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On Dress

THE wise physician does not take his own drugs neither do the wise and witty Frenchwomen follow their own fashions, that is to say, they do not follow them to extremes, nor adhere to them with the martyr-like fidelity which so strongly characterizes Americans. At last, however, our countrywomen are be-ginning to think for themselves a little in the matter of dress. Since it has grown to be fashionable to dress becomingly and with a certain amount of individuality, we have plucked up a little spirit, and have even signed a sort of moderate and feeble declaration of independence against our old enemies, French fashions and perfect uniformity in dress. How well I remember a certain spring season in my childhood when every woman between the ages of twelve and forty wore a yellow straw-bonnet trimmed with green ribbon on the outside and pink on the inside! And that autumn after Napoleon III.'s campaign in Italy, when no respectable person thought of having her bonnet trimmed with any other color than solferino or magenta! Now, if we come across a bit of one of these old and crude colors in looking over some ancient store of scraps and pieces, how we shudder! We can hardly believe that " gentlewomen wore such caps as these," or could have made themselves so supremely ugly.

The study of dress is in these days an approved branch of feminine education. It has never been wholly neglected, only women have too often pursued it with their eyes shut, and now they mean to keep them open, a very great improvement.

The two chief points which a woman should always bear in mind in regard to dress are first, is it appropriate; second, is it becoming? A lady should never be tempted to wear a costume which is unsuitable to the occasion, merely by the fact that she looks well in it; because in so doing she violates that harmony which is one of the first laws of art and nature alike. Instead of pleasing other people she will jar- on their sense of fitness, and she will be apt also to render herself conspicuous, and to appear to display unnecessary vanity.

Dress should always be subordinate to the wearer; for if a human being is of any account at all, he is surely more important than his own clothes. Never dress in such a way, therefore, that your clothes shall attract every one's attention, as if you considered them of vastly more consequence than yourself. We all remember the old Roman joke about " the sword that was seen with a little man tied to it." We should " dress to live, not live to dress." And yet some women spend their whole time and energy in devising and planning what they shall wear, and where-withal they shall be clothed, as if they themselves, their own hearts and minds and bodies, were of comparatively small importance beside the vast, never-ending subject of clothing!

Lord Chesterfield says, " The difference in dress between a man and a fop is, that the fop values himself upon his dress; and the man of sense laughs at it at the same time that he knows he must not neglect it."

What tremendous satire lies in Thackeray's caricature of Le Grand Monarque Louis XIV.! First, we have the man and his clothes combined; second, we have the little old king, looking small enough without his grand finery; and third, there is the finery alone, -- enormous wig, great wide-sleeved, long-skirted coat, and shoes with lofty heels. Really, it looks al-most as well without any one in it. It' can stand alone quite as well as some of the rich silk dresses that are supposed to be able to do so. And if Thackeray is powerful on this subject, what shall we say of the great master Carlyle and his wonderful " Sartor Resartus," in which not the folly alone of man's making a clothes-horse of himself, but the folly and unworthiness of so many pursuits that go to make up the sum of human life are portrayed with the author's inimitable satire, from which pathos is never far distant! Carlyle's laughter comes ever near to tears.

Whether Woman is behind Man in civilization because she pays an attention to dress which he has long ago given up, or whether her devotion to it is because man requires her to be robed in gay attire, is a question which I shall not here enter into. Suffice it to acknowledge that women are expected in this age to pay more attention to dress than men do, and that they are therefore justified in so doing within limits.

In determining whether a lady's dress is or is not appropriate, we must take into consideration not only the occasion on which it is worn but the worldly means of the wearer. It is decidedly inappropriate, and in very bad taste, to dress more expensively than one can afford to do. No one thinks better of you for doing so. The spiteful will laugh at you, and the " judicious will grieve," to think that you have gone to an expense which you could not afford, and for which you may pay dearly in some way. Never ape the finery of those who are much richer in worldly goods than you are; of great statues we have plaster casts, it is true, but a cheap copy, of a handsome dress is apt to be a wretched affair. There are certain styles which look well in all materials, but these are the exceptions. As a rule, what is appropriate in a silk dress is not suitable for a calico, and vice versa. A cheap material, especially if it be woollen, and intended for everyday use, should be trimmed very plainly. How often do we see in the trolley-cars (where enforced idleness gives one leisure for the study of sumptuary laws) garments made of cheap, flimsy dry-goods, elaborately garnished with shabby passe-menterie, poorly cut, and considerably the worse for wear, some light color which shows every spot, adding to the general inappropriateness of the costume! A dress should be made very simply if it is expected to do service for a long time. Elaborate trimmings soon grow shabby.

Another fatal error which some women make is that of putting handsome, expensive trimming on cheap gowns. It fairly makes one shudder to see iridescent beads on an ill-fitting garment which cost twenty-five cents a yard! How much better would it have been to take the money spent for these inappropriate gewgaws and to pay therewith for the services of a good dressmaker! Or if a woman is obliged to do all her own sewing, let her save the time spent in making complicated plaits and smockings and expend it in learning to make her dresses fit well. The result will be much more stylish and more satisfactory in every way.

All scholars know the difficulty of translating a poem from one language into another. To translate a Worth costume meant to be worn at receptions and card-parties, into a home-made gown intended for walking in muddy streets through all weathers, is just about as easy. A wise woman will not attempt " to keep to the original metre " in such a case.

An author, who is a man of considerable parts, despite his numerous follies and affectations, has written a very interesting article, in which he points out how much thought Shakespeare gave to the subject of dress, and what an important part it has in the dramatic effect produced by his plays. Many of the characters describe their own costume, although the description is so skilfully interwoven with the rest of the text that one does not think of it as a stage direction " what to wear."

Of Juliet the article says, " A modern playwright would probably have laid her out in her shroud, and made the scene a scene of horror merely; but Shakspeare arrays her in rich and gorgeous raiment, whose loveliness makes the vault a feasting presence full of light,' turns the tomb into a bridal chamber, and gives the cue and motive for Romeo's speech of the triumph of Love over Life, and of Beauty over Death." An inventory, still in existence, of the costume ward-robe of a London theatre in Shakspeare's time contains a most astonishing number and variety of garments of every sort, including a robe " for to go invisibell," no doubt for the ghost in Hamlet.

The Greeks, - from whose school of taste and art what modern nation can hope to graduate? - the Greeks finished their statues as perfectly behind as in front, even those which were placed so high in the friezes of the temples that no one could possibly see the reverse side. Women can well take a hint from this many-sided perfection, and remember that the effect of a costume should be studied in the rear and in profile quite as much as in front.

Every woman who can possibly afford it should have a cheval-glass, or at any rate a glass long enough to reflect her whole figure from head to foot, otherwise she cannot know with any certainty the true appearance of her costume. This is specially necessary for people either much shorter or much taller than the average height, since the result may be very disastrous if they attempt to copy a style of dress which looks well on some woman of medium height, without stopping to think whether the same thing will be be-coming to a person of different figure. The same advice may be given to very stout or very thin women, to very pale or very florid ones; in short, to any one who differs decidedly in any particular from the average woman, The average woman only can copy with impunity or with anything resembling it. Garments are made to fit her, and fashions are designed more or less to become her; but even she must not revel in sheep-like imitation if she wishes to look her best.

It is only a very good figure which looks well when all its outlines are shown distinctly; a woman with a poor figure should seek rather to soften and disguise it, be she angular and high-shouldered, or short and stout. What painful displays of ugly forms we have all seen when the fashion of the moment prescribed tight-fitting garments.

A very tall woman who wears a very long skirt should have some form of trimming' on it, because this breaks the line of the skirt and makes it seem shorter. A short woman, per contra, should wear little trimming on her skirt, or should have it near the bottom, so as to make the lines long. A short-waisted woman should never wear a belt. A very stout person should wear dark colors (which make one look smaller), and materials which are close and fine rather than loose and rough. The effect of a stout woman arrayed in gray furzy cloth covered with imitation snow-flakes is very like that of a polar bear. Another delusion of short stout elderly women is that very tight-. fitting clothes are becoming to them; and so they allow their dress-makers to array them in clinging garments which make them look like closely-draped beer-barrels.

When the great Beau Brummel was asked why Englishmen were so much better dressed than French-men, he replied laconically, "'Tis the hat." Some authorities in these days maintain with a good deal of reason that if a man's hat is new and in good style, it does not so much matter about the rest of his clothes. Good gloves, good shoes, and a fresh hat or bonnet are certainly very important items in a person's appearance. The great man quoted above said that a gentleman should use six pairs of gloves in a day! Gloves should be well fitting: it is seldom an economy to buy cheap ones.

According to the present fashion, ladies do not take off their gloves at a ball, reception or other occasion where the collation is a stand-up affair. They keep their gloves on while eating, although to many of us it seems far from neat to do so, since one cannot hold cake, sandwiches, etc., in one's fingers without soiling the gloves.

It is considered good form to take off gloves on sitting down at table; and they are always removed at break-fast, luncheon, dinner and high tea. It is a mistake to take off only the part fitting the hand and to tuck this in at the wrist. Gloves should never be laid on the dinner-table, nor put in a wine-glass. If a lady possesses neither bag nor accessible pocket, she should hold them in her lap, and be very careful not to drop them--on the floor.

Gloves appear to have been very ancient concomitants of civilization. In the Odyssey, Homer describes Laertes as working in his garden with leather gloves to protect his hands from thorns. Gloves are also spoken of in the Bible, in the book of Ruth and in that of Kings. Queen Elizabeth of England wore sweet-scented gloves, which were brought from Italy during her reign by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

Never allow one garment to be so expensive or showy that the rest of your costume will contrast badly with it. Do not wear a thirty-dollar bonnet with an old and shabby dress. Let all your garments have a certain accord with one another, so that they may seem to belong together. If the colors contrast, let it not be with too much violence.

One should be very careful to select materials and styles of dress that are suited to one's age, figure, height and complexion. A great many women consider only the beauty or ugliness of a garment in itself, and quite forget that the same costume will make one woman look like a scarecrow and another like a goddess.

They see in the street, perhaps, some " love of a hat" worn by a charming young girl with fresh bright complexion, and are filled with a desire and a determination to have one just exactly like it, never stop-ping to think whether it will be equally suitable to a person of a totally different coloring, age and figure.

There is an old saying that a sheep does not look well dressed up in a lamb's clothing. Miss Maria Oakey, in her little book on " Beauty in Dress," points out to women that as their age increases, the tints of the complexion necessarily change, and that therefore the same colors will not be becoming to a woman of forty and to a girl of sixteen. It is the same old story that Dr. Holmes tells so charmingly in his " Autocrat of the Breakfast-table." Old Age (so the witty Doctor says) comes to us in the guise of a friend, and offers us now a cane and a pair of arctics to aid our steps in slippery weather, and now a muffler to keep out the winter's cold. We are quite indignant at his first visit. We inform him that he has mistaken the house, and we go bravely out, scorning his proffered aid. But a fall on the ice or an attack of sore-throat teaches us that Old Age was right, and the second time he calls upon us we receive the wraps and mufflers with a thankful and humble heart.

So it is, or so it should be, with dress; both men and women should remember to modify the style and fashion of their clothes as they grow older. But alas! many people are seized with a sudden desire for youth just as it is slipping away from them, and men of forty-five will shave off their beards and appear with the smooth face which looks well only on a young man or a very handsome one. Women of mature years will wear jaunty round hats, or waists with Dutch necks, forgetting that age shows about the throat and neck as much as at the corners of the eyes.

Many people, however, go to the other extreme, and, knowing that their youth is a thing of the past, they pay little attention to the question whether their dress is becoming or the reverse. They fossilize into a certain style of costume and into a certain way of arranging the hair. Every woman, if she lives long enough, reaches this state of fossilization of coiffure and dress; but some women reach it at an unduly early age.

While the affectation of youth is a thing to be strenuously avoided, it is still to be remembered that at every age the human form divine possesses some degree of beauty. The beauty of middle-aged and elderly people is not usually perceptible to the very young, but it is to their contemporaries; and it is patent to all the world that every one, even a plain or elderly person, looks better when becomingly dressed.

Therefore, when a middle-aged woman imagines that no one cares how she looks or dresses, she makes a great mistake. To her husband, her children, and her friends it is surely gratifying to see the mother of the family clad in a becoming costume; and while, like the pelican, she may strip off some of her fine feathers for the benefit of her nestlings, she should not imitate the conduct of fond and foolish Lear, and give her worldly all to her children.

American women wear much more showy and elaborate costumes when walking in the street than do their European sisters, who consider it unladylike to go abroad in gorgeous raiment except in a carriage. We are beginning to be of the same opinion in this country; witness the quiet tailor-made street costumes now so popular.

Diamonds and handsome jewels are never worn in the street nor in travelling by Englishwomen of quality, who consider that such ornaments should be reserved for the evening or for large and gay occasions. In this country the rules in regard to wearing jewelry are much more lax; but women of good taste seldom wear bracelets or much jewelry of any sort in the morning, or in the street at any hour. Many ladies wear strings of pearls in the daytime, especially if these are not very large. It certainly seems inappropriate to time and place to wear large and expensive pearls when walking in the street. One incurs also no small risk of having them stolen.

The woman who walks abroad or goes in the cars very showily dressed and covered with jewelry, conveys to the beholder the idea that she does not belong to what is technically called society; that she has no legitimate opportunity to display her handsome clothes, and therefore is obliged to wear them in the street or not at all.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Conversation In Society

On Voice, Language And Accent

Gestures And Carriage

Introductions

Letters Of Introduction

On Dress

Dress And Customs Appropriate To Mourning

Host And Guest

Country Manners And Hospitality

In The Street And In Public Places

Read More Articles About: Social Customs



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