The Americanization of Edward Bok/Chapter 29
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Chapter 29: An Excursion into the Feminine Nature
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THE STRANGLING hold which the Paris couturiers had secured on the American woman in their absolute dictation as to her fashions in dress, had interested Edward Bok for some time. As he studied the question, he was constantly amazed at the audacity with which these French dressmakers and milliners, often themselves of little taste and scant morals, cracked the whip, and the docility with which the American woman blindly and unintelligently danced to their measure. The deeper he went into the matter, too, the more deceit and misrepresentation did he find in the situation. It was inconceivable that the American woman should submit to what was being imposed upon her if she knew the facts. He determined that she should. The process of Americanization going on within him decided him to expose the Paris conditions and advocate and present American-designed fashions for women.
The Journal engaged the best-informed woman in Paris frankly to lay open the situation to the American women; she proved that the designs sent over by the so-called Paris arbiters of fashion were never worn by the Frenchwoman of birth and good taste; that they were especially designed and specifically intended for “the bizarre American trade,” as one polite Frenchman called it; and that the only women in Paris who wore these grotesque and often immoderate styles were of the demimonde.
This article was the opening gun of the campaign, and this was quickly followed by a second equally convincing—both articles being written from the inside of the gilded circles of the couturiers’ shops. Madame Sarah Bernhardt was visiting the United States at the time, and Bok induced the great actress to verify the statements printed. She went farther and expressed amazement at the readiness with which the American woman had been duped; and indicated her horror on seeing American women of refined sensibilities and position dressed in the gowns of the déclassé street-women of Paris. The somewhat sensational nature of the articles attracted the attention of the American newspapers, which copied and commented on them; the gist of them was cabled over to Paris, and, of course, the Paris couturiers denied the charges. But their denials were in general terms; and no convincing proof of the falsity of the charges was furnished. The French couturier simply resorted to a shrug of the shoulder and a laugh, implying that the accusations were beneath his notice.
Bok now followed the French models of dresses and millinery to the United States, and soon found that for every genuine Parisian model sold in the large cities at least ten were copies, made in New York shops, but with the labels of the French dressmakers and milliners sewed on them. He followed the labels to their source, and discovered a firm one of whose specialties was the making of these labels bearing the names of the leading French designers. They were manufactured by the gross, and sold in bundles to the retailers. Bok secured a list of the buyers of these labels and found that they represented some of the leading merchants throughout the country. All these facts he published. The retailers now sprang up in arms and denied the charges, but again the denials were in general terms. Bok had the facts and they knew it. These facts were too specific and too convincing to be controverted.
The editor had now presented a complete case before the women of America as to the character of the Paris-designed fashions and the manner in which women were being hoodwinked in buying imitations.
Meanwhile, he had engaged the most expert designers in the world of women’s dress and commissioned them to create American designs. He sent one of his editors to the West to get first-hand motifs from Indian costumes and adapt them as decorative themes for dress embroideries. Three designers searched the Metropolitan Museum for new and artistic ideas, and he induced his company to install a battery of four-color presses in order that the designs might be given in all the beauty of their original colors. For months designers and artists worked; he had the designs passed upon by a board of judges composed of New York women who knew good clothes, and then he began their publication.
The editor of The New York Times asked Bok to conduct for that newspaper a prize contest for the best American-designed dresses and hats, and edit a special supplement presenting them in full colors, the prizes to be awarded by a jury of six of the leading New York women best versed in matters of dress. Hundreds of designs were submitted, the best were selected, and the supplement issued under the most successful auspices.
In his own magazine, Bok published pages of American-designed fashions: their presence in the magazine was advertised far and wide; conventions of dressmakers were called to consider the salability of domestic-designed fashions; and a campaign with the slogan “American Fashions for American Women” was soon in full swing.
But there it ended. The women looked the designs over with interest, as they did all designs of new clothes, and paid no further attention to them. The very fact that they were of American design prejudiced the women against them. America never had designed good clothes, they argued: she never would. Argument availed naught. The Paris germ was deep-rooted in the feminine mind of America: the women acknowledged that they were, perhaps, being hoodwinked by spurious French dresses and hats; that the case presented by Bok seemed convincing enough, but the temptation to throw a coat over a sofa or a chair to expose a Parisian label to the eyes of some other woman was too great; there was always a gambling chance that her particular gown, coat, or hat was an actual Paris creation.
Bok called upon the American woman to come out from under the yoke of the French couturiers, show her patriotism, and encourage American design. But it was of no use. He talked with women on every hand; his mail was full of letters commending him for his stand; but as for actual results, there were none. One of his most intelligent woman-friends finally summed up the situation for him:
“You can rail against the Paris domination all you like; you can expose it for the fraud that it is, and we know that it is; but it is all to no purpose, take my word. When it comes to the question of her personal adornment, a woman employs no reason; she knows no logic. She knows that the adornment of her body is all that she has to match the other woman and outdo her, and to attract the male, and nothing that you can say will influence her a particle. I know this all seems incomprehensible to you as a man, but that is the feminine nature. You are trying to fight something that is unfightable.”
“Has the American woman no instinct of patriotism, then?” asked Bok.
“Not the least,” was the answer, “when it comes to her adornment. What Paris says, she will do, blindly and unintelligently if you will, but she will do it. She will sacrifice her patriotism; she will even justify a possible disregard of the decencies. Look at the present Parisian styles. They are absolutely indecent. Women know it, but they follow them just the same, and they will. It is all very unpleasant to say this, but it is the truth and you will find it out. Your effort, fine as it is, will bear no fruit.”
Wherever Bok went, women upon whose judgment he felt he could rely, told him, in effect, the same thing. They were all regretful, in some cases ashamed of their sex, universally apologetic; but one and all declared that such is “the feminine nature,” and Bok would only have his trouble for nothing.
And so it proved. For a period, the retail shops were more careful in the number of genuine French models of gowns and hats which they exhibited, and the label firm confessed that its trade had fallen off. But this was only temporary. Within a year after The Journal stopped the campaign, baffled and beaten, the trade in French labels was greater than ever, hundreds of French models were sold that had never crossed the ocean, the American woman was being hoodwinked on every hand, and the reign of the French couturier was once more supreme.
There was no disguising the fact that the case was hopeless, and Bok recognized and accepted the inevitable. He had, at least, the satisfaction of having made an intelligent effort to awaken the American woman to her unintelligent submission. But she refused to be awakened. She preferred to be a tool: to be made a fool of.
Bok’s probe into the feminine nature had been keenly disappointing. He had earnestly tried to serve the American woman, and he had failed. But he was destined to receive a still greater and deeper disappointment on his next excursion into the feminine nature, although, this time, he was to win.
During his investigations into women’s fashions, he had unearthed the origin of the fashionable aigrette, the most desired of all the feathered possessions of womankind. He had been told of the cruel torture of the mother-heron, who produced the beautiful aigrette only in her period of maternity and who was cruelly slaughtered, usually left to die slowly rather than killed, leaving her whole nest of baby-birds to starve while they awaited the return of the mother-bird.
Bok was shown the most heart-rending photographs portraying the butchery of the mother and the starvation of her little ones. He collected all the photographs that he could secure, had the most graphic text written to them, and began their publication. He felt certain that the mere publication of the frightfully convincing photographs would be enough to arouse the motherinstinct in every woman and stop the wearing of the so-highly prized feather. But for the second time in his attempt to reform the feminine nature he reckoned beside the mark.
He published a succession of pages showing the frightful cost at which the aigrette was secured. There was no challenging the actual facts as shown by the photographic lens: the slaughter of the mother-bird, and the starving baby-birds; and the importers of the feather wisely remained quiet, not attempting to answer Bok’s accusations. Letters poured in upon the editor from Audubon Society workers; from lovers of birds, and from women filled with the humanitarian instinct. But Bok knew that the answer was not with those few: the solution lay with the larger circle of American womanhood from which he did not hear.
He waited for results. They came. But they were not those for which he had striven. After four months of his campaign, he learned from the inside of the importinghouses which dealt in the largest stocks of aigrettes in the United States that the demand for the feather had more than quadrupled! Bok was dumbfounded! He made inquiries in certain channels from which he knew he could secure the most reliable information, and after all the importers had been interviewed, the conviction was unescapable that just in proportion as Bok had dwelt upon the desirability of the aigrette as the hallmark of wealth and fashion, upon its expense, and the fact that women regarded it as the last word in feminine adornment, he had by so much made these facts familiar to thousands of women who had never before known of them, and had created the desire to own one of the precious feathers.
Bok could not and would not accept these conclusions. It seemed to him incredible that women would go so far as this in the question of personal adornment. He caused the increased sales to be traced from wholesaler to retailer, and from retailer to customer, and was amazed at the character and standing of the latter. He had a number of those buyers who lived in adjacent cities, privately approached and interviewed, and ascertained that, save in two instances, they were all his readers, had seen the gruesome pictures he had presented, and then had deliberately purchased the coveted aigrette.
Personally again he sought the most intelligent of his woman-friends, talked with scores of others, and found himself facing the same trait in feminine nature which he had encountered in his advocacy of American fashions. But this time it seemed to Bok that the facts he had presented went so much deeper.
“It will be hard for you to believe,” said one of his most trusted woman-friends. “I grant your arguments: there is no gainsaying them. But you are fighting the same thing again that you do not understand: the feminine nature that craves outer adornment will secure it at any cost, even at the cost of suffering.”
“Yes,” argued Bok. “But if there is one thing above everything else that we believe a woman feels and understands, it is the mother-instinct. Do you mean to tell me that it means nothing to her that these birds are killed in their period of motherhood, and that a whole nest of starving baby-birds is the price of every aigrette?”
“I won’t say that this does not weigh with a woman. It does, naturally. But when it comes to her possession of an ornament of beauty, as beautiful as the aigrette, it weighs with her, but it doesn’t tip the scale against her possession of it. I am sorry to have to say this to you, but it is a fact. A woman will regret that the mother-bird must be tortured and her babies starve, but she will have the aigrette. She simply trains herself to forget the origin.
“Take my own case. You will doubtless be shocked when I tell you that I was perfectly aware of the conditions under which the aigrette is obtained before you began your exposure of the method. But did it prevent my purchase of one? Not at all. Why? Because I am a woman: I realize that no head ornament will set off my hair so well as an aigrette. Say I am cruel if you like. I wish the heron-mother didn’t have to be killed or the babies starve, but, Mr. Bok, I must have my beautiful aigrette!”
Bok was frankly astounded: he had certainly probed deep this time into the feminine nature. With every desire and instinct to disbelieve the facts, the deeper his inquiries went, the stronger the evidence rolled up: there was no gainsaying it; no sense in a further disbelief of it.
But Bok was determined that this time he would not fail. His sense of justice and protection to the mother-bird and her young was now fully aroused. He resolved that he would, by compulsion, bring about what he had failed to do by persuasion. He would make it impossible for women to be untrue to their most sacred instinct. He sought legal talent, had a bill drawn up making it a misdemeanor to import, sell, purchase, or wear an aigrette. Armed with this measure, and the photographs and articles which he had published, he sought and obtained the interest and promise of support of the most influential legislators in several States. He felt a sense of pride in his own sex that he had no trouble in winning the immediate interest of every legislator with whom he talked.
Where he had failed with women, he was succeeding with men! The outrageous butchery of the birds and the circumstances under which they were tortured appealed with direct force to the sporting instinct in every man, and aroused him. Bok explained to each that he need expect no support for such a measure from women save from the members of the Audubon Societies, and a few humanitarian women and bird-lovers. Women, as a whole, he argued from his experiences, while they would not go so far as openly to oppose such a measure, for fear of public comment, would do nothing to further its passage, for in their hearts they preferred failure to success for the legislation. They had frankly told him so: he was not speaking from theory.
In one State after another Bok got into touch with legislators. He counselled, in each case, a quiet passage for the measure instead of one that would draw public attention to it.
Meanwhile, a strong initiative had come from the Audubon Societies throughout the country, and from the National Association of Audubon Societies, at New York. This latter society also caused to be introduced bills of its own to the same and in various legislatures, and here Bok had a valuable ally. It was a curious fact that the Audubon officials encountered their strongest resistance in Bok’s own State: Pennsylvania. But Bok’s personal acquaintance with legislators in his Keystone State helped here materially.
The demand for the aigrette constantly increased and rose to hitherto unknown figures. In one State where Bok’s measure was pending before the legislature, he heard of the coming of an unusually large shipment of aigrettes to meet this increased demand. He wired the legislator in charge of the measure apprising him of this fact, of what he intended to do, and urging speed in securing the passage of the bill. Then he caused the shipment to be seized at the dock on the ground of illegal importation.
The importing firm at once secured an injunction restraining the seizure. Bok replied by serving a writ setting the injunction aside. The lawyers of the importers got busy, of course, but meanwhile the legislator had taken advantage of a special evening session, had the bill passed, and induced the governor to sign it, the act taking effect at once.
This was exactly what Bok had been playing for. The aigrettes were now useless; they could not be reshipped to another State, they could not be offered for sale. The suit was dropped, and Bok had the satisfaction of seeing the entire shipment, valued at $160,000, destroyed. He had not saved the lives of the mother-birds, but, at least, he had prevented hundreds of American women from wearing the hallmark of torture.
State after State now passed an aigrette-prohibition law until fourteen of the principal States, including practically all the large cities, fell into line.
Later, the National Association of Audubon Societies had introduced into the United States Congress and passed a bill prohibiting the importation of bird-feathers into the country, thus bringing a Federal law into existence.
Bok had won his fight, it is true, but he derived little satisfaction from the character of his victory. His ideal of womanhood had received a severe jolt. Women had revealed their worst side to him, and he did not like the picture. He had appealed to what he had been led to believe was the most sacred instinct in a woman’s nature. He received no response. Moreover, he saw the deeper love for personal vanity and finery absolutely dominate the mother-instinct. He was conscious that something had toppled off its pedestal which could never be replaced.
He was aware that his mother’s words, when he accepted his editorial position, were coming terribly true: “I am sorry you are going to take this position. It will cost you the high ideal you have always held of your mother’s sex. But a nature, as is the feminine nature, wholly swayed inwardly by emotion, and outwardly influenced by an insatiate love for personal adornment, will never stand the analysis you will give it.”
He realized that he was paying a high price for his success. Such experiences as these—and, unfortunately, they were only two of several—were doubtless in his mind when, upon his retirement, the newspapers clamored for his opinions of women. “No, thank you,” he said to one and all, “not a word.”
He did not give his reasons.
He never will.