It comes in so opportunely now to point a moral. Women have said, and men have believed, that hoops never could be fashionable again; meaning, of course, the all-around, pyramidal hoops worn in the fifties and sixties; for during much of the time since that era, women's forms have been built out behind with more or less steel spring and whalebone scaffolding, to support their extravagant use of skirt drapery.
Yesterday I looked through two large volumes of fashion history. One, written just previous to the last hoop-skirt era, pitilessly exposed the absurdity of the immense hooped pan- niers of the time of George III. and spoke of hoops as "banished forever." But they came back again in later years, and the lovely Empress Eugenie wore them, and the Queen of England found them so comfortable that she does not object to their reappearance. The other volume, written a quarter of a centuiy later, seemed to regard with artistic triumph the closely sheathing gowns (in some of which women could neither dance nor sit down), and the sleeves worn so tight that sometimes the wearers could not lift their hands to the tops of their heads. The author complacently remarked, "No one can now recall the gowns with leg-of-mutton sleeves with-out laughing."
The next turn of the whirligig of fashion showed women with hoop-skirts strapped on their backs, instead of encircling the body; the straps around the legs, which secured the rear scaffolding in place, acting as hindrances to locomotion. Who laughs at the leg-of-mutton sleeves now? It is interesting to see how, like Kilkenny cats, the dogmas of fashion devour one another. Only the young and inexperienced regard the latest dictum as an absolute law of taste. One who has completed the circle a few times has learned to accept each inevitable change with discreet silence.
Legislation against hoop-skirts is well meant, no doubt; but, gentlemen, truth obliges me to say that this thing which you abominate, and with good cause, is the only one of the nuisances and monstrosities which are intermittently imposed upon women -- by that same power which makes you discontented with a wide hat band when other men wear narrow ones -- the hoop-skirt is the only one of these uglinesses which brings some actual relief from the fetters with which woman is bound. For this reason hoops remained a part of the dress of the "sensible woman" (who differs from the prevailing fashion just enough to seem "dowdy," and to distress her young relatives) long after they had gone out of fashion.
In the fifties hoop-skirts came to lighten the load of petticoats worn by women. Now they come to loosen the clinging skirts -- in both cases to increase woman's freedom of locomotion. Men paid little attention, as skirts increased in amplitude more than forty years ago, and women accepted the increasing load of petticoats with meekness. A gray-haired man tells me it was no uncommon sight then, in Pittsburg streets, to see colored women and boys carrying to their customers freshly laundered, starched skirts, piled high without folding, on their outstretched arms. Women wore from four to ten of these skirts at one time, in order to attain proper "womanly" amplitude of figure. Dickens must have had this style of dress in his mind's eye when he wrote that "Mr. Merdle took down to dinner a countess, who was secluded somewhere in the core of an immense dress, to which she was in the proportion of the heart to an overgrown cabbage." But Mrs. Browning probably thought of hoops when she made Romney Leigh speak of leaving Aurora " room to sweep " her " ample skirts of womanhood."
There was need of room. Those distended hoops were known to sweep over a stand of valuable plants, to sweep men into the gutters if two women walked abreast, to sweep a little child off from a pier into the ocean at a fashionable watering-place. Oh, yes ! They swept, though they had no trains, long after they ceased to be "new brooms."
And men came to admire them ! to regard them as an essential part of dressed-up women -- as trains were regarded a dozen years later. Men would have been ashamed of their wives and daughters without them. A woman accidentally caught without hoops modestly slunk out of sight till her "womanly" appearance was restored. Yet they were acknowledged to be ridiculous, and were constantly ridiculed. A woman in the village where I was at school, had her skeleton skirt suddenly inverted over her head in the street on a windy day; and I see yet in memory, as I saw in reality, twenty-five years ago, the neat, embroidered underclothing to the waist of a well-known and well-dressed woman, as she stepped into a buggy from our doorstep and turned to arrange her parcels, so that her skirt was tilted without her knowledge. About the same time I received a letter from a young lady who had been an invalid for years, and who was trying to economize her returning strength. She wrote in praise of the skeleton skirt which lightened her burdens, as she wore only her lined dress skirt over the lightest of skeletons, and dressed herself underneath warm or cool, according to the weather. Men begged women to wear smaller skeletons, but these tripped us up. The smallest ones would not allow us to step across a gutter, and they stuck out painfully in front when sitting. This was the paradox of their day -- that to be modest and beautiful, woman must wear long skirts ; but to walk comfortably and not reveal her shape, she must wear ugly and immodest hoops.
At the present stage of human progress, Ward McAllister has spoken. It is his opinion that women should adopt hoops for the sake of modesty ! -- to conceal the fact of bipedity. He speaks as the self-elected and not repudiated high priest of "society," as he has found it, -- such society as Adam Badeau doubtless had in mind when he wrote in a newspaper-syndicate article, a few years ago, that however intelligent and pleasant women may be, unless they wear low-necked dresses "it is not society."
Our fashions, "and the manners that go with the fashions" (to quote from a late fashion article), come from Paris, as every one knows. Can any woman -- or any man either -- give a good reason why American women, the descendants of those who refused to submit to foreign dictation in government, should submit to the dictates of Frenchmen in dress? -- why the daughters of Puritan ancestors should imitate the example and cultivate the arts of the fashionable courtesan class in the wicked city of Paris?
A quarter of a century ago, M. Dupin, a member of the French Senate, in a speech before that body, told his compeers, who acknowledged his truth with murmurs of assent on all sides, that the fashions in France were led by a class of women who could not be admitted into good society in any country, -- "women whose sole and only hold on life is personal attractiveness, and with whom to keep this up at any cost is a desperate necessity." Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, reporting and commenting upon this in the Atlantic Monthly, continued: --
No moral quality, no association of purity, truth, modesty, self-denial, or family love comes in to hallow the atmosphere about them, and create a sphere of loveliness which brightens, as mere physical beauty fades. The ravages of time and dissipation must be made up by an unceasing study of the arts of the toilet. Artists of all sorts, moving in their train, rack all the stores of ancient and modern art for the picturesque, the dazzling, the grotesque; and so, lest these Circes of society should carry all before them, and enchant every husband, brother, and lover, the staid and lawful Penelopes leave the hearth and home to follow in their triumphal march, and imitate their arts.
Though in a quarter of a century times have changed somewhat, though Worth and Doucet have come to be regarded as the arbiters of fashion, it is easy to guess who are their principal, most paying patrons in a country like France and a city like Paris. A widely published fashion letter from Paris, under date of Jan. 15, 1893, begins thus: --
In Paris women of the highest social position are simple and plain in their street dress. Curious novelties and the sensational they leave to those who have no claim to notice except through dress.
Yet it is probable that the woman who wrote that paragraph cannot send from Paris anything for which our newspapers will pay so freely as for descriptions and pictures of the "curious novelties and sensational" styles, worn by "those who have no claim to notice except through dress." Thus is the public taste in America constantly corrupted by placing before it pictures of deformed bodies, dressed in senseless costumes.
A few men in Paris, powerfully aided by our newspapers, may almost be said to hold in their hands the destiny of this republic. Not only do they largely determine the prosperity of various industries and commercial enterprises (and they may believe who can, that these affluent Parisian managers are wholly disinterested artists in dress), but their influence affects seriously the health and character of our whole nation.
Not a citizen of this republic is born whose physical constitution and cast of mind do not bear the impression of his mothers previous health and character. *
If you do not know that fashions of dress affect both physical and mental health, imagine the situation reversed for a single generation -- the girls brought up with the bodily freedom of boys, and the boys dressed from infancy in girls' clothing; their bodies formed to an unnatural shape, and their minds imbued with the doctrine that beauty of appearance should be the chief aim of life. Let the little boy's hair grow long, and do it up in curl papers or hard braids every night so that, night or day, he cannot have one moment of unconsciousness of the importance of artificial appearances. Budget his legs with skirts so that he can have no freedom in running or climbing, and must kick out ungracefully, sideways, to get his feet around his skirts if he tries to go upstairs with his hands full. His form can be trained to "graceful lines" of hour-glass shape if you begin tight lacing early enough so that the floating ribs can be gradually brought together, if not overlapped. Long skirts worn on all occasions would restrict his exercise and tax his strength and mental capacity. Would not all this affect the boy's health both physically and mentally? Not a father would consent to see his boy's future imperilled by such clothing. In some heathen countries they kill the girl babies. In America they put them through French fashions.
What will American women do about this? More than a thousand excellent women — authors, artists, philanthropists, journalists, physicians, and college teachers and students have consented, over their signatures, with many cheering words and wishes, to give their " influence in favor of any improvement in woman's dress which will give her the free use of the organs of her body when working or taking exercise." Many of the names signed to this paper were published in The Arena for October, 1892. As a specimen score of those since signed, we give the following: Josephine Shaw Lovell, Susan N. Carter, Rev. Anna Shaw, "Sophie May," "Jennie June," Emily Huntington Miller, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Hester Poole, E. Louise Demorest, Marietta Holley, Mary E. Wilkins, Candace Wheeler, Jeannette Gilder, Mary Mapes Dodge, Frances M. Steele, Helen Gilbert Ecob, Ellen Battelle Dietrick, Sarah B. Cooper, Mary Wood Allen, M. D., Jennie M. Lozier, M. D.
This enrolment has been made under the auspices of the National Council of Women, by whom the Symposium on Dress was presented in The Arena. The council has since unanimously adopted the report of its "committee on dress" as to an every-day business dress for women. The report is brief, and deals only with essentials, giving three styles of dress to serve simply as a basis, from which individual taste is expected to vary according to circumstances. These are the Syrian, the gymnasium suit, and the American costume. Exact patterns are not necessary. The Syrian has a divided skirt, gathered around each leg, and allowed to bag over. The English divide the skirt just above the knees, and insert a narrow gore in the inside seam of each division, the wide ends of the gores uppermost, and joined together. Butterick's pattern for the divided part of the gymnasium suit is quite as good, if not better. These trousers, made much narrower than the pattern, with extra high shoes, are suitable to wear with the American costume, instead of the buttoned leggins like the dress. Any pretty gown pattern shortened will do for this -- especially a princess, or a short skirt, a shirt-waist, and a removable jacket.
In adopting the report of its committee on dress, the National Council recommends women to avail themselves of the comfort of one of these styles of dress (modified according to individual judgment) when visiting the World's Fair. Surely it is an occasion when a short, loose, light "walking dress" will be needed, as it is estimated that to walk through all the aisles of the many buildings, without stopping to look at anything, would require seven days, walking twenty miles a day. Probably no one has counted all the outside steps and inside stairs of the many buildings, and no one can inform us how often or how urgently a "rainy-day dress" may be needed.Fashion, The Arena. 1893, Edited by B. O. Flower; Volume VIII, Boston, Mass.