Home and Society. Ethics of Dress.

Scribners monthly 2, 1871

There are hill-slopes and mountaintops in New England which glitter just now in a Springtime broidery of flowers. With every season the flowers vary — now arbutus, now buttercups, now clover; but no change comes to the solid granite which underlies them. Through all seasons and all years it remains the same.

Even so, certain immutable laws underlie all human fashions, changing not with the perpetual flux and sheen of outward life. These laws of grace, of symmetry, of propriety, are the oracles of our highest vulturn and our finest instincts. They are natural laws as well, and the things of Nature conform to them. Willows droop, elm boughs curve accordantly — no humblest flower that blows but recognizes their behest in the shaping and the painting of its cup.

But we are not obedient as the flowers. Acknowledging the law, we forget it. Especially is this true in matters of dress, Fashion twitches this way and that, pulls lines out of their rightful sweep and meaning, overloads, deforms, disguises, and our eyes become demoralized. Hardly do we endure before we embrace; we become a part of all which at first we hated, and the higher law is forgotten.

Wherefore it is to be wished that as, each season, our journals record the caprices of Dame Fashion, some cooler voice in the background might be provided, which should repeat and rerepeat the old code — so easily laid aside, so important to remember. Or, to use another figure, that amid the arbitrary changes and glitter of society, a wise hand should be found to seize and hold up the standard — as valid now as in the days of classic Greece, the standard of correct taste — if haply a few here and there might behold and follow.

This code, worthy to be engraved on tables of brass, runs somewhat after this wise: —

Imprimis. The first instinct about a new fashion is the true one. Don't wait till your eye has lost its accuracy and your judgment its edge. Subject the thing at once to the general rule, and bow to the decision.

2d. What suits one person does not suit another. Know thyself.

3d. Dress should supplement good points and correct bad ones. Thick and thin, long and short, are not all to be subjected to one Procrustean style.

4th. Colors should be harmonious, should be massed — should be becoming. Id est, many little points or blotches of color sprinkled over a costiene produce a disagreeably pied and speckled effect, as of a monstrous robin's egg, or a plum-pudding. One tint should prevail, relieved by a contrasting tint. No amount of fashionable prestige can make an unbecoming color becoming. "Nile green" will turn some people into oranges, though twenty empresses ordain its adoption.

5th Lines should be continuous, graceful, and feminine. It is better to look like a woman (if you happen to be one) than like anything else — even a fashion-plate!

6th. Ornament must be subordinate. Nature, with all her profusion, never forgets this fundamental law.

7th. Above all things, be neat. Dainty precision and freshness is essential to a woman as a flower.

8th. Individuality is the rarest and the cheapest thing in the world.

9th, and lastly, "Stylish" is of all the words in the English language the most deadly. It has slain its thousands.

And now, dear audience — such of you as have been listening — our message it delivered. We have said our little say into ears more or less deaf; and, proceeding after the usual manner of sages, to fly in the face of our own philosophy, are ready to turn with you for a consideration of that congenial theme,

The Spring Fashions,
In beginning the account of which we are tempted to exclaim with the "Needy Knife-Grinder,"
"Story! Lord bless you: I have none to tell, sir."

Paris, the seat of the oracles, is intent on sterner matters, and the fashionable trumpet so far sends forth but an uncertain blast. Bonnets and round hats have indeed "suffered a sea change," but everything else worn last year can, almost without exception, be worn with equal propriety now.

A certain solid and practical quality to which we alluded a while ago, still characterizes dress in all its departments. Germany takes precedence here as in graver fields. We miss the airiness, the ingenuity, the thousand pretty frivolities of the fallen empire. Everything is rich, heavy, durable. Ex pede Herculem.

Skirts are a little longer. They are now expected to remove orange-peel from the sidewalks, whereas in the uinter their mission went no farther than straws, sticks, and such trifles. Over-skirts are cut excessively long, and are bouffant to an extent undreamed of before. To support the mass and produce a proper quantity of what boys call "stick out," substructures of hair-cloth and steel springs are necessary; we even hear — but tell it not in Gath — elastic sponge mentioned as used for this purpose.

Jackets are a trifle deeper. They still boast those perpendicular slashes, which, on a fat figure, produce the charming effect of the preliminary cuts which release an orange from its imprisoning rind. Bodices are pointed in front and lengthened into postillion basques behind.

Sleeves are wider, fuller: and, which is an improvement, the pretty old fashion of frilled hanging undersleeves of lace and muslin is revived. Black lace is sometimes used with black silks, and for persons in mourning, fluted ruffle; of French organdy edged with footing.

Arm in arm with the wide sleeves, collarettes and capes very naturally have come again into view. These are graceful and becoming to many people, and admit of much variety of form and material. Lace, however, is the favorite wear. Small round capes and jackets of chantilly and fine llama are in use for the street. Dresses and fichus of soft muslin and embroidery trimmed with Valenciennes are mouth in vogue for demi-toilettes, and, with under-dress of silk, for balls and dinners. Very beautiful and fine over-dresses in black and white llama are also to be had.

For summer mornings there is an infinite variety of pretty things: — percales, lawns, nainsooks, piqués, crisply ruffled, stitched into dainty plaits, embroidered, frilled. Freshness is the essential quality of a June toilette, and we are disposed to agree with the great man (Lord Chatham was it ?) who said there was nothing more delightful in nature than a woman dressed in white sitting under a green tree. Linen suits for traveling are as much in vogue as ever, and can be had in all colors, nut-brown, Ecru, primrose, pearlgray, steel, pale-green. For cool afternoons there are innumerable and extremely pretty summer silks of all delicate shades, in hair stripes and "pin-head" cheeks. Embroidered jackets of black cashmere, and grenadine lined with colored silks, are worn en promenade.

A strung tendency exists toward the re-introduction of crapes, so fashionable years ago. The Canton crapes are thus far expensive and hard to come by, but stimulated by the demand will undoubtedly make their way to us a little later via California. Knots and scarfs of this beautiful stuff are already plentiful, and several of the leading houses exhibit a light glossy material known as "China crape," which is popular for bonnets, over-dresses, and hat-trimming.

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