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  • 2016loxhamphd

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Women, tactility and consumption: middle-class female sensory participation in Victorian shopping environments

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2016
Number of pages282
Awarding Institution
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This thesis questions the priority that has been afforded to sight in academic analyses of modernity at the expense of the other senses. This has not only had the effect of producing poor knowledge of the multi-sensory understandings of life, but it is also a theory that has been developed by focusing on the experience of white, elite males. As increasingly shown by anthropologists and sensory historians, when this model is transposed onto other segments of the population, this produces inadequate and partial understandings of life. Nowhere is this truer than in studies of nineteenth-century consumerism, which have primarily characterised the female shopping experience as orientated around new visual spectacles.
This thesis aims to rebalance this sensory bias and analyses how the sense of touch was used by female shoppers. Drawing on the theories of Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology throughout, it is claimed that the use of any sense must be understood in the wider context of an individual’s life, and the sensory habits that are formed through this. For understanding shopping, this means first attending to the primary female activities within the home, namely needlework, and how these affected the development of the sensorium. Following on from this, the study analyses how those habits of touch were used when shopping. This involved assessments of fabric quality, the marketing of ‘hygienic’ clothing on the basis of its relationship to the skin and the ways in which women related to the new spaces of the department stores through their bodies.
In addition to showing the importance of touch for shopping, focusing on tactility brings other issues to light. Understanding tactile habits allows for a reevaluation of the public-private division. Rather than shopping representing a break from the home, habits of touch allowed the two environments to be strongly interlinked, each influencing the other. This raises important questions about how we conceptualise female experiences of modernity and progress.