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Platform Clothes

( Originally Published 1924 )

The first requisite of a public speaker is that she have a worth-while message, and the second is that she shall deliver it to her listeners in an interesting manner. She is like the advertiser who studies his public, finds the best point of contact, and presents his commodity. If this is skilfully done, it remains only for the article, or idea, to prove its own merit. When Madam Speaker steps out before her audience, and even before she has had opportunity to begin her lecture, every person has passed judgment upon her and has advanced a step forward in eager anticipation or has settled back in disapproval. For one's outward appearance is her advance agent, and it is the costume more than any other element that first establishes her prestige with her audience. The speaker who, by her dress and general appearance, creates a favor-able impression, has won her audience to a receptive mood for her message.

It is essential that the performer shall estimate the people in her audience, that she shall speak their language. That does not mean that she must use vulgar language to make herself understood by any one, but that plain Anglo-Saxon words are was symmetrical as we glimpsed her silhouette as she came through the door at the rear of the plat-form. No jewelry was worn except a hand-wrought necklace of Chinese amber and dull gold. The hat was medium in size and made of velvet of a harmonizing brown shade. Her message was given in a friendly straightforward manner, and the entire audience felt in accord with the speaker. Therefore, they had respect for what she said. Both women were artistically clothed, but the latter spoke the language of her audience, in clothes as well as in words.

When ,the speaker comes out on the platform she is silhouetted against her background. If a feather of the hat sticks out at an unusual or unsymmetrical angle, the grotesqueness will immediately register an impression which is difficult to more generally comprehensive than foreign phrases or too scholarly language. Good taste in clothes is appreciated by all women, and fine sense of judgment and consideration for others would never permit a public speaker to dress in such a manner that she would be ridiculously beyond the financial status of her audience.

A certain lecturer on dress spoke before large groups of women in the auditorium of a department store. The platform was without stage setting, but the speaker herself was so attractive that she needed no background. She had soft gray hair, violet eyes, a clear pink skin, and her figure was perfect. She wore a softly-draped beige chiffon gown. Her shoes and hose matched her costume. At her waist was a bunch of orchids, on her wrists were strings of pearls, and three strands of the same jewels encircled her neck. A black lace picture hat with one large pink water-lily on the side gave a crowning touch to the picture. It was exquisite, perfect in detail—but out of key with the occasion. Why? Because the lecturer had not suited her costume to the practical message she had for her audience.

In another department store, another woman lectured on dress. She had brown hair and eyes, and a creamy skin. She wore brown shoes with hose of a lighter hue. Her dress was dark brown crêpe with self-colored indistinct figures.

A design has proportion—linear perfection. If the woman who is to appear on the platform has a long torso and short legs, she is not a "design," for she has not correct proportion. Hers must be the art of illusion. She must wear very high-heeled shoes and practise walking in them to acquire that grace of carriage which is so important to one who appears on a platform. She must never wear a skirt that is short all around, but must suggest lengthening shadows with long draperies. The train of one's evening gown helps to create the illusion of length of limb. Shoes and hosiery should match in color the lower part of the gown, so that even one's two feet help to suggest length.

I have sometimes seen a woman who is described as being devoid of art appreciation, tho she has a keen mind and is wise in her choice of language. Her husband may be always correct in his appearance, but she is not. Recently she appeared as a platform speaker in a black satin dress the front of which was covered with appliqués of huge red poppies. As it happened, she herself had red hair, and the combination of poppies and hair gave her such a ridiculous aspect that it greatly retarded her message.

Figured materials, like figured wall paper, often produce effects so grotesque and bewildering that the interest of the audience wanders away from the lecture to the costume of the speaker. Lace with a pronounced design over a different color will have the same effect.

Stiff, shiny fabrics, such as taffeta or metal cloth, do not drape in the soft, rounded line which is so desirable in the dress of a speaker. Soft, shadowful materials, such as Georgette and other silk crêpes, chiffons, cotton voiles, even the heavier crêpes like Canton, are for the eloquent woman. They are restful to the eyes of her audience as well. A self-colored design in a textile gives the effect of lights and shadows and is quite satisfactory.

A young girl pianiste who had youth and beauty once wore a vivid green dress with black satin shoes and touches of black trimming; the whole effect was so stiff because of lack of shadowing that it detracted greatly from her success. Shadowy sea-green, with crystal touches, and silver slippers and gray hose, would have transformed her into an illusive water-sprite who would instantly have captured her audience. Sharp contrasts in costume coloring are as offensive to an audience as a voice which changes quality from bass to falsetto.

The portraits of Rembrandt and Velasquez could well be imitated for their tones in costume by platform speakers. In most lecture and concert work, the artist can not be sure of her setting. For this reason, an assertive color could be ruined by proximity to another as striking, unless they were harmonious. Her whole appearance should be so delicately blended that one rarely recalls any definite color in the costume. This does not mean that one necessarily has to wear dreary tones. Costumes do not need to be drab in order to give the de-sired impression. Velasquez used simplicity and al-ways subordinated clothing to personality. Quiet elegance should be the ambition of every costume. Gray is very attractive for platform dress, but it should be carried out with care.

Some people have a preference for brown, and many pleasing effects may be worked out by blending tones of tan, gold, bronze, or brown. Brown, probably more than any other color, has an affinity for its own shades. Sometimes brown hair and eyes are charmingly emphasized by proximity to brown tones in one's wearing apparel. Two browns nearly alike in tone may be dull and monotonous, but hardly ever clash.

While we are considering color of costumes, it may be well to say a word concerning the back-ground against which the costume is to be displayed. Chevreul, that oft-consulted authority on color, gives scientific rules as to the choice of frames and hanging of pictures which might be applied with equal force to the background of the portrait that the entertainer makes. Consider the effect of the height of tone upon the different tones of the design. First, the picture the speaker makes; second, the complementary of the color (colors bring out their opposites) upon the color of the de-sign; third, the intensity of the diffused light which is considered most suitable to light the design. If the choice of curtain rests with the speaker, let her by all means choose a curtain of dull hues, prefer-ably dark ones.

It is well for a platform speaker to realize what a marked influence correct lighting has upon her appearance. When only footlights are used, the eyes are shadowed, and the chin and neck are aged far beyond their years. Artificial lighting properly employed is always kinder than sunlight.

Lights of violet color make the lips appear purple and bring out every imperfection of the skin, just as do unshaded electric lights. Blue lights have the same effect. Red lights are warm and cheerful and comfortable looking, but they do not enhance facial expression.

Green lights, especially if pale yellow-green, help to make one appear more attractive. An authority on color suggests that the lighting of cities with green lights would help to reduce crime, because the mental effect of green lights is soothing and restful and not at all stimulating like the ordinary violet electric lights.

Yellow lights should be used cautiously, but sometimes they are very becoming. A certain singer introduced on her stage a dark red-violet curtain. Side reflectors directed a flood of yellow light to the opening at the center of the velvet-hung background. The stage was bare except for the piano. The singer had dark red hair. She wore a soft yellow dress, touched with dull gold. The tableau of the artist as she stood for a moment framed in the doorway was very beautiful. But alas! when she stepped to the front of the stage where there were red footlights, every line of her face was unpleasingly emphasized, and her eyes became dull and hollowed by the shadows underneath.

The two best colors for indoor lighting are orange and rose. Orange reflected in the face improves the appearance of most complexions; it has the brilliancy of yellow and the warmth of red, combining happily to give an effect quite peculiarly its own. Rose suits the average complexion; it has the warmth of red without its searching quality.

When the stage is filled with members of a caste and each person is in need of aid from lighting, scattered overhead and footlights together with side floods may be necessary. But for a single person, the light should be concentrated, placed and colored to be as flattering as possible.

Every public speaker is, of course, more or less a center of attraction, and because of that can not afford to overlook any detail in the precision of dress. Her costume must never suggest discomfort. Bobbing the head back and forth to adjust the collar, pulling at a chain or beads, disciplining a shoulder strap that keeps slipping, teasing a dress neck that requires placing, any adjustment of these things which should have been firmly anchored, is not only disrupting to thought, but is disquieting to the nerves, and, therefore, detracts from the success of the speaker.

In the speaker's gown there must first of all be simplicity of design, something which can be comprehended at a glance. A woman who gave a series of lectures changed her costume for each one, but in all toilettes the design was the same. She said in speaking of this conformity: "All women study out a dress design. Even with the simplest one it takes some time, and I lose their attention for some minutes. If the problem is solved the first day, thereafter I can get instant attention to my subject."

A word as to the desirability of gloves as an accessory in the costuming of a public speaker may clear the mental atmosphere surrounding that much mooted question of whether "to wear or not to wear" them. An American woman visiting in Lon-don had to go hurriedly from an afternoon tea to a lecture engagement. Before going on the platform she had no time to rearrange her apparel. After the lecture the person in charge said, "I'm so glad you wore your gloves. Your lecture was received as one of real value, and it would not have been so had you removed your gloves." Customs differ; in America we always remove our gloves when speaking in public.

Be plain where others are plain; be fancy where others are fancy, is one of Lord Chesterfield's maxims which can be wisely observed by the aver-age public speaker. The person appearing before an audience has something to sell, just as definitely as does the manufacturer of perfume or baked beans. Not only does the appearance of the speaker advertise her wares, but it must help to sell them. It becomes a background for their presentation.

Business-like clothes make a business talk convincing; picturesque gowns suit light and frivolous subjects; dignified garments suggest words of wisdom; but beauty unhesitatingly speaks its own language.

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