The Strange Victorian Origins of the ‘Personal Brand’

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In 1836, moralist A.B. Muzzey wrote, “Character is like stock in trade; the more of it a man possesses, the greater are his facilities for making additions to it.”

But in 1844, Henry Ward Beecher warned of “the fashionable idler, whose riches defeat every object for which God gave him birth.” This new man of the era “has a fine form, and manly beauty, and the chief end of life is to display it. With notable diligence he ransacks the market for rare and curious fabrics, for costly seals, and chains, and rings. A coat poorly fitted is the unpardonable sin of his creed.”

What you are reading is the Victorian version of a personal brand—and the anxieties that come with it.

Today, “personal brand” is a wry colloquialism for the way we present ourselves through speech and commodities, especially online. The implication is that in late capitalism, identity is marketing. In 2010, Hipster Runoff repeatedly wrote about the value of “fly ass sneakers and bloggable jeans,” and their accompanying ennui: “I just wish I had something that ‘set me apart’ from the crowd without being a deformity.”

But personal brands, in essence if not in parlance, predate social media by almost two hundred years. The Victorians, who are woefully misunderstood, were big on personal brands because it appealed to their anxieties about authenticity in a newly expanded and hyperstrategic world.

The phrase itself is a modern invention; its first use was probably Tom Peters’s 1997 article in Fast Company, “The Brand Called You.” In it, Peters floated the concept of personal branding as a neo-resume. “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc.,” he wrote. Though the term has evolved, Peters delineated some important features of the personal brand. “Everyone has a chance to stand out,” he insisted. And, “When everybody has email and anybody can send you email, how do you decide whose messages you’re going to read and respond to first…? The answer: personal branding.”

Peters’ inchoate “personal brand” echoes two key features shared by both the aughts’ iteration and the Victorians’ de facto version: Personal brands are born of rapidly expanded spheres of communication, and they’re democratic—anyone can have a great brand. Genece Hamby’s 2001 consultancy “Personal Branding D.N.A.” highlights another preoccupation of personal branding that’s been around since the Victorian era: “What is genuinely real and authentic about you?” she asks.

“The cult of sincerity” was about having the world’s most authentic personal brand.

The historian Karen Halttunen has written about the Victorians’ personal branding as the product of an intermediate phase between the pre-modern and modern societies. (The precursor to this theory is a famous essay by historian Warren Susman, who argues that 19th century agrarian society prioritized character, whereas modern economies, with their movie stars and salesmen, value personality and commodity consumption.) Halttunen doesn’t refer to the term “personal branding,” but to “reputation.” Still, the Victorian sense of reputation was uncannily similar to the social media neologism. Like our “personal brand,” Victorian “reputation” used capitalist metaphors, struggled to be purely authentic, and described itself as individualistic and egalitarian. Thus moralist A.B. Muzzey’s insistence that “Character is like a stock in trade.”

And like us, the Victorians were wracked with anxieties about their own honesty. From the 1830s to the turn of the century the market for advice literature on how best to be sincere positively boomed. These conduct manuals and magazine articles covered not just sincerity in conversation, but also clothing choice, letter-writing, even bodily comportment. This historical phase has since been labeled “the cult of sincerity.” It was like having the world’s most authentic personal brand: In Victorian moralist David Magie’s words, it urged “a faithful correspondence between the heart and the lips, the feelings and the words, the inward consciousness and the outward expression.”

The cult of sincerity’s emergence probably comes down to the rise of the urban middle class. As young men flocked to the cities, anonymity became a source of angst—particularly in the United States, which lacked an entrenched class system. Hence began the era of the con man: Strangers were physically, financially and morally suspect, and new urban transplants were easily fooled. Apocryphal tales warned, “The moment the inexperienced youth sets his foot on the sidewalk of the city, he is marked and watched by eyes that he never dreamed of. The boy who cries his penny-paper, and the old woman at her table professedly selling a few apples and a little gingerbread, are not all who watch him.”

The absence of standardized ID didn’t help. Although administrative systems began to regulate ID between 1400 and 1600, these systems were usually informal and specific to small subgroups like travelers, criminals or slaves. Before ID cards, people were usually identified on the basis of royal insignia, letters of recommendation, accents, baptismal records, physical marks (e.g. moles), or, in the case of criminals and slaves, punitive scars and metal brands.

But as language standardized and prison replaced other punishments like whipping, these ID methods fell out of favor. And fashion eroded traditional identification even further. Before the 19th century, fashion could usually be counted on to describe class. But as textile weaving mechanized and labor was divided into its simplest parts, clothing ceased to reliably indicate class.

Thus, reputation satiated a need. Reputation, grounded in character, would cut down on con men running amok in the big city.

Since reputation was intangible and subject to change, advice literature abounded on how best to manage it. The moralist William Alcott (second cousin once removed to Louisa May) wrote in 1834, “[T]he impressions which a person’s first appearance make upon the minds of those around him are deep and permanent.” Most of this 1830s advice literature didn’t advise young men on reputation for the sake of good character itself, but as a tool for success, either in career or as social climbers.

Within the cult of sincerity, moralists urged Victorians to manipulate cues like facial expression, fashion, hygiene and motor tics to provide insight into the person’s inner nature. This isn’t so different from today’s personal brand: speech, body type and tastes in things like fashion and music can all be carefully selected to encourage the baring of one’s soul. Taste was then, as now, an index of character—if it was sincere.

Victorians worried deeply that, despite their best efforts, they were implicit con men themselves: hypocrites. The obsession with reputation presented a conundrum: Young men were advised to manage their reputations to be successful in the city, but if they managed too much, they’d become inauthentic—what advice literature called “the mere surface of character.” This still stands: social media-savvy celebrities like Lena Dunham can seem so determined to convey transparency that they raise our hackles, and adorkable Zooey Deschanel types appear hyperauthentic—and thus not authentic at all.

The concern for sincerity was so intense that it outweighed politesse. Even white lies were a major offense. A short story called “The Fatal Cosmetic,” published in 1839 in the middle-class fashion magazine Godey’s Ladies Book, described the accidental murder of a friend as a consequence of verbal and cosmetic hypocrisy. The story’s villain is Mary Ellis, a hypocrite who dared to flatter a mediocre pianist. Mary Ellis’s lies escalate—she breaks a mirror and denies it, the lout—and eventually she accidentally poisons someone with her concealer. “Let those who consider a white lie a venial offense…reflect on the consequences of Mary Ellis’s moral delinquency and tremble at the view,” the narrator concludes.

Reputation would cut down on con men running amok in the big city.

The specifics are alien, stereotypically “Victorian,” even. But the anxiety about truth-telling is relatable to anyone who’s had a Twitter, Facebook or Instagram profile; why else would stories about falsifying your social life online be so popular?

Other transparency techniques are more familiar. Between 1836 and 1856 the cult of sincerity obsessed over fashion—just like modern-day practitioners of authenticity. Fashion was considered highly superficial, yet it was supposed to convey essential truths. Godey’s Ladies Book wrote, “It is always the mark of a weak mind, if not a bad heart to hear a person praise or blame another on the ground alone that they are handsome or homely.” (Do I hear a tinge of feminist websites like Rookie?) Then, as now, an authentic personal brand flouts the superficiality of fashion while paradoxically adhering to cutting-edge trends.

Because facial expression was a node of Victorian sincerity, from 1836 to 1856 fashion did its part to highlight the face. The frilliness of the Romantic era evolved into the vertical lines of sentimental fashion. Sleeves became tight, the neckline simplified. Rouge and concealer became déclassé. Hairstyles shrunk; trendy hair was a simple bonnet or a knot “a la Madonna”—meaning parted at the middle—arranged below the crown of the head. And primary colors were abandoned in favor of muted tertiaries like lavender, tan, silver blue and grey.

Letter-writing was also an important ground for sincere sentimentality. Advice manuals provided countless samples of properly sincere letters, almost all of which were formulaic despite their supposed authenticity. (Sincere social media today tends to follow formula, too.) Victorians were advised to profess love, affection, friendship, sympathy, fidelity, attachment and regard. Successful epistolarians avoided big words, used good paper and kept handwriting tidy. Then, as now, Myspace-like clutter would have been unacceptable.

The Victorians weren’t blind to the ironies of their ideology. The cult of sincerity was, among other things, a response to an earlier era of Romanticism and latter-day sentimentalists worried there was a thin line between extreme candor and the Romantics’ “gushing,” the popular term for Romantic women’s cultivated emotional expressiveness. Short stories and essays fretted about how to distinguish between emotion and affectation.

One such story, published in 1838 in Godey’s, features the Romantic antagonist Rosabelle, who reveals her own hypocrisy by expressing friendship for the story’s heroine too quickly. Later, Rosabelle confirms her falsity through inauthentic dress. Although she had little regard for her father in life, she wears a veil after her father’s passing. These anxieties mirror our own worries about over-emoting online; the wrong kinds of expressiveness can be gauche (Romantic instead of sentimental). Then, as now, affect and affectation were uncomfortably but intrinsically jumbled.

Like the Victorians, we want to be luminous—but never artificial.

The rise of the urban middle class also precipitated the middle class’ fear of social muddiness. In the United States, the middle class preened itself for its distinction from European aristocracy. One reason Godey’s positioned itself against fashion was to resist the pull of European trend setting. Like personal branding, sentimental fashion had to be a reflection of the soul—distinct from arbitrary trends.

The middle class also needed to distinguish itself from the lower class, the latter of which had developed real social mobility thanks to the erosion of traditional forms of ID and proto-fast fashion. Until the mid-19th century, clothing was a nearly infallible index of social class. “Ready-made” clothing got its start in the Victorian era with textile mass production and rationalized tailoring. Ready-made menswear, and eventually womenswear, was cut to a generic outline and sewn more closely at a later date, which facilitated mass production. And then there was the new population of lower-class working women, many of whom reserved their paychecks for flashy clothing and accessories. One middle-class woman complained, “Alas! How very sadly the world has changed! The time was when the lady could be distinguished from the no-lady by her dress…Even gold watches are now no sure indication—for they have been worn by the lowest, even by ‘many of the factory girls.’”

For the cult of sincerity, transparency was the opposite of flashiness. The Victorian middle class leveraged complicated sentimental trends against the upper and lower classes in order to firm up its own identity. Ability to navigate these trends was a behavioral shibboleth—and a rationalization of the middle class’ rejection of gaudiness. Likewise, personal brands today are finnicky, frequently cleave along class and race lines (rich college kids in workmen’s shirts, for instance, or social media pockets like “black twitter”), and purport to be simple, effortless—in the style of, say, a button-down or moccasin flown in not-so-simply from across the globe.

Much as we’d hate to admit it, we’re shockingly similar to the Victorians. We worry about the same things: authenticity; taste; new technology; race, sex, and class; unbalanced markets; the effects of a rapidly expanding social universe. It’s an uncomfortable thought, because we’ve sunk so much energy in sexual liberation, but we’ve also got a Puritan streak. We want labor and commodities to cleanse us. And, like the Victorians, we want to be luminous—but never artificial. It’s a delicate balance.

Contrary to cliché, the Victorians were not proponents of mere artifice. Authenticity for them, as with us, was at a premium, even as they spent inordinate amounts of time managing their reputations through writing, fashion, music and art. We’re not identical: although the Victorians used commercial metaphors like our “personal brand” to elegize and criticize reputation management, their strategies didn’t have the same sardonic tone that characterizes the term “personal brand” today. (They weren’t employing tildes when they talked about reputation.)

It’s tempting to frame the rise of “personal branding” as a dubious side effect of forever crafting our best selves. But ultimately personal branding wasn’t hatched from social media. It’s been with us for at least a century and a half as the curious byproduct of Puritan sentimentality and modern life.

Johannah King-Slutzky is a blogger and essayist from New York City.

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