Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/February 1893/Servility in Dress
THE further we travel from the origin of our species the less concern does male humanity show to enhance what share of beauty it may lay claim to, or to screen the ugliness it is generally heir to, by grace of garments. Among civilized and well-to-do men, gala costume has no keynote now but respectability—at weddings as at funerals, at garden parties as in Parliament, costume is attuned to harmonize with the hurtful cylinder of sable which the supineness of our great-grandfathers allowed the hatters to impose on them as a headdress, and a hundred hopeless years have but served to bind more tightly on our aching brows. If the chimney-pot hat were comfortable wear—were it sunproof or rainproof, or easily carried when not in use—our allegiance to it might be monotonous, but at least it would be intelligible. But, in plain sooth, it is intolerable in sunshine; it is so sensitive of rain-drops that an umbrella must be carried for its special shelter; and when we travel, it is as difficult to dispose of as a murdered corpse. It can not be concealed; the accursed thing will fit in with no other portion of our raiment, and must be provided with a special case of grotesque and impracticable shape. In wear or out of wear, we can not forget its existence nor neglect to make provision for its protection. Cephalalgic humanity has tried every means to be quit of it, but in vain. The creature has not even a serious name, for no one, except the fiend who frames it, knows it as a silk hat; schoolboys, with the contempt born of familiarity, call it a "buster" or a "topper"; soldiers, scornfully, a "stovepipe"; civilians, realistically, a "chimney-pot." In vain has bountiful Nature provided straw, and human ingenuity fashioned felt: two more perfect substances for head-covering could not have been devised; but, perversely, littering our horses with the one, and roofing our barns with the other, we thrust our thinking organs into unyielding towers of pasteboard. In a simpler age we should have made a god of It—prayed to It, sung to It, bowed to It, propitiated It; but, having adopted monotheism, we are outwardly consistent, and are content to insist on taking it to church with us. The first inhabitant of Mars who visits the earth, and publishes a volume of travels on his return, will probably describe how, in western Europe, the possession of a chimney-pot hat is held to be essential to salvation.
And now let us dismiss the Hat from consideration (would that it could be as easily dismissed from wear!) with a passing speculation as to the tenacity with which, in its present form, it has fixed itself in our scheme of costume. This probably has its origin, in the jealousy felt by those under middle height toward others of more commanding stature. The desire to level humanity down to one standard has undoubtedly given rise to many of our fashions. A small man may look no bigger with a tall hat on, but he feels so. A hat which adds four inches to the height of each of two men—one, A, being five feet high, the other, B, being six feet high—reduces the advantage possessed by B. For although he will still be twelve inches taller than A, A will no longer be shorter than B by one fifth of his (A's) own height, for 64 inches is to 76 as 16 to 19, whereas 60 inches is to 72 only as 15 to 18. £999 is much nearer £1,000 than £9 is to £10, though between each pair there is the same difference of 20s. So it looks as if in this matter of hats the small men are the chief culprits.
The same jealousy of superior physical advantage has brought about many of our ugliest fashions. Sculptors and painters sigh with vain Weltschmer for the small-clothes of eighteenth-century Macaronis and the trunk-hose of the Elizabethans, but so long as some men continue to be born with spindle or crooked shanks and doubtful ankles, so long will well-turned limbs be doomed to the obscurity of trousers. The excuse that trousers are more convenient and comfortable than breeches and hose is groundless and insincere.
In like degree, as graceful shapes have ceased to be sought for in designing men's garments, beauty of color has also been rejected, and a preference shown for black, white, or neutral tints. In no article of clothing is this more rigidly prescribed than in leg covering; and this is the more remarkable because the word "breeches" is supposed to be derived through the Roman form braccæ, from the Celtic breac, which means variegated, of many colors. This marked preference for somber hues arises, in part, from the same desire to neutralize the effect of physical superiority which has spoiled the shape of modern clothes.
It is part of the same plan which, as is well known to ethnographers, takes the form of tooth-breaking among primitive people in different parts of the world. Just as an influential Batoka of East Africa, or a Penong of Burmah, whose teeth happened to be defective, feels happier when he has persuaded other young men of his tribe to deface their faultless ivory; so a European grandee, of bilious or dyspeptic habit, would look with prejudice on one whose clear complexion and ruddy cheeks gained brilliancy by contrast with pale-blue satin or carnation silk; he might at least have the sense to eschew such combinations in his own attire, and, by showing preference for somber tints, tend, in virtue of his position and influence, to set the fashion flowing that way.
It is difficult to decide whether the gradual suppression of magnificence in male attire and the development of feminine finery among civilized races, is more interesting to the zoölogist, the anthropologist, or the moral philosopher.
To the first of these it is a perplexing departure from the scheme of Nature, where it is a rule that any marked difference between the sexes confers greater splendor upon the male. The peacock and peahen, the lion and lioness, the stag and the hind, are common examples of a principle which, among the higher animals, finds its only exception among certain falcons.
As for our moral philosopher, his opinion does not count for much in matters of dress, or its substitute—tattooing. He probably wears a shocking bad hat, with marks of ancient rain-drops, which, like those on the Corncockle flags in the New Red Sandstone, having once been allowed to dry, are practically indelible. His umbrella is robust enough to shelter three abreast, but, honest man, he had left it in the stand at the British Museum, or his mind was too busy with a complicated train of thought to allow him to put it up at the right moment. His theory of feminine dress finds no favor with the wife of his bosom or his daughters; they bewilder him by the mutability of their fashions, for no sooner has he found a parallel in dress-improvers to the worship of Venus Callipyge, than lo! they have melted away, and an unaccountable protuberance appears somewhere else. He prepares unanswerable arguments against the cruelty of adorning hats with feathers and the bodies of little birds, but, before he can produce them, ribbons and flowers are all the mode.
Perhaps women devote themselves to the details of millinery all the more because we men have allotted to them more than a fair share of the dull things of this life. We have left them comparatively little on which they can occupy themselves agreeably. They have books, of course, but books only serve as a whet to active employment. The daily round of household duties, the weekly discharge of bills, the tedious routine of morning calls, visitation of the sick—everything, in short, that bores a man is cast upon his wife; no wonder if her thoughts attach themselves to matters of toilet, which we despise as being beneath our dignity. And thereby we, who are the oppressors, derive unmerited advantage, for we are free to feast our eyes on the pretty things in which the fair sex go pranked.
Not that our enjoyment is without alloy. Feminine costume is subject to the most sudden and excruciating variations. No sooner have we learned to delight in a simple, becoming fashion, than instantly the Evil One, whose dwelling-place is in Paris, contrives some mock deformity, and every woman of spirit hastens to adopt it. There is nothing in the human frame more pleasing to the eye than the sweet lines of a woman's shoulder; yet this is precisely the part which, during the last year or two, the malice of modistes has concealed with every ingenuity of structure. Vertical humps have been placed there, contrived so as to make the chest look as narrow, the shoulders as high, and the neck as short as possible.
The serious part of this is, that the immense cost of women's dress leaves nothing of value behind it. Sables are positively the only purchase that can be looked on as a safe investment. The most thoughtful selection and design of other materials is sure to be soon stultified by the imperious caprice of Monsieur Worth. By no means can the sorrowful folly of this thralldom be brought home to one more forcibly than by a visit to the cases in the British Museum, containing the little funebral figures from the tombs of Tanagra. The exquisite grace of raiment, the delicate hair-dressing, varied to suit each different cast of features, the care with which beauty of form is accentuated instead of being wrapped up or distorted—all convince one of the cruelty of the modern system which robs our eyes of legitimate delight. How would it be with us were it the custom to lay in the tombs of our departed ones little statuettes, representing them in their best clothes? Should we not shrink from the criticism of posterity? It must be confessed that women would stand this ordeal better than men: still, a modern ball-dress, with corsage cutting horizontally across the bust, is a terrible violation of the natural lines of the figure, especially when, by means of long stays, the cincture is thrust away down where no sculptor would dream of placing it. In the name of common honesty, whence comes the mock delicacy of forbidding the form of a woman's legs to be seen? Are they more suggestive of unlawful thoughts than arms and shoulders? Shall Diana be accounted less than chaste because her statue in the Vatican shows her with tunic girt well above her bare knees? The Spartan virgins were not the less reverently regarded because the graceful chiton, being open on one side to allow freedom of movement, flew open as they walked, and got them the name of φαινομηρίδεσ. It is utterly unjust that, because some women have indifferent legs, all should be compelled to wear long skirts on all occasions. If it is desired to see which is most becoming, compare an Ayrshire dairymaid in work-a-day attire of short pleated petticoat and the linen jacket called a bedgown, snooded hair, woolen hose, and serviceable shoes, with the same girl figged out on Sunday with a flyaway bonnet on her head, a travesty of Paris fashions on her back, trailing skirts, and high-heeled Balmorals. Of the two, the first is not only the more pleasing, but infinitely the more modest in appearance.
Marie Bashkirtseff, in composing the most self-conscious journal ever penned, was in the habit of subjecting her own actions and those of others to frank analysis. She came to the conclusion that the sentiment of physical modesty was one arising from a sense of one's own imperfection; that if one could be quite conscious of perfect proportion and beauty, there would cease to be any motive or impulse to conceal the body and limbs. Perhaps it is as well that misgivings on this point are pretty universal; but, seeing that it is fixed by an utterly arbitrary rule what portions of the body may be displayed and what may be concealed, it may be permitted to enter a protest against the tyranny which forbids one young lady to show her ankles because another one finds it expedient to conceal hers.
One longs for redemption from the barbarities of feminine fashions. One sighs to exchange the long, wasp-like waists and tight-lacing for the simple, easy gowns of our grandmothers, to replace the girdle where the Grecian zone was bound, just clear of the ribs. But one has an uneasy foreboding that the simplicity of classical toilets might be interfered with by the diabolical devices of milliners. At the close of last century, before small waists came, in the inscrutable movement of the female mind, to be counted a beauty, there was an atrocious fashion of wearing pads below the girdle, so that the drapery should fall in unbroken sweep from the bosom to the ground. Many were the shafts aimed by ribald writers against this extraordinary device; many the unjust imputations to which it gave rise:
"Some say Nature's rights 'tis invading
This sham swelling garb to put on:
It passed away, and the last ninety years have seen the beginning and end of many other modes more unsightly and not less absurd. Is it hoping too much that, seeing how fast the fashions fly, all the ludicrous, hideous, and hurtful ones will, in the fullness of time, have been discarded, and a return be made to the only faultless model the world has ever seen?—Abridged from an article entitled Clothes in Blackwood's Magazine.