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    Sixty Phases of Fashion Essay (1993 words)

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    The ladies who are so good as to act as pioneers would confer a greater benefit on their sex if they would free them, to the extent that men are freed, from the costly and occasionally hideous tyranny of fashion, than by enabling their sisters to add B. A. to their names.

    In the course of the last two generations it has been my lot to see many different forms of ugliness pass—like Banquo’s issue, in procession, but with this difference—that when you think you have got rid altogether of a deformity it comes around again in a cycle.

    We are now going back to my earli- est recollections. I can see my mother and my aunt in the thirties with gigantic bows of hair standing erect—a la giraffe, it was called—and down pillows to make the sleeves stick out. I believe this fashion was given up on account of a pas- sage in Ezekiel denouncing women for “pinning pillows to their armholes.” Waists were worn rather short and a great deal of furbelow about the shoulders. The turbans and birds of paradise which at that time adorned the heads of the elderly have happily not returned; and pretty little wigs, beautifully curled, have replaced the old hair fronts. In the days I am speaking of, every woman beheld with horror the first silver hair shiningamid her locks, and straightway, however young she might be, either dyed her hair (often a rich plumcolour unless very frequently renewed) or bought a dark-haired front, fastened round her head by a broad piece of black velvet. This had likewise the advantage of heightening the forehead. A high forehead, such as now gives us a headache to look at, was considered beautiful, and some people shaved a little triangle at the top which looked blue and bristly. Young women, and the favoured few among the old who had no tendency to turn grey or bald, made their hair as smooth as possible. A sticky preparation called “fixa- ture” turned it into a solid mass, and bear’s grease and other pomades darkened its shade. Red hair and even golden, were thought fatal to good looks. The heroines of that day had smooth black hair, just as now they have fluffy golden locks.

    The hair fronts of old were surmounted by huge caps and ribbons—bonnets a la folle—described as the height of elegance in the pages of Balzac and Charles de Bernard. They certainly softened an old face. Now the old ladies have dis- carded caps altogether, and have the good taste to prefer white locks to brown. White horsehair makes a lovely white wig; we have taken a wrinkle from the lawyers. 1 regret the disap- pearance of caps. A barehead challenges comparison with the young, not to the advantage of the old. Skirts did not, I think, alter much during the twenty years before the crinoline. They were full and round, nowand then lengthening into a train behind. Gradually stiff petticoats were worn, and then a cane round the hem to produce the bell shape. They were rather short, displaying shoes tied with sandals crossed over the instep. White stockings were always worn. These were palmy days for the laundress. Little girls wore white trousers down totheanklesand frilled uptill they met the befrilled white frocks. As it was impossible to hold them up, it was “fruitful hot water” for us children when we came home splashed and stained. White petticoats also were de rigueur on all occasions for old and young—for muddy country walks as well as dusty pavements.

    Hats were not; large bonnets were worn with flowers inside and a curtain behind. We are threatened with these again. White straw trimmed with white satin ribbon for the country was thought in excellent taste. For little girls they were lined with asrophane, and a quil- ling of white net surrounded the face.

    I remember how pleased I was when I was permitted to wear artificial flowers. These bonnets did not protect the face in the least, although so large; so an “ Ugly” was invented, worthy of its name—it was like the awning which pulls down from a bathing machine— and great was the addition to comfort.

    Some of Leech’s pretty young ladies, are disfigured, if anything could dis- figure them, by these Uglies, framing their sweet faces, which peep out from among their long ringlets—’Tire-bou- chonsa 1’anglaise. Figures de kipsake, as the French called them. They still simper at us from “Books of Beauty” which put in all the reigning beauties, immortalised by the wavy, shadowy pencil of Chalons.

    These ringlets increased the size of the head, and threw the figure out of proportion. In the evening we wore wreaths of artificial flowers and they made our heads look still larger. In point of comfortable warmth we have advanced greatly since the days when my mother wore white muslin dresses indoors and out, as the ladies do in Miss Austen’s novels. The alter- native was a riding-habit, in winter and summer. My mother was married in a blue riding-habit and a white beaver hat and feathers.

    Even half a century ago the poor little tender babies displayed their little dimpled necks and arms in all weathers. Sweet little cherubs they looked in their white frocks. Now they are well wrapped up in woolen, and gain in health what they lose in beauty. We little girls were not much better off. Our frocks were made with short sleeves and half low bodices, tied round with a string. They were most miserable—always slipping off one shoulder, unless the string were drawn so tight as to cut into the flesh. Long sleeves were tied on with tapes to the short ones and a cape-pelerine, as it was called—or a spencer, a hide-ous garment—added, out-of-doors.

    It was the height of my ambition to wear a shawl. All grown-up ladies wore shawls, pinned round the throat or on the shoulders. It was quite impossible to arrange (at least none but a French-woman could) these heavy Indian or Paisly shawls gracefully. It was better in the summer, when black or white lace was substituted, or a long scarf, without fastening, hung from the shoulders and was always slipping into the dust or dirt. Round capes, called “cardinals” were a great improve- ment; and the “visites” led the way to jackets and coats, and—most com- fortable of all for rough work—ulsters. The riding-dress though not so sporty as it is now—women were thought out of place in the hunting field—was certainly prettierand more feminine. The skirt was much longer and more draped and covered the feet. We wore, as now, Wellington boots, and trousers strapped under the foot. The jacket was always tight, sometimes with and sometimes without basques. The hat, when I first came out, was black Spanish beaver, with rather a wide brim and trimmed with long ostrich feathers. We wore white gauntlets, pipeclayed every day; and our horses had white reigns to match.

    It was not till the middle of the fifties that hats, except for riding, came in. 1 remember my first view, when we went to Scotland, of some Highland ladies standing on a bank in hats and woolen jackets and skirts, and how 1 approved of their appearance, and promptly fitted myself with similar garments at Inverness, and how I was stared at on my return home. For years hats were not admissible in London. It was in the early fifties that the beautiful Empress of the French began to set the fashion for Europe. It is strange that so graceful a lady should have in- augurated the crinoline. It ruled over us for at least fifteen years, increasing in size till it reached thedimensionsof four yards and a half at the day of its death. 1 own I liked it. It saved all the trouble and weight of one’s skirts.

    One could walk farther, and even climb a mountain better, than without it. The dress was drawn up like a curtain, by means of rings all round, in festoons, showing generally, a red petticoat, and was certainly picturesque. A very pretty portrait of his daughter by Sir Francis Grant, was exhibited some years ago. She is standing on the snow, in a black hat and a black dress looped over a red petticoat, her bright brown hair puffed out in front and curling on her shoulders. In the sway of the Empress Eugenie we tucked up our ringlets and spread our hair out wide on each side of our face. Long curls were still admissible hanging from the back of the head. Low sloping shoulders were admired, and evening gowns were always made so as to show them; the sleeves, therefore. began a long way down, and not much of the arm was displayed. A few years later there were no sleeves at all. We wore blouses in old days, and digni- fied them with the name of Garibaldi. They were loose and comfortable, and matched the flowing skirts.

    The crinoline was impossible when young ladies became athletic. It shrank, but it begat a monster. It concentrated itself in a huge hump at the back fit for nothing but a monkey to sit on. When at length even the votaries of fashion could bear it no longer, it was necessary to gore the skirts to enable the wearers to join in the sports of the day, and these clinging skirts obliged dressmakers to put a pocket in the back. Can there be a more ridiculous and ungraceful gesture than that of a lady hunting for her pocket, and forced at last to stand up to get at it?

    The absence of furbelow and drapery on the skirt was made up for by huge sleeves, now happily gone out, but the capes and frillings on the bodice still gave, with the addition of an enormous hat, a look of top-heaviness to the whole figure. Now the skirts are bcfrilied again, though still clinging.

    Whatever the prevailing fashion may be, one gets used to it, as one does to the face of a friend who is not strikingly beautiful (pas trop bien, as the French delicately put it), and even to like it. What I complain of is the incessant change. No sooner has one become accustomed to flowing garments than tight ones come in, no sooner has one begun to ruffle it complacently in balloon sleeves than they shrink to the dimensions of a man’s coat-sleeve. 1 wonder how men contrived to purchase their immunity from this distracting tyranny? Heaven forbid, however, that we should crystallise at the “rational dress” stage; may we ever keep our draperies and our laces! Nor would one rejoice in the permanence of the Grecian style. Stays, warm petticoats, and dress that fits, are essential in cold winds and for active exercise. I magine Penelope getting over a stile or Helen riding a bycycle in a chiton and sandals! Our dress cannot be classical. How frightful and ridiculous was the attempt to make it soin the beginning of this century under the first French Empire, is shown in the fashion books of that time; they are enough to make a cat laugh.

    What costume could possibly be more dignified and graceful than that of Sir Joshua Reynolds’and Gainsbor- ough’s lovely ladies—the high head-dress, the long waist, the square bodice, with sleeves ending in ruffles at the elbows, and the moderately full skirt without hoop or crinoline? We have adopted some parts of it—the coat of the present day is just like the pattern introduced to Queen Charlotte by M iss Burney—why should we not copy and above all things keep to the remainder? 1 suppose the dress-makers would object; and to their tyranny, in the name of Fashion, we shall always, 1 fear, continue in subjection.

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