Taste in Dress

[This is taken from Routledge's Manual of Etiquette.]

In dress, as in most other things, there are two kinds of taste; good taste and bad taste. We use the word “taste” in a sense quite distinct from “style.” It is a disputed point whether really good taste can ever be acquired, or whether it is only inherent. We are disposed to think that, in its most perfect form, it is inborn; but that education, association, familiarity with it may, and often does, arrive at the same result. For instance, a person who has always lived on close and intimate terms with those who are conspicuous for their good taste, becomes so familiarized with certain expressions of thoughts and ideas, habits of mind, and standard of life, that he unconsciously adopts them, views things from the same point, and walks in the same groove, quite irrespective of the natural tendencies of his own mind. Persons who have no natural gift or talent for painting, may acquire a knowledge of the art so as to pronounce with tolerable correctness of judgment upon the works of the old masters, from merely associating with those who are conversant with the subject, living amongst the pictures themselves, or from hearing discussions upon their respective merits. In fact, man is an imitative animal, and can adapt himself very readily to the circumstances by which he is surrounded, as well as acquire from others the results of their deeper research and greater experience. Living in an atmosphere where good taste prevails, it is not wonderful that he should acquire that power of discrimination by which the selection of what is becoming and harmonious is made easy.

There is no doubt that dress is a very fair index of the mind of the wearer. Who but a Widow Barnaby would wear a bright emerald green satin dress in the morning, and a bonnet profusely ornamented with large and brilliant scarlet flowers? Yet we have ourselves seen a lady, of ample dimensions and advanced years, similarly attired, and could think of nothing but one of those large gaudy macaws which are to be met with in every zoological garden. Who that had any regard for his own liberty would marry such a strong-minded, pretentious dame?  Who could endure for life the vulgarity of mind that suggested such a costume for a fete in the country on a hot summer’s day? There are some persons who think to overpower their neighbors by the splendor of their attire.

It is much easier to point out what offends against good taste than to say in so many words in what it consists.

Harmony of color is essential to being well dressed. There are colors which “swear” so awfully, that no one with any pretension to good taste would wear them; yet we not infrequently find instances of them. A yellow gown has been worn with a bright green bonnet; red and green, like our friend a-la-macaw; salmon color and blue; yellow and red; green and blue. Two ill-assorted shades of the same color, such as a dark and light blue; or a red lilac and a blue lilac; or a rose pink and a blue pink; or drab and yellow. Instances might be multiplied without end of incongruous inharmonious blending of colors, the mere sight of which is enough to give any one a bilious fever. There are colors which, in themselves, may be inoffensive, but of which only particular shades assort well together. Blue and pink was a very favorite combination at one time; but in order to be both pleasing and effective, it must be one particular shade of each, and these softened and blended by the addition of white. Again, shades of scarlet and blue harmonize well together. Black has a wonderful power in softening down any intrusive brilliancy. It tones down scarlet and pink, blue and yellow, and gives them an indescribable charm, suggesting all kinds of pleasant things—the Cachucha and castanets, and the mantilla worn with such inimitable grace and coquetry by the Spanish ladies. Black and white is also a pleasing combination. White has generally the opposite effect of black. It adds to the brilliancy of the colors, and smartens rather than subdues. Many of those who aim at being well dressed, rarely give sufficient attention to this harmony of color. One little thing will upset the whole. The choice of jewels or the head dress may destroy all the effect which has been admirably conceived by an experienced dressmaker. It is on this account that some milliners prefer to supply all that is requisite for a particular costume. The man-milliner at Paris is said to be very dictatorial on this subject, and to decide very peremptorily as to what shall or shall not be worn. In morning costumes, a pair of gloves badly chosen will mar the effect of the whole. Imagine a lady dressed in mauve silk, with a mauve bonnet, and emerald green kid gloves! or vice versa, in green silk, with a bonnet to match, and _mauve-colored gloves_! Dark green, dark mauve, or plum colored, dark salmon, or dark yellow gloves, are enough to spoil the most faultless costume; because they interrupt the harmony of color; like the one string of a musical instrument, which, being out of tune, creates a discord throughout all the rest.

Variety in color is another great defect in dress, quite apart from the question of their harmony. A multiplicity of colors, though not in themselves inharmonious, is never pleasing. It fatigues the eye, which cannot find any repose where it is disturbed by so many colors.  A bonnet of one color, a gown of another, with trimmings of a third, a mantle of a fourth, and a parasol of a fifth color, can never form a costume that will please the eye. It is laid to the charge of English people, that they are especially fond of this kind of dress, whereas a French woman will dress much more quietly, though, by no means, less expensively; but in her choice of colors she will use very few, and those well assorted. For instance, a grey gown and a white bonnet, relieved by a black lace shawl or velvet mantle, indicate a refinement which may be looked in vain where the colors of the rainbow prevail. Among well-dressed persons it will be found that quiet colors are always preferred. Whatever is gaudy is offensive, and the use of many colors constitutes gaudiness. Birds of gay plumage are sometimes brought forward to sanction the use of many bright colors. They are indeed worthy of all admiration; so also are flowers, in which we find the most beautiful assortment of colors; but nature has shaded and blended them together with such exquisite skill and delicacy, that they are placed far beyond the reach of all human art; and we think they are, to use the mildest terms, both bold and unwise who attempt to reproduce in their own persons, with the aid of silks or satins, the marvelous effect of colors with which nature abounds. And yet it may be observed in nature, how gay colors are neutralized by their accessories; how the greens vary in tone and tint according to the blossoms which they surround. The infinite shades and depths of color with which nature is filled render it impossible for anyone to attempt to imitate it beyond a certain point of general harmony. This is now more generally understood than it used to be; but still we often stumble across some glaring instance in which a gaudy eye and taste have been allowed to run riot, and the result has been the reproduction of something not very unlike a bed of tulips.

It is in a host of little things such as these that good taste lies, and shows itself. We remember an instance of a lady, who was conspicuous among her fellows for her exquisitely good taste in dress, being severely commented upon by two showily-dressed women, who were the wives of wealthy merchants in one of our great seaport-towns.  This lady appeared in church quietly dressed in black, with a handsome Indian shawl, of which the colors were subdued and wonderfully blended. The two representatives of the “nouveaux riches” looked at the lady and then at each other; they turned up their noses, and shrugged their shoulders, and gave vent to their feelings, as they came away from church, in loud exclamations of disdain: “Well! did you ever? No! I never did; and she a lady too! For their part they would be ashamed to wear such a shabby old shawl.” The shawl was worth about its weight in gold; but because it was not showy, it found no favor in their eyes.

As it is so intricate a matter, and one of which a very slight thing can turn the scales, it is not easy to lay down rules by which good taste may be acquired. But there are instances of bad taste which can be avoided, and among them there is one which is self-evident, and does not relate either to harmony or to variety of colors. We allude to the good taste of dressing according to our means and station.

There is an impression in the minds of some persons, that fine feathers make fine birds, and that the world in general thinks more or less of them according to the dress they wear. Therefore, in order that they may impose upon their neighbors by their outward appearance, and, as children say, make-believe that they are richer than they really are, they dress beyond their means, and, at the cost of much privation of even the necessaries of life, make a display which they are not warranted in making. We have known those who have pinched themselves till they have brought on actual illness, or have laid the foundation of a fatal disease, in order that they might dress themselves in a style beyond their position in life. In France this is often the case. A lady who, in her ordinary attire, is as slovenly and as shabbily dressed as almost the very beggar in the street, will appear at some evening party most exquisitely dressed, and will carry on her back the savings acquired by months and years of penurious self-denial.

We respect those who struggle hard to maintain their hereditary position, and reverence within certain limits the spirit of endurance which bears in privacy the changes of fortune in order to keep up a becoming appearance in the eyes of the world. But we have no sympathy for those who, having no such excuse, having no high lineage, and to whom fortune has not been unkind, stint and screw that they may impose upon their neighbors with the notion that they are better off than they really are,--better off in money, and better off in position.  Imposture of this kind we confess we have no patience for. We are very intolerant of it. It is a vulgarity which, wherever it may be found, is most offensive. We go even further still, and are disposed to blame all who, whatever their circumstances or condition may have been or may be, dress beyond their means. It is possible that some relics of past grandeur may yet remain to be worn on state occasions. With that no one can quarrel; but it is a mistake to make great and unwarrantable sacrifices in order to replenish the exhausted wardrobe on its former scale of magnificence. It is better far to accept fate, to comply with the inevitable, and not waste time and strength in fighting against the iron gates of destiny. No one, whose esteem is worth having, will respect us less because we dress according to our means, even if those means should have dwindled into insignificance.  But if we toil unduly to make ourselves appear to be something that we are not, we shall earn contempt and reap disappointment. It is far more noble-minded to bid farewell to all our greatness, than to catch greedily at any of the outlying tinsel that may remain here and there.  This indicates good taste more than anything. To be what we are, really and simply, and without pretension, is one of the greatest proofs of good feeling which, in matters of dress, resolves itself into good taste.

There is nothing more hateful than pretension. The fable of the “Frog and the Bull” illustrates the absurdity of it. Yet it is of every-day occurrence, and we continually meet with instances of it. Persons in humble class of life will often ape their betters, dressing after them, and absolutely going without necessary food in order to get some piece of finery. Fine gowns of inconvenient length, expanded over large crinolines—silk mantles richly trimmed,--often conceal the coarsest, scantiest, and most ragged underclothing. We have seen the most diminutive bonnets, not bigger than saucers, ornamented with beads and flowers and lace, and backed up by ready-made “chignons,” on the heads of girls who are only one degree removed from the poor-house. Servant-girls who can scarcely read, much less write,--who do not know how to spell their names,--who have low wages,--and, as little children, had scarcely shoes to their feet,--who perhaps never saw fresh meat in their homes, except at Christmas, when it was given them by some rich neighbor,--spend all their earnings on their dress, appear on Sundays in hats and feathers, or bonnets and flowers, and veils and parasols, and long trailing skirts, which they do not care to hold up out of the dirt, but with which they sweep the pavement.  Can it be said that this is good taste? Assuredly not. It could not well be worse.

The question of station and of means does not seem to rule the world in general. Everything is considered to be suited to every body; and the maid-of-all-work does not hesitate to copy, to the utmost extent of her power, the dress of the greatest lady in the land. She does not see why she should not dress as she likes, and is not restrained in her wish by good taste. We do not wish to argue in favor of any monopoly, but we confess that we should like to see people of all classes regulated by good taste in matters of dress.

On the Continent we find the evils we complain of partially remedied by national costumes; but these are fast diminishing, and are only to be found in all their perfection in those parts into which the railways have not yet penetrated. Yet, who does not look with pleasure upon the clean white cap of the French servant, or bonne, who goes to market and to church without a bonnet, and with only her thick snow-white cap? Who does not delight in the simplicity of dress which the French, Norman, and Breton peasants still preserve? Contrast it with the dress of our servant-girls, with their crinoline and absurd little bonnets, and say which is the best taste.

After all that can be said there is no doubt that one of the objects of dress should be to enable people to do what they have to do in the best, the most convenient, and the most respectable manner. At all events it should not interfere with their occupation. Did our readers ever see a London housemaid cleaning the doorsteps of a London house?  It is a most unedifying sight. As the poor girl kneels and stoops forward to whiten and clean the steps her crinoline goes up as her head goes down, and her person is exposed to the gaze of policemen and errand-boys, who are not slow to chaff her upon the size and shape of her legs. Can this be called dressing in good taste? Would it not be wiser to discard the crinoline altogether till the day’s work is done, and the servants make themselves tidy for their tea and their evening recreation. In some families this is insisted on. But, on the other hand, it is complained against as an infringement upon the liberty of the subject, which is an unreasonable complaint, as the subject may go elsewhere if she dislikes to have her liberty so interfered with.

Good taste in dress is a question which is, by no means, above the consideration of old and elderly women. There are some who never can imagine themselves old. Whether it is owing to the eternal youth of their mind and spirits, or to their vanity, we do not pretend to say; but one thing is certain that again and again have we been both amused and disgusted by the way in which old women dress themselves. A lady with whom we were acquainted used to dress in blue or white gauze or tarlatan, or any light material she could lay her hands on, when she was past eighty, and she vainly imagined that, with an affectation of youth in her gait, and with the aid of the rouge-pot, she could conceal her age. She would trip into the room like a young girl, with her light gossamer dress floating around her as if she were some sylph in a ballet. She was a wonderful woman for her age, and, no doubt, had been so accustomed to the remarks that were continually made upon her agility and appearance, that she had at last grown to think herself almost as young as she was sixty years ago. It was but the other day that we saw an old woman with grey hair wearing a little hat placed coquettishly upon her head, with a large chignon of grey hair filling up the back! Sometimes we have seen old women spurning the sober tints which accord with their years, and coming out dressed like Queens of the May in garlands and flowers; and wearing bonnets that would be trying even to a belle of eighteen. But when people resolutely refuse to accept the fact that they are no longer young, it is not surprising that they should run into some extremes, and offend against good taste by dressing in a style utterly unsuited to their years. And yet there is no more pleasing sight than a good-looking old woman, who is neither afraid or ashamed to recognize the fact of her age, and wears the quiet and sober colors which belong to her years, modifying the fashion of the day to suit herself, that she may neither ape the young nor affect to revive in her own person the fashions of by-gone days.  Affectation of all kinds is detestable.

So also there are rules for the young, which, if attended to, will prevent their offending against good taste. The young are, of all people, without excuse. The freshness of youth has a beauty of its own which needs but little outward adornment. The ravages of time have not to be repaired. Youth has charms of its own, and the more simply it is attired the better. Everything is in favor of the young. When they adopt elaborate or rich toilets, when they make flower-gardens of their heads, or wear strong and glaring colors, the chances are that they disfigure themselves. A young girl should never make herself conspicuous by her dress. Let it be as good as she pleases, as costly as she can afford, still let it be simple and unobtrusive. Let the general effect be pleasing and grateful to the eye; but at the same time let it be impossible to say in what it consists, or to remember her on account of any peculiarity in it. If she is beautiful, let her dress aid her beauty by not drawing away the attention from it. If she is plain, let her not attract all eyes to her plainness. Let not people say of her, “Did you see that ugly girl with that scarlet feather in her hat?” or, “with that bonnet covered with pearl beads, contrasting with her dark and sallow complexion?” or, “with that bright green gown, which made her look so bilious?”

It is in small things, as well as in great, that good taste shows itself. Well-fitting gloves and boots, things of small moment in themselves, tell of a neat and refined taste. Quiet colors, well assorted; an absence of glare and display, nothing in extremes, betoken a correct eye and good taste.

It is, then, in the harmony of color; in the use of a few colors at one and the same time; in dressing according to their means, according to their station, as well as according to their age, that people may be said to show their good taste in dress. There are, doubtless, other points of detail which will suggest themselves to the minds of our readers; but we are confident that, if attention is given to the points which it has been our wish to place prominently before them, there will be fewer of those startling peculiarities and eccentricities which offend against good taste.





Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved