Importance of Dress
As in our age and climate the human body is habitually and completely veiled, the veil assumes an artistic importance second only to the forms that are hidden. In nothing are character and perception so insensibly but inevitably displayed, as taste in dress. Dress is the second self, yet a most eloquent expositor of the person. There are garments, as there are faces and natures, which have no 'bar' in them -- nothing that dissatisfies or perplexes you. There are colours that are always beautiful because they recall nature, fashions which are beautiful because sensible and fulfilling the aim for which they were invented. In fact, no dress can be beautiful that is not appropriate, and appropriateness consists chiefly in graceful expression and useful purpose. In modern days -- so far removed from those when dress was regarded as a mere covering, and aspired to be no more -- we no longer look upon a gown as a shield against wintry cold, or a modest veil drawn between ourselves and the outer world. We expect it to be a work of art. Much money, representing much labour, is lavished upon every garment. When the silk-weaver has spent his skill upon the production of even texture, delicate gloss, and rare tints, only half the work is done. We cannot fling and fold the rich piece upon us after the simple fashion of our forefathers. We want it more to express than to hide us. A clever craftswoman must cut it to the approved shape and sew it into form; it must be clothed upon with other and richer fabrics, which we call 'trimming,' until its original price is doubled. Every form is eagerly borrowed for these trimmings. Patterns old and new are exhausted to form attractive combinations -- our very discontent with all there is, and our insatiable craving for novelty, is one of the diseases consequent on a certain repletion of variety. Raised work, indented work, tabs, fringes, frills -- there is no possible form of ornament that we have not tried and cast aside. So that a dress now claims to be considered as a work of art.
What usually takes place in this country in the matter of dress? Vain persons who are proud of their appearance spend much time in covering themselves with things that make an artist lift up hands and eyes of regret, astonishment, and pity. The vain person wastes time and defeats her own aim; the other is too ignorant to know that there is anything to know worth knowing, and does not sufficiently respect what God has given her, to care how she looks: so there is always a discord between her inner and outer self.
Yet dress and a proper care for it ought not to minister merely to vanity, nor impair in any degree the moral tone. A woman ought to care what she wears for her own sake and for the sake of those about her. It is a fault, not a virtue, to be reckless as to the impression one leaves on the eye, just as it is a fault to be indifferent to the feelings of others; in either case there is a sad absence of those subtle and beautiful perceptions that constitute a delicate and gentle mind.
But how difficult it is for a woman to be really well dressed, under the existing prejudice that everybody must be dressed like everybody else! This notion of a requisite livery is paralysing to anything like development of individual taste, and simply springs from the incapacity of the many to originate, wherefore they are glad to copy others; but this majority have succeeded in suffocating the aesthetic minority, many of whom are now forced to suppress really good taste for fear of being called 'affected.' We shall never have any school of art in England, either in dress or decoration of any kind, until the fundamental principle of good art is recognised, that people may do as they like in the matter, and until women cease to be afraid of being laughed at for doing what they feel to be wise and right.
There can be no originality of scheme until individual taste is admitted to be free; and how can there be individuality while all are completely subservient to law, that law usually determined by folk who have neither natural feeling for beauty nor education?
With regard to the milliner, ladies should remember that by trusting to the milliner's taste' (?) they are merely playing into the hands of various tradesmen whose interest it is to sell their goods, be they good or bad. The manufacturer's mill must be kept going, therefore the fashions must change; the milliner loves her perquisites, therefore she encourages every fashion which is of a kind to deceive the eye as to quantity of material. It is to her interest that you should not be able to measure the exact number of yards she has used; it would be to her customer's very considerable interest did the customer calculate and understand more than she usually does, how much stuff is required for flounce, skirt, or sleeve!
It is as absurd to suppose that every variety of short and tall, grave and gay, young and old, must be dressed in one style, as that the same coat must fit every man. How should it be so, whilst nature revels in endless dissimilarity? Why is the woman with taste for colour and form to sacrifice her gift to the others who have it not, and copy, when she is capable of originating? Why this deadly fear of being conspicuous? Why is one's individuality, so clear within, to be so confused without?
Alas! perhaps it is a misfortune to be an individual at all. We know the pity, the deep, deep commiseration which satirists say ill-natured women feel for those who are congenitally conspicuous -- for good looks. Is it a similar commiseration for those who possess the next best thing, good taste, which has destroyed the interpretation of a beautiful mind, as it would like to stamp out a beautiful body?
Woman is most beautiful when she is most herself and least conscious of it -- in dress as well as in other things: and as I am at present treating chiefly of her looks, which depend in great measure on her dress, I may lay down as a general principle that dress is most beautiful and most becoming when it follows the outlines of the human form. Dress bears the same relation to the body as speech does to the brain; and therefore dress may be called the speech of the body.
Speech was supposed to be meant for the expression of thought, till a modern cynic told us it was on the contrary for its concealment. Dress once expressed the person, now it disguises it, but when dress carries its anatomical fictions as far as evasion may be carried, as far as falsehood, it ceases not only to be respectable, but beautiful as well.
Observe further, that too much is given to the dressmaker. Very little is given to dress itself; no thought is expended on the requirements which the dress is to supply. No Englishwoman considers the meaning of each trimming, or form, or colour. She does not even consider whether it expresses in any degree her character, tastes, or wants.
Meaning of Dress
Frenchwomen, on the contrary, have carried too far the idea of dress as an index of the inner self. They have got a right notion by its wrong end. Without seldom producing a costume which is really beautiful, meeting all needs, they have originated a kind of language of dress more vulgar and less excusable than the Italian language of flowers, which, apparently, is intelligible to a certain class of people, but robs social intercourse of its spontaneity and self-unconsciousness, and, in the case of dress, degrades woman to the level of a walking advertisement -- of something baser than trade prices.
We may learn the kind of way in which the French have spoilt and vulgarised the notion of dress as an expression of character, from a book by M. Charles Blanc: L'Art dans la Parure et dans le Vetement which, with all its cleverness, is probably written with an ironic
arrière-pensée [ulterior motive], and meant to be swallowed with reservations. M. Blanc is 'Membre de l'lnstitut, Ancien Directeur des Beaux-Arts.' He has thought out his subject with the enthusiasm of a Frenchman, and the servility of a man-milliner, and we can only hope that M. Blanc is not in earnest, but poking fun at us, in much that he says.
What Dress Should Be
It is true that the colours and forms we employ should reflect our tastes and harmonise with our character. There are many persons who would be always out of place in the stately Watteau sacque, and some who would be lost and spoilt in the crossing bodice with its village grace. It is lawful and necessary to consider, when ordering a dress, what will make it suitable and appropriate, and also what will give the trimmings some artistic significance. A flounce that begins and ends without raison d'etre, a meaningless scroll seemingly fallen haphazard on the lap but attached by no apparent means, buttons without button-holes, imitation lacing, etc, are bad in art, and to be eschewed by all who aim at being really well dressed.
An aim so forced can result in nothing but a painful and revolting self-consciousness in any woman seeking to carry French notions into our purer English society; the illustrations of M. Blanc's book perhaps admit it, for nothing more inane, more vulgar, and more artificial can be imagined than his notion of le beau sexe [the gentle sex].
There are two general rules to be observed in dress.
1. That it shall not contradict or falsify the natural lines of the body -- be that body slightly or fully expressed -- and perhaps complete concealment is no gain to the moral as it is a marked loss from the artistic point of view. The body is so beautiful that it is a pity it can be so little seen; but the morality or immorality, the decency or indecency, consists in the motive of display.
2. That the attire shall express to a reasonable extent the character of the wearer. I really do not think that Englishwomen ever mean anything at all by adopting one trimming in preference to another, nor that the idea of certain interpretations is one that often occurs to them. They put themselves in the hands of their milliners, believing blindly that these professional advisers have given that thought to their costume which properly can and ought to be given by the wearer only. They think so little about the matter that they do not even guess how much they lose by this indifference. A woman may wear a dress many times without really knowing how the materials and folds mingle on her train. Far better so than that Englishwomen should come to attach the kind of importance to details attributed to Frenchwomen; but best, were women to bring pure minds to bear with common sense on what they wear, and why they wear it, considering utility as well as ornament.
Moralities of Dress
In proceeding to lay down a few simple laws about the right and wrong -- call it the morality of what we wear, which includes the questions of decency and indecency in dress; secondly, the morality of how we wear it, which is quite another matter, simply affecting ourselves and not the garment; and then there is, thirdly, the independent morality of the fashion in itself.
Firstly. The morality of what we wear. Decency in dress is a difficult question, and one too lengthy and involved to discuss fully here. We need only give a few examples which may suggest more to thinking minds. The human body uncovered is not necessarily a shocking thing. There is nothing wrong or improper in that which is made in God's own image, and which is justly held to be the highest type of beauty in creation. And at a time when beauty for its own sake was intensely appreciated, when it was cultivated with something of a religious enthusiasm, when the mother longed for her child to be beautiful because beauty was felt to be divine, at such a time, in the fair warm climate of Greece and Italy, it was hardly thought needful to veil the body. The Greeks were proud of their beautiful bodies, as we are of a beautiful face, and a bare leg was no more to them than a bare arm is to us; and the sexes mingled in free and honest companionship, clad only in a thin stola, children being devoid even of that. But what was harmless in the early Greeks would be impossible in nations who have lost to a great extent the simple instinct of natural beauty, whilst they have grown abnormally self-conscious and reflective.
Secondly. The morality of how we wear a thing: depending on the wearer's mind. Some women though covered up to the eyes always contrive to look indelicate; some others, decolletee as the dressmaker and a corrupt custom have made them, are in their natural innocence without reproach. We may see this in statues and pictures. Many nude figures in sculpture and painting are inoffensive, because the face which is the index of the mind is free from shame or blame, and the whole attitude is sweet and unconscious.
Thirdly. But of the first and second moralities it is not so much our wish to speak here; they must be left to the healthy instincts of pure women, and each will surely enough, by her mode of dress, betray her mind's bent. But as to our third point, the morality of the garment itself now engages our attention. This may be seen when it is hung on a peg with no human form inside it. For moral qualities may be applied to the fashioning and adorning of a robe from a purely artistic point of view, as they may be applied to a building. The noble principles of art, which are all founded upon healthy nature, are all 'moral' -- that is, they tend to exercise a right influence on the mind; they satisfy, soften, and do not enervate or harass it -- all these principles may be as apparent in a gown as in a cathedral.
As for shapes of dresses, a good way of testing the beauty of form is by drawing the outline of a dress, and looking at it from all points of view, and with half-closed eyes. This test, applied to that form of gown which was so long in vogue -- the long, pinched waist, and the unnatural width of the hips, low neck, and no sleeves -- proves the extreme ugliness of it. Few women's arms are beautiful above the elbow; fatness is not correctness of outline, as some seem to think, and if we judge English arms from Mr. Whistler's- unfiattered portraits, we may see they are as a rule of the skinniest. A dress, high behind or on the shoulders, gives the whole height of the figure, and full sleeves are an improvement to every figure but a very stout one, just as the fashion of wearing the hair full and loose is more becoming to the face than that which scrapes it all back out of sight. The best way to decide on a really beautiful dress is by studying the pictures of the great masters of light and shade, and copying them -- Vandyck, Lely, Watteau, Gainsborough, Reynolds, or Lawrence.
There are many books on the etiquette of dress, showing what is proper to be worn in the morning and in the evening and at noonday. A few simple hints will suffice here. Those who are very stout should wear nothing but black; those who are very thin should put a little padding in their gowns. Perpendicular stripes in dresses give height, and increase fulness, and are therefore particularly suited to very slight, small people, and particularly unfitted for stout figures. To fair persons blue is becoming -- but not every blue. Dark blue, or too brilliant a blue, is extremely unbecoming to that kind of complexion, and makes the skin yellow and the hair sandy. It is the old, pale, dull blue that really changes sand to gold.
Pink, especially the old-fashioned yellow-pink, is, when not too brilliant, becoming to all complexions, except that which goes with red hair. Light green may be safely worn by the very dark, the very rosy, and by the very pale when the skin is extremely clear; but to ordinary English faces it is a trying colour, though there are people who look well in nothing else. Green, mixed properly with pale blue, is very becoming indeed. Grey is the most beautiful colour for old and young -- the soft silver grey which is formed by equal parts of black and white, with no touch of mauve in it. It admits of any colour in trimming, and throws up the bloom of the skin. Rose-colour, for some people, is pretty, and not unbecoming. White, so disastrous to rooms, is generally becoming in dress -- only very coarse complexions are spoilt by it.
Short women should never wear double skirts or tunics -- they decrease the height so much; unless, indeed, the tunic is very short, and the skirt very long. So also do large, sprawling patterns used for trimmings; let these be left to women tall enough to carry them off. Neither let a very little woman wear her hair half down her back; let her lift it clean up as high as possible.
Large feet should never be cased in kid -- least of all, white kid slippers -- for kid reveals so clearly the form and movements of the feet, and stretches so easily, that few feet have a chance in them. Black stockings and shoes, even for evening wear, are the most appropriate choice.
Ladies are accused of spending too much on their dress: they may lay their money out on right -- or wrong -- artistic principles. A woman who understands and knows how to apply a few general principles may often spend half as much as her friend who gives herself over to her dressmaker and empties her purse by exhausting the last fashion-book.
We are told again that ladies think too much about dress: if they thought a little more about dress, they would waste less time, and probably spend less money; but the result would be grace, harmony, and expressiveness, instead of those astonishing combinations which rob the fairest women of half their charms, and expose ruthlessly the weak points of their less favoured sisters.
We are most anxious that women should devote, not less time, less money, less study, to the art of self-adornment, but even more, if the results are proportionately better. We are anxious that a pretty girl should make the very utmost of herself, and not lose one day of looking beautiful by dressing badly while her fresh youth lasts. We are desirous that when the first freshness is past, advancing age should not grow slovenly as it is apt to do, but that then the art which once enhanced beauty should conceal its fading away: we want every woman to be at all times a picture, an example, with no 'bar' between herself and her surroundings, as there should be none between her character and its outward reflection -- dress. For this reason, Nature must not be destroyed, but supported; her beauties revealed, not stifled; her weaknesses veiled, not exposed; her defects tenderly remedied; and no fashion should be tolerated which simply tends to burlesque her. As, in spite of Quakers and philosophers, women are likely to spend money and time over their dress, the sternest censor may well join in the hope that not the girl of the period, but the woman of the future, will produce greater results, waste less time, whilst bestowing more thought upon the beauty and the propriety of her dress.
Good and Bad Costumes
The crinoline of fifteen years ago had some disadvantages less than the farthingale. The upper outline was not angular, and the skirts were made sufficiently full to form their own folds. The waist, pinched and ugly enough, was nearer to its original place over the hips, and the shoulders were not deformed by padding. One only looked as though one stood in an inverted basin with its bottom out, instead of in a drum. But in crinoline time, nought of all this atoned for the badness of form. The colours and materials were of the poorest and showiest. The trimmings were unmeaning and debased -- a woman succeeded in spoiling her appearance without producing any adequate corresponding effect.
The Art of Beauty; Mary Eliza Joy (Mrs. H. R.) Haweis, 1883, [Excerpts].