Health and beauty by Caplin/Chapter I
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ON THE RELATION OF DRESS TO THE HUMAN FIGURE.
EVER since the cultivation of literature in Europe, and long perhaps before that time—for there were talkers before there were writers in the world—the absurdities of Fashion have formed a constant theme of declamation; but, after a careful review of what has been written upon this subject, we rise from the perusal of a number of learned and interesting books, without having in the whole course of our reading met with one single observation on the true principle of a scientific adaptation of the dress to the body. Nature has taken care to suit the external envelope to the internal organs of the frame—has made even the bones so yielding that the soft and delicate organs which are encased in them may have a free development; but the designers of dress have ever been interfering with her method; and, for this simple reason, because dressing has been an art in which the fashion and cost of the clothing have been the objects of display. Now, in our conception, there should be a science rather than an art of dressing, and that, too, founded upon certain principles of adaptation by which the external clothing shall display the full beauty of the naturally well-formed figure; and, in cases where nature has not bestowed a perfect form, the defect should be atoned for by supporting the weak organs, and restoring the figure according to our ideal of what it was intended that that particular body should be. Everyone, we suppose, will admit that there is a natural standard of beauty; and that standard is what we are ever attempting to approximate to.
In all uncivilized countries mankind mutilate the body under the absurd impression that they are adding to its beauty. The flat-headed Indian compresses the forehead, the Chinese ladies the foot, and the European ladies the waist; whilst other races either paint the eyebrows, dye the nails, distend the ears, or tattoo the face, under the same barbarous idea. Now, no mutilating of the body of this kind can do anything but injure and render it ugly. And, of all the customs that we have alluded to, there is none perhaps more injurious than that of compressing the chest and waist; and yet, from the absurd idea that fashion is displayed, or beauty augmented, this unnatural course is persisted in, and corsets are still worn that have as little relation to the human form as the stiff, boned, boarded, and leather stays which were worn three centuries ago.
It must also be borne in mind that if satire and invective could have cured the ladies of this custom, it would have been driven out of the world ages ago. The first English poet whose works have come down to us, has abused the ladies soundly for their extravagance in dress, fasting, and bleeding, to make themselves look pale, and tightening their waists and breasts, and dyeing their hair yellow. And a French moralist, writing in the middle of the fifteenth century, says, "Another evil is to the body. By detestable vanity ladies of rank now cause their robes to be made so low in the breast, and so open on the shoulders, that we may see nearly the whole bosom, and much of their shoulders and necks, and much below down their backs, and so tight in the waist that they can scarcely respire in them, and often suffer great pain by it." But neither the satire of the poet, the sober warning of the moralist, the preaching of the monks, who went through Europe exposing the abominations of the fashionable costume, nor even the pain occasioned by the unnatural compression, and the danger, to say nothing of the indelicacy, of leaving the chest exposed, could ever cure the evil, and for this simple reason—they only pointed out the wrong and left the right method of dressing undiscovered. We may take it for granted that people must and will dress elegantly if they have the means of doing so, and it is perfectly right that they should. We have no puritanical crusade to preach against display and elegance; but when health is sacrificed to fashion, and the grace and beauty of nature marred by a barbarous practice, which has come down to us from a time when physiology was unknown; and the true conditions of human well-being not understood, we may perhaps merit the gratitude of some who are suffering ill-health or deformity, by pointing out the true principles upon which dress should be constructed, and all the evils attendant upon badly-formed clothing avoided.
To render our remarks upon this subject perfectly clear, we may premise that there are several kinds of beauty, each of which has its ideal standard. The temperaments are generally taken as the bases out of which those particular types are evolved; but, as a minute description of the temperaments belongs to the physiologist and phrenologist rather than to us, we are obliged to take some more general classification to illustrate our ideas.
Mr. Walker, in his elaborate work on Female Beauty, describes three several varieties, each of which is perfect in its kind. He arranges them under the heads of
- Intellectual beauty as shown in the statue of Minerva.
- Nutritious beauty as shown in the statue of Venus.
- Locomotive beauty as shown in the statue of Diana.
In the first, the intellectual qualities predominate, and the figure is slight, yet capable of supporting great fatigue. The head is large in proportion to the body, and the intellectual powers seem to absorb the nutrition required for the growth of the physical organization. In the second, the trunk is larger and longer, the waist and hips broader, the lower limbs shorter, affording ample space for the development of all the vital organs. In the third, the trunk is shorter, the extremities longer and more powerful, the head smaller, and, generally speaking, the character more determined. He also gives the different mixtures of each of these temperaments, which give rise to the intermediate forms; it is enough for our purpose to observe, that no absolute standard of beauty can be fixed, each style having its own peculiar excellences, and that, therefore, before any adaptation of dress can be successfully constructed, the contour of the body should be carefully observed, and no attempt made to regulate its form by any preconceived standard of fashion which is based upon any but that particular type.
Taking, then, the perfect female figure as the groundwork of all our adaptations; our exertions are always directed to the preservation of its specific beauties; or, in the event of any deviation, to its restoration, by gentle and gradual means, to the true ideal form which nature originally stamped upon it; or at least to the attainment of as near an approximation to it as possible. Were we to relate the numerous instances in which success, little short of miraculous, has attended our efforts, we should be accused of egotism, and perhaps even of exaggeration; but we profess nothing that we cannot perform, and we most solemnly assert, that we have never had a case in which our system has been fairly tried, and the use of our adaptations persevered in, without the desired end being attained in a greater or less degree. As the incarnation of all that is beautiful in woman, the Venus de Medicis is universally acknowledged the most perfect specimen of female loveliness and grace, and we have accordingly taken it as our model. Any description of this chef-d'œuvre of art would be superfluous, as the figure itself is to be found among the decorations of the palace and the cottage; and this fact alone is sufficient to prove its approximation to the ideal of beauty which is inherent in the human mind, and which pervades all classes of society. When we say that this figure is taken as our starting-point, it must be understood that we take it as if it were in an erect position—the proportions, not the attitude, being what we require. We mention this, because it has been remarked that the majority of the ancient statues are represented in a stooping posture, and that it is in reality the most graceful; consequently, that ladies should imitate this if they desire to possess equal elegance.
Now, grant that, for a momentary attitude, the slight bend of the body is exquisitely beautiful; but if we could suppose the Venus unable to alter that posture, and to be thus rigidly fixed in life, surely we should be justified in calling this a deformity As well might we consider the attitude of Diana (which, if my memory serves me rightly, is almost the only ancient erect figure,) to be perfectly natural, and not to be departed from. It will be recollected that she is represented with the right arm extended, and the head turned over the right shoulder, the left hand grasping the horns of a goat, and the weight of the body thrown on the left leg. This, however, is but a momentary position, and in contemplating this beautiful work of art the mind instinctively pictures the figure in a state of erect and majestic repose. So also with the Venus—the proportions alone strike the eye, and the mind,
"Dazzled and drunk with beauty,"
immediately pictures that lovely figure in every attitude which the human form is capable of assuming. Disastrous results always follow a continued pressure on the vital organs, and a little reflection will prove that no such constrained position could be maintained for any length of time without producing injurious results.
The more striking distinctions between the perfect male and female form may be easily perceived. The bones of the female are lighter, softer, and more elegantly shaped than those of the male. The female head is smaller, the pelvis is broader and deeper, and the cavity of the acetabulum less deeply sunk than in man. The neck of the thigh-bone is shorter and more sloping in man than in woman, and in him, therefore, the basis of support is greater, and is more immediately in the centre of gravity. The femurs being further apart, and the knees closer in woman, diminishes the base of support, and imparts a peculiar rolling motion to her progression; hence, walking is more difficult in woman than in man, and cannot be so long continued. The stature of woman is about two or three inches below that of man, and her muscles are less projecting—partly because they are smaller and less powerful, and partly from their fatty covering, which contributes so much to the rounded and undulating outline of her form. The breast and haunches of the male and female are in inverse proportion—the chest being broad and the hips narrow in the former, the reverse in the latter; or, in other words, if a plumb-line be let fall from the points of the shoulders of both, the hips of the woman would project beyond the line, while those of the man would fall considerably within it. Again, when in a recumbent posture on the back, the breast of the man will be the highest part, but the pubes in the woman. The female loins are also the broadest, and the hollow of her back the greatest, in order that the due inclination may be given to the pelvis.
Everyone of the particulars mentioned above must be taken into consideration in any attempt to adjust the dress to the body, so as to develop its beauty and proportions; and it must be borne in mind too, that it is that beauty and those proportions which all our efforts must be directed to display. In making this assertion, we take everything into account which can be said to belong to the well-being of the body; more particularly health and comfort—for without health there can be no beauty. Young ladies sometimes imagine that there is something interesting in illness; but they forget that it is the melancholy interest which is bestowed upon the withered rose, and not the joyful pride which always accompanies cheerfulness and success.
What the reader may expect to find, therefore, in this book is, due consideration of all the conditions essential to health, and an effort to adapt all the clothing necessary to be worn to its conservation. This is with us the first condition; but next to this we direct the whole of our efforts to the embellishment of the person, and, taking into consideration the particular temperament that we have to deal with, give it that form and proportion which accord with the true ideal of its natural beauty. This, of course, requires that the form, the colour, and proportions should be adapted to everyone specifically, and forbids our laying down any but the most general rules for the regulation of the common costume.
The various phases of life afford us the best order in which we may distribute what we have to say; and we shall therefore point out the proper method of dressing adapted to all ages, from the cradle to the grave.