Thoughts on Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room”

              One of the first thoughts that popped into my head upon reading this poem was “is this about a man being disgusted by a woman’s dirty clothes?” After not much further analyzation, I concluded yes, it is. I had to look up “Strephon” and “Cecilia” to determine if they had any relevance and found out they’re used to describe males and females respectively in classical pastoral poetry, which makes sense in this context. I may not have extracted any deeper meaning other than looking up the terms I didn’t recognize, but at the very least I found it an interesting read. The man referred to as Strephon is rooting through some lady’s personal belongings and undergarments but seems to believe she’s done something disgraceful. In lines 17-18 he “swears how damnably the men lie, In calling Cecelia sweet and cleanly.” It’s like somehow, prior to this experience, he wasn’t aware that women’s dirty laundry could smell bad. And obviously, in a dressing room where people clean themselves and dress/undress, there’s going to be an accumulation of unsavory scents and dirt all over the place. Honestly, what was this man hoping to find? A tiara? Priceless artwork? A thousand bucks?

At first, I thought Strephon might have a fetish for sniffing dirty clothes, but the descriptions are so aggressively derogatory that I’m fairly certain he’s not into it. He even compares the experience of opening the woman’s chest/box to cooking meat over a fire in lines 99-108. The most relevant lines being 103-108, “If from adown the hopeful Chops, The Fat upon a Cinder drops, To stinking Smoke it turns the Flame, Pois’ning the Flesh from whence it came; And Up Exhales a greasy Stench, For which you curse the careless Wench.” He then refers back to Cecilia’s chest, stating that things “which must not be expressed” fall into the “reeking Chest” and “send up an excremental Smell, To taint the Parts from whence they fell,” much like what he just said about the foul meat odors. It seems the “chest” is a toilet, and he’s disgusted by the waste left there by women due to their essential bodily functions. (By the way, screw him! Everybody poops! Get over it!) This explanation, although it may not be correct, makes the preceding lines hilarious. Lines 89-96 describe how Strephon opened the lid but didn’t mean to grope the “Bottom of the Pan” and “fowl his hands”, meaning he probably touched poop. At the very least, he touched something he didn’t like, and that’s enough for me to laugh at him.

The end of this poem is somewhat satisfying, because it says Strephon got what he deserved for invading a woman’s privacy in such a disgusting way; “His foul Imagination links Each Dame he sees with all her Stinks” (121-2). This tells us he’s now scarred for life and can’t separate any women from the revolting smells he exposed himself to. The narrator then expresses pity for Strephon, saying if he “would but stop his Nose; … And bless his ravished Sight to see … Such gaudy Tulips raised from Dung” (129-144). The narrator is implying it’s better to appreciate women’s beauty after they come from the dressing room rather than obsessing over what goes on in there. ‘Cause… surprise! It’s a dressing room, and women don’t smell like flowers all the time! We have to put in the work to make ourselves presentable, and it was a hell of a lot worse for women back then. I can’t imagine having to wear a hoop skirt, corset, petticoat, garter, or any of the uncomfortable garments they wore in the 18th century. What’s more, I just reread the first two lines which state, “Five hours, (and who can do it less in?) By haughty Celia spent in Dressing.” I don’t ever recall taking more than 2 or maybe 3 hours to get ready, and that was when I had to get my makeup/hair done, like for prom or another fancy event. On the daily, it takes closer to 45 minutes, and that’s including a shower. But it took her five hours! That poor woman has been through enough, she doesn’t deserve to have Strephons snooping around in her private space.

I’m not sure why anyone would write a poem like this, but I assume the author of “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S to Write a Poem Called ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’” would have an answer for me. I’m excited to read what others have said about the two poems in relation to one another. I chose to examine Jonathan Swift’s original piece on its own because I found it to be both humorous and enraging. Also, I don’t have as clear of an understanding of what happens in “The Reasons that Induced…”. Still, I want to know what women thought about Swift’s poem. Did they find it offensive? Did they like the last ten lines? Was it common for men to creep around in their dressing rooms? I’m genuinely curious! If I had a time machine, I would be in the 1700’s gathering women of all ages to discuss these topics instead of writing a blog post about it in my dorm room. However, it wouldn’t be hard to channel your inner 18th century British lady and imagine what she might think about this poem. I encourage anyone reading this to kindly do so, and report back to me with your results.

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