Caplin - Health and Beauty (1864)/Chapter II
DRESS: ITS USES, BEAUTIES, AND FASHIONS.
"Miserable indeed was the condition of the Aboriginal savage, glaring fiercely from under his fleece of hair, which, with the beard, reached down to his loins, and hung round him like a matted cloak; the rest of his body sheeted in its thick natural felt. … Nevertheless, the pains of hunger and revenge once satisfied, his next care was, not comfort, but decoration. Warmth he found in the toils of the chase, or amidst dried leaves in his hollow tree, in his bark shed, or natural grotto; but for decoration he must have clothes."
"Ugly women almost always introduce the fashions, and pretty women are foolish enough to follow them."
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 of the chest 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 repaired by supporting the weak organs, and restoring the figure according to our idea of what it was intended that that particular body should be. Every one, we suppose, will admit that this is desirable, and what we hope to accomplish in this work is a plain and practical exposition of those anatomical, physiological, artistic, and mechanical principles which must guide us in all successful efforts to attain this object.
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.
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. We have already spoken of this chef-d'œuvre of art, and further remarks 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 consequences.
Assuming, then, that this figure is erect, the first problem to be solved is how to adapt the clothing to it in such a manner as shall display its beauty and admirable proportions; for unless this be done, art only mars, or at least hides those charms which it ought to adorn.
Everyone who has paid the least attention to the matter will perceive at once that the first requirement is a basis of support upon which the petticoats that are to be worn may be suspended, and also that this article, whatever name it may bear, should form an artificial muscular coating fitted with the greatest exactitude, and at the same time having that elasticity which, whilst giving no undue pressure upon any part, shall yield to every motion of the body, and allow it to assume any posture which it may be desirable to take. This first object being accomplished, all the other clothing may be added, as necessity, choice, or fashion may direct.
And here we may be permitted to say a word or two about fashion, not as the general custom is, to inveigh against it, for variety is pleasing, and change in the fashion of costume has many advantages: and these changes really are wonderful. An anonymous rhymer nearly a century ago said of the ladies—
"Now dressed in a cap, now naked in none,
Now loose in a Mop, now close in a Joan;
Without handkerchief now, now buried in ruff,
Now plain as a Quaker, now all of a puff.
Now a shape in neat stays, now a slattern in jumps,
Now high in French heels, now low in your pumps;
Now monstrous in hoops, now tapish in walking,
With your petticoats clung to your heels like a maulkin.
Like the cock on the tower that shows you the weather,
You are hardly the same for two days together."
"But what will you say of crinoline?" Well, crinoline has many advantages in it. The principal of which is, that it helps to support the weight of the under clothing, gives freedom and ease in walking, and in windy weather prevents the petticoats from being blown against their wearer, and entangling her feet at every step she takes.
But since coroners, jurymen, journalists, and indeed almost everybody except the wearers, are abusing our crinoline, our fair readers will be pleased to see how the same fashion was defended when it was assailed in a similar manner more than a century ago. We learn from the Whitehall Evening Post (1747) that a regular debate was held between two gentlemen, who, if we may judge from the reported specimen of their oratory before us, were persons of no mean talent. They had taken seven days to prepare their speeches, and "the appointed hour being come, the company (principally ladies) ranged themselves on either hand, according to their different inclinations, when the speaker in favour of 'Hoop petticoats' said—
- "Ladies and Gentlemen,
"I congratulate my good fortune in that I have the honour to speak before so polite an audience upon a theme whose diameter and circumference afford so large a scope to eloquence. Were I to handle it inch by inch, my speech would swell in proportion to the amplitude of my subject, and I should feel myself encircled with a luxurious circle of tropes and figures, round and magnificent as the hoop I attempt to praise.
"I have enquired at the most flourishing warehouses, and consulted the most knowing coopers of the female sex; but I cannot distinctly learn to whose extensive genius the ladies are indebted for this invention of the hooped petticoat. The learned writers of antiquity are silent upon the occasion, which makes me conjecture that the glory of this pompous piece of elegancy is due to the moderns. M. Tournefort, in his Voyage through the Levant, gives a description of a figure of a very magnificent petticoat worn by the ladies of Myconia (fair islanders like yourselves), which may probably have been the original of yours. That, indeed, is full of plaits, and quilted from top to bottom; whereas yours is plain, which is after the grand gusto in structures of every kind.
"When I consider the clinging drapery of our grandmothers, and compare it with the spreading coats of this assembly, I do not so much wonder at the rudeness of the former as I am astonished at the politeness of the present age. They crept along, as it were in fetters; and a woman with her head poking out of a sack could hardly be more confined or make a more grotesque figure. On the other hand, the capula-coat allows all the freedom of motion, the graceful walk, the majestic step—not to mention the beauty and splendour of the foot, which plays visibly within the circle and ravishes the eyes of the watchful beholder.
"When I survey the structure of this silken dome, and contemplate the convex or concave of the building, I am struck with admiration at the ingenuity of mankind; a fabric so ample, and withal so portable, is stupendous; and after-ages, who perhaps may see this contrivance in the paintings of some great master, shall with pain believe what the justice of the pencil represents.
"Were I to enumerate the conveniences and ornaments which accrue to the sex from the use of the hoop, the tapers would require snuffing before my speech could draw to an end; therefore I shall only touch upon two observations. The first is that the compass of the coat serves to keep the men at a decent distance, and appropriates to every lady a spacious verge sacred to herself. In the second place the compliment allowed at all times of comparing a lady to a star, will now quadrate in every respect, when it may properly be said of every fair female that she moves in her orb and shines in her sphere in proportion to a star of the first magnitude.
"I might here mention the vast benefit the public reaps from this dress, and take notice of the great number of hands employed in building and repairing these beautiful edifices, were it not too well known to my hearers. I cannot, however, pass over in silence the particular encouragement which this mode has given to whale-fishing, no inconsiderable branch of the British commerce.
"Go on, then, adorable creatures, to cherish and improve an ornament every way praiseworthy; suffer not yourselves to be persuaded to your downfall by those who would undermine your main support. Suspect the artifices of such as would narrow your foundation, and resolve to maintain the establishment of your charms upon a wide-spreading bottom to the last."
Bravo! that fellow speaks so well that we will not hear the other. Of course he said the hoops were ugly—unsightly; that they knocked over everything about the house, set their wearers on fire, and often tipped up so high as to show how the wearer's garters were tied, besides inconveniently filling a small room, a coach, or the family pew at church. But who ever hearkens to such stuff as that when a thing is in fashion?
Say what you will, there is great virtue in good clothes, as every one must have felt in wearing them. None but a cynic like that old snarler Diogenes would ever deny it. Ben Jonson has put the matter admirably; he says, "Rich apparel has strange virtues; it makes him that hath it without means esteemed for an excellent wit; he that enjoys it with means puts the world in remembrance of his means; it helps the deformities of Nature, gives lustre to her beauties, and makes continual holiday where it shines." To the above we may add an extract from the gifted authoress of the Chronicles of Fashion. "Dress—well-selected dress—is to beauty what harmony is to melody—a most beguiling accomplishment, or rather an exquisite illustration; for, as the power and pathos of the melody are heightened by an under-current of flowing harmony, so certainly a beautiful face and form receive a finishing grace from the shading and softening accompaniments of well-chosen decoration. But if they be not well chosen, if they be ill-fitting, or , or bizarre—if fashion alone, not fitness, be the guide—then is beauty marred by what was intended for ornament, as the impression which a beautiful melody ought to make will be utterly spoiled by the effect of an accompaniment either out of time or unsuitable in its nature to the rhythm of the melody which it accompanies. Fitness, indeed, is the essence of beauty."
The main object of this chapter, however, is to call attention to the principles which lie as it were at the foundation of all proper ideas respecting clothing, 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 should be required in the inventors and manufacturers of clothing is in the first place a good knowledge of the body which they intend to envelop in their productions, and skill, art, and taste to display the natural beauties of the human frame. Other matters will be treated of in future chapters: we conclude this with the following axioms, which are worthy of being emblazoned in gold and diamonds on the most conspicuous pillar of the Temple of Fashion, from the Gentlemen's Magazine for 1738:—
"Everything which alters or disguises Nature proceeds from a false taste.
"Everything which forces Nature beyond its due bounds proceeds from a bad taste.
"Everything which eclipses the beauties or exposes the defects of Nature proceeds from want of taste.
"Everything that constrains Nature, or hinders the freedom of action, proceeds from a depraved taste.
"Everything which loads Nature with superfluous ornaments proceeds from an affectation of taste."
"Everything which is out of character is certainly out of taste; and though the fashion can never influence taste, yet taste should always influence the fashion."
- Universal Magazine, 1780.