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A Victorian Scrapbook

A Scrapbook of Newspaper Articles Compiled by George Burgess (1829-1905)

Victorian Family, People and Relationships

Family Herald

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Transcript from original newspaper article: -


DRESS; AN IMPORTANT SUBJECT FOR BOTH SEXES.

Family Herold“No woman of any class,” says Mrs. Austin, “has now the least idea that any dress is unfit for her station which it is in her power to buy. The rage of dèclassement [i.e. destroying all distinction of class] is far greater than the desire for good or even becoming clothes. Hence the innumerable shams and counterfeits which follow the appearance of every new and handsome fabric, as shadows their substance. Hence the preposterous appearance of our serving-women – the ridiculous transformation of the Cinderella into the princess, which are daily operated by our kitchen hearths. Hence, too, the deplorable and discreditable appearance of the women of the lower classes, who look as if clothed from the refuse of the fripier’s shop. In this respect we are behind France, Belgium, Holland, and indeed we fear all Europe. We have often had occasion to admire the substantial, characteristic, neat, and becoming dress of French workwomen, and to contrast it with little mortification, with the ragged trumpery, the paper flowers, the wretched burlesques of fashion exhibited by the corresponding class at home.”

A lady is high authority upon dress. It will therefore be dangerous to dispute or even criticise the foregoing. Nevertheless, though there is much truth in it – perhaps all more or less true – there is a little additional truth which will modify the subject not a little. The dèclassement to which Mrs. Austin alludes is the expression of that form of liberty which naturally belongs to popular constitutions; and it is much more apparent in the United States than in England – the expression of a right of individual liberty in the choice of costume – a very valuable right, and one which distinguishes the western from the eastern, the free from the absolute nations. To force men and women, as was the custom in former times, and still is in more eastern countries, to wear a distinctive garb, is to put a ticket upon them proclaiming their status in society, that every passenger in the street may know to what class they belong. In Russia every man is ticketed, and his rank is known at once. He has it even marked upon his door. This ticket comes from the Czar, and can be taken away by him. But in England a man’s person and house and distinguished by himself alone, and the passer by cannot tell except by the appearance of wealth or poverty what is the status of the man in society. The influence of a man thus flows from himself in England, and centres chiefly in his wealth, his talent, or his personal appearance. It is the same with women. She has a right to appear a lady if she can, and no sumptuary law forbids her to wear the dress that she can afford.

Now if the principle be applied to one class it must be applied to all – you cannot make an exception of servants if you make no exception of citizens and their wives. The day was when the law of the land forbade tradesmen and merchants and their wives to wear the costume of the nobility. They may now wear what they please; and the consequences is, that there is no distinction of higher and middle classes perceptible, except in the tone and manner, in which all real distinction of any value ought to reside. The duke and the earl may pass along the street undistinguished amongst tradesmen, and perhaps even amongst operatives. No one clears the way for them as of old; the errand-boy does not even turn aside to keep his parcel on his elbow from jogging them; the provincialist does not stare at them, for he does not know them. They are jostled as other men, and are all the better and the happier for it. There is a principle in this, and it is a valuable principle; and it is not the lower classes alone who cultivate it, but their superiors also. The general, the colonel, the captain, all divest themselves of their uniforms in mixing with the crowd, preferring to be undistinguished amongst them by any other peculiarity then their bearing as gentlemen. And we have little doubt that ladies of the very highest rank have similar feelings, for the most accomplished amongst them well know that they cannot be eclipsed without other accomplishments than those of dress. Indeed, many of them pride themselves in going out rather meanly than richly clad, and you may see the most illustrious lady in the realm at times attired almost as plainly as a mechanic’s wife.

The liberty of dressing as one pleases is an important feature of the civilisation of modern times. The Jew is no longer distinguished by his gabardine; he may pass for a Gentile if he can; and the nobleman or the gentleman is no longer distinguished by his sword at his side, for no man wears a sword at all in promiscuous society. No tax collector appears at our weddings and soirees, to criticise with the curious eye the quality of dress which the ladies appear in, or the jewels and trinkets with which they adorn their persons and demonstrate their affluence, to see that they have not subjected themselves to a fine for trespass beyond the letter of the sumptuary law. Such a scrutiny was formerly made; but now it would raise a rebellion in England, which can tolerate nothing but moral censorship on such matters. And that moral censorship is sufficiently effective to make a decided distinction between the dress of the mistress and that of her maid. The maid has always her characteristic cap or her apron, or something else to mark her; and however small that distinction may be, it is quite sufficient for every observant female eye. Even make eyes themselves can easily distinguish it. Moreover, servants have never even so much liberty of dressing as the law allows them. The law of the missus is final. The maid must either submit to it or go; and a woman’s eye is too minutely critical of shapes and stuffs not to perceive at once the slightest infringement of the law of order in domestic attire. Every new dress that a maid-servant puts on is most critically examined by the Lady superior, whether she be the housekeeper in a gentleman’s mansion or the mansion is a Burgess’s establishment; and not unfrequently the maid is told that she may dress wheresoever she pleases, “except in this house.” This is decisive, and this is law – the modern law of mere fashion, which women learn by the eye, and decide upon at once, without ever appealing to acts of parliament.

It is the same with men in almost every position in life; though nominally at liberty to dress as they please, they are in reality bound by the moral law of property, fashion, or custom. What law forbids the draper’s assistant to wear his beard or sport a moustache? The gentleman to go to diner or an evening party in coloured trowers? Or to dance, or escort a lady to an evening festivity without white gloves? And what act of the legislature entitles him to go to a morning party in a surtout and coloured trowsers and coloured gloves, and forbids the same at an evening party? There is no written law; and no law can even be appealed to for condemnation of a man who transgresses; for the condemnation would be scouted at every tribunal of equity and justice; and yet the law is so imperative that every one obeys. It is the law of etiquette – the best of all laws; for it suppresses agitation and all grievance-mongering. A man may break it if he pleases, and the police will not touch him; but the ladies will be sure to teaze him, for they are the police of the fashionable world.

It is a most mysterious thing, dress fashion; where it originates no one can tell. France is generally supposed to be the cradle of it, but it is not entirely so. Each country has its own peculiar modes. We take ideas from the French, but we never thoroughly imitate them. There is always a peculiarity about a French cut which we never adopt. The national disposition that makes us fall short of this it would be difficult to analyse; but it is akin to that of each class in society, which all have their own respective ideas of what is suitable for themselves. The clergyman has his cut; the physician has his; the military man has one peculiar to himself; the man of trade and commerce have a common understanding with respect to what is befitting themselves. Each may exceed or fall short of that standard as he pleases, and none can well describe that the standard is; but there is a certain sphere of liberty in which each is permitted to roam at pleasure, restrained alone by the common sense of propriety in the order to which he belongs; and he is laughed up or down till he finds himself within, if he happens to out of it. As with professions and trades, so it is with nations; but how the changes come is a mystery. It is only in the north-western nations that the changes take place. In south-eastern lands there is a great tendency to fixedness; but France, Germany, and England are the great innovators in fashion amongst the Europeans – none more than England – for here the fashion pervades all but the poorest, whereas in France and Germany it is chiefly confined to the wealthier classes. The United States we believe are rather in advance of the mother country in the universality of dress fashion; but there a servant will not be called a servant, and the maid refuses to wear a distinctive mark. It is a sign of liberty, this fashion, after all. Show us a strong electric current of fashion assimilating the dress and manners of a people without a sumptuary law, and you show us at the same time a free people, a people trained in the habit of self-criticism, cultivating the taste, and surely if slowly, improving in the habits and customs of society. A tendency to change must be ever associated with a tendency to reform; and it would say little for man as a teachable being, if with all his repeated and numerous attempts at improvement, he continued to move in a circle only, and found himself at the end of centuries just where he was.

This is not the case. Fashions are evidently improving, at least in the main. We may find worse and better alternately in the course of a few years, or even a century; but in the course of centuries the general improvement is still perceptible. Men have now thoroughly divested themselves of the rich and gaudy trappings of olden times. Silk, and satin, and velvet coats and breeches, are no longer in vogue; tawdry gilding and brocading are equally obsolete; ruffles and points, and buckles, and petticoat breeches decorated with ribands, are all out of date; and a man’s dress is much less costly now than it was even a hundred years ago, when poor Oliver Goldsmith [1728-1774] did not think it above the dignity of his rank in society to spend £40 upon a coat. Such folly is obsolete amongst men. Ladies will wear shawls of any price. But dress is their forte and sphere. Men have now abandoned the colours entirely to them, and the rich silks also, and contented themselves with the homely black broad-cloth, without a decoration of red, blue, or yellow – or even gold buttons.

There is a singular tendency in human nature to brand the class below us. Why should the servant maids be branded and the mistresses not? The duchesses would brand the marchionesses; the marchionesses the countesses; the countesses would brand the merchants’ and tradesmen’s wives, and perhaps they sometimes turn up their noses at seeing themselves surpassed. Now all this would be wrong. Why then should it not be wrong to brand the maid-servants? Leave them to the tribunal of public criticism – the common sense of their own class, which is better than any rule that can be borrowed from the antique female costumes of France or Belgium. The exceptions we suspect would be very few in number to the general rule of modesty in servants’ dresses; and scarcely one in a city would be heard of who rustled up-stairs in silks and satins, even if permitted by missus. The sense of property in the servant sometimes no doubt to be corrected by the judgement and taste of the mistress; but we believe it is a general sufficiently correct to keep a perceptible distinction between the respective inmates of the kitchen and the drawing-room. We are therefore not disposed to indorse Mrs. Austin’s opinion to the letter; for we think there is scarcely a maid-servant in England, in her senses, who would not refuse to wear a dress of the first class if presented to her, or if she could even afford to buy it. She would modestly say that she would prefer one more becoming. And there are thousands of ladies who keep servants who have similar feelings. Yet what each has in her power to buy, without incurring and privation of personal or domestic comfort is for her suitable, if in good taste and calculated to set off her person to advantage; an we trust it will become less and less the fashion to impose any other distinctive garb than that which the moral sense of each class itself approves of. By this means alone can taste be cultivated and judgement exercised.

A slavish adherence to fashion prevents the due exercise of this taste and judgement. A little deviation is not only sometimes becoming, but particularly attractive. How many ladies, for instance, might now improve their personal appearance by means of an unfashionable bonnet! But the rage for fashion is quite as diseased as the rage for déclassement. The present bonnet shows the whole parting of a lady’s hair, the most formal and least interesting part of it. Seventy years ago it was just the reverse. The back hair was shown with all its plaits and curls, and the parting in front was covered by the bonnet. The pictures of these bonnets are to this day particularly smart and attractive – even though ridiculous in caricature; and how infinitely superior to a modern back-hair bonnet, which hangs on the peg behind, like a man’s hat on a nail! Yet Mrs. Austin would herself prefer the parting bonnet; not because it is more beautiful, but because it is fashionable; for it is only beautiful in the shop windows, never on the head, where nobody can see it except from behind.