Fashion in Dress

It is very difficult to say what constitutes Fashion. We allow our French neighbors to prescribe what we shall wear, and at certain seasons of the year, English milliners of any pretension flock to Paris to learn their lesson, and on their return to London, announce to the public and to their customers that they are prepared to exhibit the greatest novelties in style, form, and color, which they have been able to procure. The variety that is presented, as having been just imported from Paris, convinces us that there exists everywhere, even in the great French capital itself, the greatest possible diversity of taste; and, if we may judge from the extraordinary specimens which are introduced to our notice, we should infer that the Parisian taste is by no means faultless.

We do not mean to insinuate that a really well-dressed Frenchwoman is not better dressed than most English women, or that the French have not a peculiar knack of putting on their clothes to the best advantage; for there is no doubt upon the matter. But, if we maybe allowed to judge from the examples brought over to us in the shape of bonnets and head-dresses, and other articles of a lady’s toilette, we should say that there must be a considerable inclination among our foreign neighbors to what is both gaudy and vulgar.

When anyone complains to a milliner of the style of any of the articles she has on sale, she replies that she is obliged to provide for all kinds of taste; that it would not answer her purpose to limit her supply to those who have a faultless eye; that, in order to make her business succeed, she must be prepared to accommodate all persons, and cater for them all alike, studying to please each individual in whatever way she may be disposed to be pleased, and never presuming to do more than merely suggest some slight improvement or modification.  Ladies are apt to take offence at their taste being too severely criticized, and dressmakers do not always find it the easiest possible task to steer clear between securing their own reputation as “artistes” of fashion and good taste, and avoiding giving offence to their patronesses. It is the public who are to blame. When some one remonstrated with Braham for his florid and vulgar style of singing, he replied, it was the people and not he who was at fault. It was alike his duty and interest to please the public, and not to instruct it. He sang to be listened to and encored, not to be hissed and snubbed. It does not answer for any tradesman not to be able to supply what his customers demand.

It is the public who are to blame. If they insist upon being supplied with certain articles of consumption or of dress, the shopkeepers have no alternative but to supply them. If ladies prefer what is ugly and unbecoming, the dressmakers have to make it. It is the old story over again of the demand creating the supply.

There will always be persons who do not know how to dress well; who have ideas of their own to which they are determined to give expression. When they think they are doing their best, and are bent upon astonishing the world, they somehow appear to the worst advantage. They endeavor to rival their neighbors in strength and variety of colors; and, if they see a beautiful woman becomingly dressed, they at once copy that woman, quite regardless of their personal appearance, which may be the least fitted to the style which has taken their fancy. It reminds us of the story of a fashionable shoemaker, who, having made a pair of shoes for a lady who was remarkable for the beautiful shape of her foot, was applied to by another lady to make her a pair exactly similar to Lady So and So’s.  The shoemaker looked with dismay at his new customer’s foot, which bore no resemblance whatever to that of her friend. At last he looked up at the lady, shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, and said:

“Madam, it is impossible; you must bring me a foot like her ladyship’s before I can make a shoe like hers.” The rebuke was well deserved: but his honesty lost him a good customer.

The assortment and choice of colors, though chiefly a matter of taste, is yet under the direction of fashion. At one time one color predominates, at another time another; while two colors may be used together at one time, which at another are almost interdicted.

There is nothing more capricious, more inexplicable, more wayward, than fashion. It is true that, taken as a whole, there is a certain conformity in the rules it prescribes. For instance, as the crinoline diminishes in size and the area which petticoats cover in their circumference is lessened, so also bonnets have grown smaller, and the enormous plait of hair which has taken the place of the chignon, keeps in countenance the extraordinary length of ladies’ trains.

If any one cares to be amused she might investigate the fashions of by-gone days. The transitions are wonderful, and do not appear to be guided by any rule. Those of the gentlemen are simply absurd. Since the days of Vandyke, there has been nothing attractive in their dress; nothing picturesque. It has been as ugly as possible, and continues to be so. The nearest approximation to anything less hideous than the present fashion is in the “knickerbockers,” which are generally worn by sporting men and pedestrians—men who shoot, or who are addicted to walking tours. There was an attempt on the part of one or two individuals to introduce them, by means of velvet and silk hose, for evening wear; but the example was not followed, and the swallow-tailed coat still prevails.

In order to dress strictly according to fashion, and to comply with the ever-changing caprice, it is necessary to have a large and well-filled purse, and a wardrobe that is not too extensive; because, as the fashion varies with almost every season, a large number of dresses involves either a great and needless waste of money, or the necessity of always being a little behind the fashion of the day.  Besides which, as this capricious goddess has prescribed what shall be worn for driving, for walking, for morning, noon, and night; and demi-toilettes and full-dress toilettes have each their own peculiarities, it really becomes a very serious item of expenditure for such ladies as make it the business of their lives to follow the fashions of the day.

Fashion prescribes rules for all. All classes of society bow, more or less, to her decrees. The fine lady who frequents the Court, as well as the servant-girl who sweeps out the area of a London lodging-house, and all the intermediate classes, are guided by Fashion. Crinolines and bonnets prove this, as well as the length of the skirts which are suffered to trail along in all the dirt and dust of pavement and crossings. It always takes some time before a fashion which has been adopted by the higher orders prevails among the lower; but, if it is a fashion which survives beyond the moment, it invariably finds its way downward in the course of time. Fashion prescribes the size and shape of bonnets, the make of gowns, their length and their size—the number of breadths and gores—the trimmings, the petticoats, which have become like a second gown, and all the other paraphernalia of a lady’s toilette. There is no part of a lady’s dress too minute for her inspection and care and legislation. The color of gloves, the dye of hair, the application of false hair, the make of boots and shoes, the choice of ornaments, are all ordered and arranged. Fashion is a sort of “act of uniformity,” which would bring all flights of fancy within certain prescribed limits. It defines the boundaries within which ladies may safely indulge their own conceits.

The best-dressed persons are not always those who are led blindfold by the prevailing fashion, nor by any means those who are strong-minded enough to defy it, and set it at naught. Any one who defies the fashion of the day, and, when long skirts and small saucer-like bonnets prevail, dares to walk abroad with very short petticoats, which she holds up unnecessarily high; displaying a foot and ankle that had better be hidden out of sight; who spurns a crinoline, and therefore looks like a whipping post; who wears a many-colored shawl because cloaks and mantles are the rage; who adorns her head with a bonnet that is of the coal-scuttle cut, over which she fastens a large, colored gauze veil, because she desires to protest, as far as she can, against the innovations of fashion; such a one will never attract, nor influence the public mind. She will provoke a smile, but will never recommend her own peculiar and independent style of dress.  And she who follows fashion like a slave, wears what is prescribed without regard to her own personal appearance; who considers neither her age, nor her figure, nor her station, nor her means; who simply allows herself to be an advertisement for the milliner she employs, will often appear eccentric, and generally ill-dressed.

It is never sufficiently considered that every one has her “points,” and that nothing so much offends as discrepancies. We remember a discussion upon female beauty, when instances were brought forward of persons who were conspicuous for their good looks, but who could not boast of one really perfect feature. The effect of the “tout ensemble” was good, and most attractive, but when the faces were pulled to pieces, it was impossible to say in what the beauty consisted. One of the critics wisely said, that it was to be found in the perfect harmony of feature and expression. All the features were on the same scale; no one feature overpowered the other, and the expression called into activity all features alike, so that there was perfect unity and harmony throughout. To compare small things with great, we should say that this supplies a good rule for dressing well. There should be no discrepancies. It should be harmonious, not only in itself, but harmonious with the person whom it is intended to adorn. It should be in keeping with face and figure. No two persons are exactly alike.  Every one has her “points,” which constitute her beauty and her charm; and these “points” have to be attended to carefully. A woman who does this, with due regard to the rules of fashion, will always be well dressed. She will not buy or wear a thing simply because it has “just come from Paris,” nor be influenced by milliners and shop men who assure her that the ugly article they exhibit is original in shape and style. Though fashion dictates, and she follows, yet she follows in a way of her own. She is never behind fashion, and never in advance of it. Perhaps her most admired “toilette” has been made at home, under her own eye, which has directed how far a compliance with the prevailing fashion suits her. She does not startle the world with a combination of strange colors, nor entertain her friends with a peculiarity of style and make. What she wears is prettily arranged, well made and well put on, and the effect is both pleasing and refreshing, and people inquire what house in Paris she patronizes.  She is prudent; and, keeping her own secret, does not offend the fastidiousness of her fashionable friends by letting the truth eke out, that her much-admired Parisian “toilette” is, in every sense, of home-produce, but smiles at their approval, and follows her own plan, which is so successful in its results. Her costume is not expensive, and she contrives that, whatever she wears shall not offend against the laws of Fashion, while she declines to be its slave. She is not addicted to sham jewelry; she has no weakness for tinsel. What she wears is good of its kind, even when it is not costly. Wherever she goes, she impresses everyone with the fact that she is a true gentlewoman. She knows what is suited to her station and age, and, without conceit, understands what are her “points.” She is well aware that no woman can afford to be indifferent to her personal appearance, and that no law, human or divine, requires her to disfigure herself.  A married woman has to bear in mind that she must dress not only to please her husband, but also to reflect credit upon his choice. The unmarried to impart to herself as prepossessing an appearance as will be likely to attract the opposite sex. Neither before or after marriage can any woman neglect her person with impunity. Nor can she set her face entirely against the fashions of the day. She may modify them to suit herself, and to bring out her “points;” but she cannot safely disregard or defy them.

Fashion gives, as it were, the key-note—supplies the hint, which is taken and followed as people can. It is absurd to suppose that its laws are stringent, and not elastic, or that all persons must conform exactly to its “dicta.” Who shall say that all must dress alike? Tall and short, fat and lean, stout and scraggy, cannot be made equally subject to the same rule. In such a matter as dress there must be some margin allowed for individual peculiarities. Nature has not made us all in the same mould; and we must be careful not to affront nature, but must accept her gifts and make the best of them.

There is one point connected with the following of fashion which requires some attention, and which, if attended to, will preserve us from incongruities. We allude to the disposition of some persons to use various fashions together. They are inclined to be “_eclectic_.” They select from by-gone fashions, and endeavor to blend them with those which prevail. The result is a painful incongruity. Who would dream of placing a Grecian portico to an Elizabethan building? Why then endeavor to combine old fashions with new? Why attempt to wear a bonnet of almost primitive form with dresses of modern dimensions and style? or why wear flounces when they are out of fashion, and full skirts when everything is ”gored” into plainness? It is necessary to pay some attention to the present style of dress, if ladies desire to avoid peculiarities and wish to please. But it, of course, requires a certain sense of propriety and of fitness. A bonnet of diminutive form which suits to perfection a young girl with a small oval face and slender throat, is quite misapplied when adopted by a woman of a certain age, whose figure has escaped beyond the limits of even “embonpoint,” whose throat is not perceptible, and whose face and head are large. She requires something of more ample dimensions, that bears some affinity in size with the head and face it is intended to ornament; something which will modify, if not conceal, the imperfections which time has developed. A dress of a light and airy kind does not become a matron; nor can that which suits a slight and elastic figure be worn with impunity by what is called a “comely dame.”

Fashion prescribes all sorts of rules about breadths, gores, flounces, and such like, and these are the hints which she gives, and which ladies must take and apply to themselves to the best advantage. There is ample margin allowed for each one to adopt what is best suited to her own particular style of beauty. Perhaps there never was a time when so much liberty was allowed to ladies to dress according to their own fancy. Of course we mean within certain limits. If any one will consent to keep within those limits, and not do actual violence to the decrees of fashion, she may, to a considerable degree, follow her own fancy. If the general idea which fashion has submitted to society as the sine qua non of being well dressed is borne in mind, she is very tolerant of the various modifications which ladies, for the most part, wisely adopt, that they may not make “guys” of themselves. Nothing illustrates this more than the hats and bonnets which are worn. Their variety is so great that their names might be termed “legion;” and a pretty woman may adopt all kinds of conceits, providing she neither offends the eye nor defies the prevailing fashion. One may come out as a shepherdess, another like a Spanish cavalier in the time of Charles the Second, another with a three-cornered hat such as state-coachmen wear on “drawing-room days,” only of course a very small edition of it; another with a little coquettish hat that suggests one of Watteau’s most successful pictures; but no one may wear one of those large mushroom bonnets which were worn some five-and-thirty years ago, and which were ornamented by large bows of ribbon stiffened with wire, and by great nosegays of flowers which resembled a garden flower-pot.  It is only on condition that no violence is done to the decrees of fashion or to the ideas she would suggest, that so much liberty is allowed. We think that the result is most satisfactory, as there is an infinite variety to please the eye, and there are abundant opportunities for every one to attend to her own comfort and ease.  Of course there have been, and still are, certain fashions which are quite “dirigueur” among the really fashionable world, and which are annoying to the public generally, such as large crinolines and long skirts, and more especially the long trains which are now in vogue.  Crinolines, though reduced in size, are not discarded, except in some instances which, as our eyes are not yet accustomed to their absence, present a scarcely decent appearance.

One word more before we close this division of our subject. If persons are inclined to rail against Fashion and denounce it, let them remember that there is a fashion in everything. In thought, in politics, in physic, in art, in architecture, in science, in speech, in language, and even in religion we find fashion to have a guiding and governing power. How can we otherwise account for the change which has taken place in language, which is not the same that it was fifty years ago? There are phrases which have become obsolete; there are words which have been almost lost out of our vocabulary, which have changed their meaning, or which fashion has tabooed. And in other matters we find alterations which can only be accounted for by the fact that fashions change. They are not the result of development simply, which may and must frequently occur in sciences; but they are the result of those variations in custom and usage for which it is impossible to find any more expressive word than that of Fashion. Why then should not dress have its fashions also, and why should not those fashions change as time advances, and why should not fashion rule in this as in other things?



Original text by George Routledge, edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 




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