes (Castle 34). This would allow different social groups to flirt, tease, or act in ways that would normally lead to disgrace or violence. Some of these parties were so strict people were not allowed inside without a “clearly identifiable costume” (Castle 75). Moll herself is a country seamstress turned mistress; a disguise of her true self she donned in order to survive. In masquerades the face was kept hidden, but the body was heavily emphasized (Castle 38). This is similar to how Moll emphasizes her sexuality in order to keep favour with the merchant Charteris, her consort and master. In this plate he is fleeing the room, showing the illicit nature of their relationship. Moll uses this mask to conceal her identity, and displays her body and sexuality to distract the merchant from her humble origins.

Another way that people concealed their identities in the eighteenth century was through their clothing, which was important to both men and women. Moll's clothing, specifically the dress she is wearing in the first plate of A Harlot's Progress, is not necessarily indicative of her social class, as it is similar to that of the upper class. The only noticeable difference in clothing between the upper and lower classes was the fabric as "there was a shift from woolens to cotton materials [the focus being on] appearance" (Walsh 219). Therefore her dress is an excellent example of hiding her class position, as without careful inspection it would be difficult to distinguish her from a girl of any class in the era. It would take a keen eye for detail to see that Moll was actually a country girl, something that Charteris would have had. This ultimately is what led him to prey upon her initially. Moll most likely chose to make a dress in this style so she would not be distinctive of the upper class.

In plate 6 of A Harlot’s Progress, a parson attends Moll’s funeral, and in most Christian traditions a parson wore clerical clothing. In Western Christianity, the white collar with a clergy shirt has become a common feature of a Parson’s occupational uniform (Price 72). The collar can be displayed through a square cut-out in the neckline. Clerical clothing is supposed to allude to respect and authority; however, this particular parson has been distracted by the party. Church history holds that these gentlemen were virtuous individuals who did not sin. W.B. Young, however, argues that since church history was only written by members of the organization the written account of these men might be biased (853). Hogarth appears to be using this plate to show a side of the clergy not written into history, exposing the clergy as considerably less virtuous.     

Material culture did not just span the realm of clothing and accessories; the introduction of household pets added a new indication of wealth for people in the eighteenth century. For example in plate 2 of A Harlot’s Progress there is a monkey in the picture, which could only be afforded by the wealthy who traveled. Charteris is the only character in the story fitting this description, and it shows how successful he is. As the ownership of pets became more popular for the people of London, it also served as a way for people to hide their real persona when away from the gaze of the public eye (Molineux 41). A part of this hidden persona includes how people act alone or at home and how they relieve their stress. In private, many pets found themselves the subject of abuse from their owners (Juengel 24).

Material culture of the eighteenth century differed from that of the present through its purpose to conceal individual identity. Analyzing social settings such as the masquerade ball exemplifies the desire to hide whom one is in order to socialize. Dress material is one of few distinctions between what the upper class wore and what the lower class wore. Occupational uniforms often created a discord between someone’s true nature and how they were displayed in society. Finally, pet ownership facilitated another means to hide and practice brutality. Hogarth’s use of material culture suggests that the time he lived in relied on appearances to conceal socially unacceptable matters, such as poverty, prostitution, and gender roles.