Fashion In Dress
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
I suppose most of my readers have heard the story of the profane Irishman, who lost a load of potatoes out of his cart as he was going up hill. Looking around, and coolly taking in the situation, he deliberately took off his hat and said he would not swear, because he could not do the subject justice. The author approaches the subject of fashion in dress with a similar feeling. He knows that he cannot do the subject justice, and he doubts whether any man can. Let any reader whose memory reaches back a quarter of a century recall the fashions that have prevailed from time to time during that period. Our coats, once reaching to the shoe-tops, have been cut shorter and shorter with each succeeding fall and spring, until the "coattail" is now a matter of history and no longer a matter of fact. .Pantaloons, once large and loose, have gradually contracted until there is danger of the tailors requiring us to lay off our flesh and have our "pants" fitted to the bone. Shoes, a decade ago large enough and broad enough for genuine comfort, have joined in the contracting process of fashion, until our feet have assumed the shape of number ten tooth-picks. Hats, three years ago "flat as a pancake," have grown taller and narrower until a man looks as though he wore a "tallow-dip " instead of a hat. And who can adequately describe the abominations we have had in collars, cuffs, and cravats. There is no end to the changes and whims of fashion. And these changes are not made to suit the comfort and convenience of those who wear the garments, but simply to add expense and extravagance and give employment to a standing army of fashion-mongers, tailors, mantua-makers, and other nameless people who are doing service in making garments for the rich and foolish.
But, with all the follies I have named, men dress more comfortably, more attractively, and usually with less expense than women do. Evening dress for men has not materially changed in fifty years. It is still elegant, comfortable, attractive, and less expensive than woman's dress, from the fact that a single suit will last through two or three winters. With the . exception of minor changes in style, the everyday dress of men does not change ; and then a man can wear a good suit through the work of the day and be presentable in the parlor at night without any change. The busy, practical lives of men make these things a necessity. Men who are engaged in absorbing occupations could not and would not subject themselves to the unutterable slavery to dress that fashion imposes upon their wives and sisters. Let Mrs. Grundy prescribe a change of clothing three times a day for bankers, merchants, physicians, lawyers, teachers, etc., and she would soon see how practical men would treat the dress question. It is not claimed that men are wholly free from the tyranny of fashion. There are some fools yet among the masculine population of the globe. But it is claimed that men's habits of dress are vastly in advance of those of women, and, we are proud to add, in the direction of comfort, health, and good sense.
We have already said that it is a woman's duty to dress becomingly. It is a disgrace to clothe a beautiful form in mean clothing, even in the name of religion. And we have no word to say against those delicate female tricks that add to graces of person the further graces of dress, provided only they be healthful and in good taste. We do not ask women to wear "meal bags" for dresses, nor "sugar-scoops" for bonnets, even for the sake of a principle. But beauty of person is a subordinate thing and should never occupy a woman's thought to the exclusion of more worthy ends of life. It is right that she be beautiful and look beautiful but it is not right that she unfit herself for all the practical duties of life by studying day and night how to keep so. To a sensible woman, becoming dress is only a minor accomplishment, and occupies but little of her thought. But there are thousands of whom this is not true. There are thousands who have descended to an unseemly idolatry of dress. They bestow upon it all the time, money, thought and effort that they possess, and are only satisfied when they have succeeded in debasing woman's reason and taking up the role of idiots rather than sensible and attractive people. The great mass of our women dress like "scare crows" and think more of being in fashion than of being in their right mind. Dr. Holland spoke so wisely upon this point that we quote the following:
"To dress well, becomingly, even richly, if it can be afforded, is a woman's duty. To make the dress of the person the exponent of personal taste is a woman's privilege. But to make dress the grand object of life ; to think of nothing and talk of nothing but that which pertains to the drapery and artificial ornament of the person, is to transform the trick of a courtesan into amusement for a fool. There are multitudes of women with whom dress is the all-prevalent thought. They think of it, dream of it, live for it. It is enough to disgust one to hear them talk about it. It goes with them from the gaiety of the ball-room into the weeds of the house of death. They use it as a means for splitting grief into vulgar fractions, and are led out from great bereavements into the consolations of vanity by the hands of numerators and denominators. They flatter one another, envy one another, hate one another—all on the score of dress. They go upon the street to show their dresses. They enter the house of God to display their bonnets. They actually prize themselves more highly for what they wear than for any charm of person or mind which they may possess ! "
In looking back over twenty years, however, there are visible signs of improvement. Women dress better than formerly. They wear more comfortable and more healthful garments than they did a score of years ago. We welcome the signs of better things, but there is vast need of release from the thralldom of fashion. The humps of the dromedary and other biformities add nothing to grace of person nor attractiveness of dress. These follies might well be given up. To clothe the body in simple, becoming, graceful attire is the true ideal of dress. It is probably not desirable to seek any material change in the garments that are and have been worn. Only to make these and wear them so that they shall give freedom and health to the body and becoming grace to the person of the wearer. We do not need a dress reform so much as a moral and intellectual reform that shall give women some rational employment that will take the mass of them from their idleness and fashion-books.