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Damsels In Leaves, Furs, Or Feathers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Accompanying our revels we have the Professor with us. Often, of course, we require to be alone with Marjorie. We shall, happily, find ourselves in her bathroom or with her at her toilette in her boudoir, at various moments in her career throughout the centuries. Marjorie is, as they say, the Eternal Feminine. She is the Star; the Professor is a sort of Greek chorus.

Throughout her history men come and go like shadows, but Marjorie remains—the Deathless Manikin. It is like that, the Professor says, in life. He considers it doubtful whether there are any individual women. A woman, he observes, much more than a man is a force of nature.

Men, with their books and papers, their little wars and personal ambitions, are perishable. They are soon succeeded by other men. A man, as old Sir Thomas Browne observed, begins to die when he is born. But a woman is a Feminine Force, which is indestructible. She is an Instinct.

By turns, indeed, as a great modern novelist has remarked, she is "a buffeting and laughing breeze, a healing rain or a maddening tempest, a cheerful sun or a stroke of indiscriminate lightning." Yet she remains the essential woman.

Anyhow, all this is what the Professor says. He continues. Like Nature, of which she is so intimately a part, woman changes with the seasons. Like Nature, in her apparel she moves in a cycle. The controlling influences of the cycle of Fashion, however, are much more mysterious than the laws of Nature. Science as yet is without definite apprehension of them. Fashion frequently defies Nature, both as to the structure of her body and the state of the temperature. Marjorie at various periods has been no respecter of the climate.

Some thinkers, who have plausibly presented the idea in a theorem, believe that women are mere functions of their clothes. The Professor says that attentive observation of Marjorie since the dawn of civilization will reveal the psychological basis for this idea. Marjorie, he tells us, is an actress who has played innumerable parts and, regardless of everything else, has on each occasion dressed for her part.

The Professor will now take the stage for a few moments. He is not bad when you get used to his accent. This disability he contracted one summer at Oxford. But he is really home-grown, comes from corn-fed stock, and, not-withstanding his intellect, has had actual experience in the undie world. Here he comes now....The Professor!

Once on a time, begins the Professor, Marjorie was of course completely a "natural." She was altogether as innocent of clothes as, after aeons of time and considerable experimentation with civilization, any subscriber to Nacktkultur. What started her on the questionable course from nudity to raiment?

As to this, there are various theories. The most poetic one is that her clothes were conceived in Sin. This is called. the Mosaic Theory. It is illustrated in a deathless Parable about an apple. After she had eaten of the apple she was ashamed of herself. She put on, as her first garment, an apron. Or, according to one official version, the Geneva or "Breeches Bible," she and her swain "sewed figge-tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches."

Then there is what is termed the Economic Theory. That is, the poetical and canonical presentation of Marjorie's innate instinct of modesty or "decency" became questioned. Something else, it was suspected, led her to adopt a bodily covering. Thinkers in their arm chairs by the fire thought of Marjorie out in the cold and they thought of the weather. Carefully putting these two thoughts together—and nothing further—they arrived at a conclusion that covered Marjorie to their satisfaction. Her clothing had its origin as a protection against the elements.

It is admitted all round that climate is among the important factors which have entered into the evolution of dress. Man had his mysterious origin in tropical or sub-tropical latitudes, it is now generally supposed, and the curious species slowly spread out toward the poles. This early bird discovered that, by some unaccountable magic of the gods, he got cooler as he went along. We may picture him, as the erratic temperature continually became lower, scratching his receding skull and at length igniting a bright thought—he would lay hold of something warm to put around him. And Marjorie, too. What they had worn heretofore had been purely ornamental. Thus clothing gradually acquired the new function of protecting the wearer's body. At the same time, we are warned by savants, care must be taken not to attribute to this function too much influence on the development of clothing.

This explanation, however, collides with a ticklish point brought up by modern scientific inquiry into the motives for the origin of clothes; namely, the fact that the Arabs, proudly done up in voluminous robes, forever dash about on their highly pedigreed steeds in an extremely hot country, while a race known as the Fuegans, lolling on the ice at the extremity of Cape Horn and exposed to all the rigors of an antarctic climate, are content with the sole protection of an animal skin held on by a few strings. The benighted Fuegans, alas! to this day are not at all underwear-conscious. If you handed a Fuegan lady the newest costume slip with a fitted brassiere top she would, in all probability, turn up her nose at it.

Indeed, when the idea of the thing had been explained to her, she very likely would be shocked. Modesty is held by the Encyclopaedia Britannica to be "a feeling merely of acute self-consciousness due to appearing unusual, and is the result of clothing rather than its cause." Amid divers examples of primitive psychology there listed in support of this conclusion, he cites the evidence of accredited observers that members of a tribe accustomed to nudity as a social state, when clothed for the first time "exhibit as much confusion as would a European compelled to strip in public."

And here, remarks the Professor, picking up an attractive-looking book, is the story of the illuminatingly anecdotal Mr. Langdon-Davies concerning the good Jesuit Fathers in South America. They presented the natives with dress material ample to cover everything enlightened propriety prefers concealed. But the delighted natives cut it all up into strips, decorated their heads with it, and tied it nicely round their necks. When requested to wear something lower down they refused point-blank, saying they "would be ashamed to do so."

"Natives" have always been queer about clothes. But it all depends on where you happen to be a native. Some natives, while ashamed to wear anything anywhere else, wear something "lower down" because of magic—to protect themselves there from witchcraft. With some natives, unmarried girls wear nothing, while the married women are more or less clothed. With others, a girl permanently takes off her clothes after marriage. Again, girls don feather dusters merely for dances. Girls native to a land of advanced civilization have sometimes been taught to bathe in a chemise.

Clearly enough, says the Professor, Marjorie's modesty is altogether a matter of time and place, and has to do some-times with her elbow and sometimes with her collar-bone. He reverts again to Mr. Langdon-Davies, who instructively considers the result of surprising a modest woman in her bath in various countries. "A Mohammedan woman would cover her face, a Laos woman would cover her breasts; a Chinese would hide her feet; in Sumatra and the Celebes hands would at once endeavor to conceal the knee; in Samoa it would be the navel; in Alaska the woman would make all haste to replace the ornamental plug which she wears in her lip." This was written in 1928. A drawing in Punch, 1932, depicted an aristocratic small girl surprised in her bath; looking up at the intruding gentleman, she remarks, "Oh, don't mind me; I'm quite modern."

Therefore what is conveniently called Marjorie's modesty concerning her person must, as anybody nowadays knows, be defined as a matter of convention—a concept varying with the locality and, especially on the higher levels of the race, with the continual transition of ideas about all this and that. Marjorie in a wild state remains much more consistent in her sense of modesty than Marjorie in an elevated environment.

We now arrive at the theory of clothing approved in ethnological circles. And, curiously enough, this theory —the one with the highest scientific sanction—is that Eve (otherwise Marjorie) has been enabled to sin so much since she bethought herself of breeches and aprons largely because she has been clothed. The role of dress in sexual attraction is given an ironic presentation by Anatole France in his delectable account of a certain Penguin Island. The first young woman there to be clothed is transformed from an ordinary creature, unnoticed by Penguin gallants, into a lovely mystery followed by a cortege of intrigued males.

This idea visited natural philosophers some time ago. "The greatest provocations of lust," wrote the author of the Anatomy of Melancholy in the seventeenth century, "are from our apparel." In the century before this, in another land, one Michel Montaigne expressed his doubts as to the propriety of clothing, in his essay Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes. And Dr. Havelock Ellis envisages a day when "a new moral reformer" will enter our theatres and music halls, scourge in hand and "purge" them—not of nakedness but of clothes.

In the more tempered tone of science, the accepted dogma of the primary though now (largely) unconscious function of clothing was stated at the opening of the present century by Westermarck in his History of Human Marriage: "The facts appear to prove that the feeling of shame, far from being the cause of man's covering his body, is, on the contrary, a result of this custom; and that the covering, if not used as a protection from the climate, owes its origin, at least in a great many cases, to the desire of men and women to make themselves mutually attractive."

The substance of the learned conclusion is that in civilization clothes are required as an artificial stimulus in bringing about the oncoming generations, and thus making the world go round. A good deal might be said in apology for wearing them, even though they have added immeasurably to the gaiety of nations. Indeed, adds the Professor, without them the whole human story would be pretty bare. "Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon Cloth," observes Carlyle in Sartor Resartus.

Leaves and furs and feathers. These were the first clothes. They did not, however, come into fashion for some considerable time. The cult of the violet ray altogether dominated ideas of costume held by the earliest men and Marjories known to anthropologists.

Mr. Pithecanthropos Erectus seems to have been the first of his species up and around, according to scientific speculation. He lived in a river bed, and his common nickname is Ape Man. He had nothing whatever in the way of clothes to undermine his morals. This was about 551,933 years back.

He was followed by another subman, called Dawn Man for short. Mr. and Mrs. Neanderthal, who followed him, only a little over 50,000 years ago, made a great advance in housekeeping arrangements. In fact, they invented the idea of the one-room apartment, having decided to live in a cave. Though they had not acquired sufficient skill to utilize even animal skins as covering, it was probably Mr. Neanderthal who also invented the girdle. That is, tearing off a thong to tie about him, he fashioned the first belt, in which he tucked his stone club, presuming that he had got that far in hunting equipment.

Fourth, came the True Man type, as he is familiarly called, who on occasion wrapped skins of animals insecurely about him. Then, in the Neolithic or New Stone Age, came the really bright fellow. He invented the shirt. Or maybe his Marjorie did. At any rate, their scanty animal skins for dress wear began to assume some shape. The skins were sewn together by needles of bone and threads of sinews and, behold! the first tunic.

In addition, then, to primitive adornment of various kinds —such as head-deformation, foot-constriction, tooth-clipping, waist-compression, painting and tattooing, the raising of ornamental scars, lip-ornaments, toe-rings, and girdles—we come upon the earliest actual garment. Though, indeed, there is much ingenious theorizing about this matter, and it is sometimes assumed that the waist-ornament—the girdle —was the true germ of clothing.

At any rate, along with the first sewn piece 0f apparel handicrafts came in, and this marked another step toward Marjorie's underwear. Bark, stalks, and grasses, to begin with, were plaited into various articles which prehistoric Marjorie and her mate astutely saw how they could use—baskets for carrying on the head, straps for bundling, covering for shelter. And it seemed like useful stuff, too, for clothing. As they became more and more adept in this fundamental art, strips for plaiting were strung out and twisted into fibres or threads. It was discovered that they could be made gay by being treated and dyed.

These earliest steps in weaving did not necessarily accompany an urge toward more substantial clothing. The decorative possibilities of cloth garments, opening up unprecedented opportunities for frequent style changes, were apparently a brilliant afterthought. At one time and another in the past every material that could furnish thread has been brought into use in weaving from hair, skin, fur, and feathers to such minerals as gold, silver, iron, brass, copper, glass, and asbestos.



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