Development in Dress

arwin once wrote an article on "Development in Dress" wisely restricting himself, however, to the study of men's dress. This progressive movement, securing the survival of the fittest, is attained only in two ways: either in the struggle for existence, wherein we must exert our best faculties or die, or by intellectually preconceiving what is the fittest, and in freedom striving for it with the highest faculties of our nature. This latter is duty. Development in man's dress took place chiefly under the first condition, work forcing him to discard those fripperies that encumbered his body and harassed his mind. Neither of the prescribed conditions has affected woman's dress. She has not faced the struggle for existence, nor, save in exceptional cases, will she have to face it. Neither has she intellectually preconceived the fittest, for herself or her dress, or been able freely to exert her faculties for its attainment. But none the less must she work, and strive to develop her highest faculties, if only for this, that she is the mother of the human race. This is her duty.

To insure development in woman's dress, it must be placed under the second condition of progress, and to that end are formulated the requirements of a perfect dress:
1. Freedom of movement
2. No pressure over any part of the body
3. No more weight than is necessary for warmth, and both weight and warmth equally distributed
4. Grace and beauty, with comfort and convenience
5. Power of quick changeability
6. Not departing too conspicuously from the ordinary dress of the time.

"Woman's dress not only encumbers her body, and harasses her mind, as man's did formerly, but, unregulated by the necessary conditions of progress, it has proceeded from bad to worse, now injuring her body and degrading her mind. Her body is injured because fashion is reckless of health, and her mind degraded because its sole aim is to make her outwardly attractive, to insure that freedom without which development under the second condition is impossible, we want men's help. Too many "vested interests" uphold fashion, and conventional prejudices are too strong for us to overcome them single-handed. Dress-reform is no novelty. For centuries it has been attempted by palliatives, and within our century by radical measures. But in the former case the aim was not perceived with sufficient clearness, in the latter its attainment was not attempted with sufficient prudence. In offering palliatives, the radical error in woman's dress was overlooked, and only that part was attacked which directly caused injury. Stays were attacked, without considering that they were only an external bony framework necessary for the protection of the body against the weight and pressure of petticoats. Then when corsets were removed and petticoats were found unendurable, came a second palliative, which said, "They must hang from the shoulders, then all will be right." It makes me smile to hear women offer this panacea, and see them elevate their arms, exclaiming, "When I lift my arms, I lift all my petticoats." "What should we say to nature's handiwork, if she put muscles on the shoulder to lift and propel the legs? Whatever we would say to that, the same must be said to suspending the leg-covering from the shoulders. Pressure over the abdomen is partially removed, certainly, but at the expense of chest and spine. Weight is not diminished, for the fact remains that the higher we carry weight, the heavier it is.

When asked, "How then do you propose carrying the weight of petticoats?" I reply, "With your permission, I don't propose carrying it at all, but to abolish petticoats; then corsets will abolish themselves, unless as surgical appliances for adults with an abnormal growth of adipose matter. The palliative dress but adds to its chief ugliness, which is monotony. The straight up-and-down lines of the unmitigated petticoat led to pinchings-in and puffings-out and dragglings along the ground, to get some graceful lines out of them, and to compensate for the variety lost by hiding the legs. The lightness of the divided and tapering limbs contrasts with the solidity of the trunk, while their movements afford constant change. So the eye, deprived of its natural satisfaction in the variety of the body, sought it in the vagaries of dress. Palliatives in our dress prolong the survival of the fittest.

Premising that no "imperious boudoir" is desirable, in Paris or elsewhere, we must learn that if dress-reform is to take root and nourish, it must not only be born of good sense, but the public eye and mind must be educated to secure a fit environment for its reception. Imposing any particular form of dress would be unwise, because the prevailing taste is so depraved that no good could result, and because women should choose for themselves what is fittest, resisting external imposition. But to guide their judgment, we give rules for perfect dress by which, to test their clothing. More especially should this test be rigorously applied by those conscientiously striving for reform, as any practical "set" now given it will be lastingly felt. Respecting every article of their attire they should ask, Does it give me more freedom? Does it press anywhere? Is it as light as possible, and as warm as necessary, and are the weight and warmth brought equally over my body? Can I put it on and off quickly? Is it, in form, color, and texture, as beautiful as may be, and as comfortable and convenient as can be? And, lastly, does it so approximate to ordinary dress that, by exerting my moral courage, I can and will face the world with it? If these questions cannot be answered satisfactorily, let them try something else.

"We must likewise weigh the position and characters of women, and, while striving to elevate both, should not ask of them more than they are able to perform or endure. Neither should we think time expended on reform wasted if but little outward effect be observable; for while we are striving those higher faculties will arise, making us worthy to receive what we desire, and capable of rightly using any larger measure of freedom we may acquire. "Women need character-reform as much as dress-reform. Indeed, we are poor creatures, with cramped minds in cramped bodies; and but that physical health leads to mental and moral health, dress-reform would hardly be worth gaining. Women say to me, "If your dress only became fashionable, we would gladly adopt it." This means, if obtainable without the smallest effort at self-improvement, or self-conquest, they would gladly have it. I devoutly hope that neither this nor any other reform will be gained thus. Assuredly this will be the longest, most trying, most far-reaching reform that women have yet undertaken; but it is the gate through which alone they can enter into their own free kingdom of womanhood.

"How Shall Women Dress?" is an article from The North American Review, Volume 140., (June 1, 1885), by B. M. King.

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