Dress and Its Victims

There are a good many people who cannot possibly believe that dress can have any share in the deaths of the 100,000 persons who go needlessly to the grave every year in our happy England, where there are more means of comfort for everybody than in any other country in Europe.

How can people be killed by dress, now-a-days? they ask. We must be thinking of the old times when the ladies laced so tight that “salts and strong waters” seem to have been called for to some fainting fair one, as often as numbers were collected together, whether at church, or at Ranelagh, or the theatres. Or perhaps we are thinking of the accidents that have happened during particular fashions of dress, as the burning of the Marchioness of Salisbury, from her high cap nodding over the candle; or the deaths of the Ladies Bridgeman last year, from the skirts of one of them catching fire at the grate; or the number of inquests held during the fashion of gigot-sleeves, when a lady could scarcely dine in company, or play the piano at home, without peril of death by fire.

Perhaps it may be the heavy, towering headdresses of the last century we may be thinking of, bringing in a crowd of bad symptoms, headaches, congestions, fits, palsies, with the fearful remedies of bleeding and reducing, which we read of in medical books, and in gossiping literature, like Horace Walpole’s correspondence.

Or we may even be thinking of the barbaric fashion of painting the face, neck, and hands, at one time carried on to the excess of enamelling the skin. That was not at so very remote a time; for I have heard from the lips of witnesses what it was like; and a friend of mine, yet living, can tell what she saw at a concert where a lady sat before her with a pair of broad shoulders which looked like tawny marble — as smooth, as shining, and as little like anything human.

These shoulders were once enamelled, and may have looked white in their day; but no life-long pains to renew their whiteness would serve after a certain lapse of time; and there they were, hopeless, tawny, and the quality of the skin destroyed. The poisonings by means of cosmetics we read of in the history of past centuries, may have been sometimes intentional; but there was plenty of unconscious poisoning besides. We do not, however, mean any of these things when we speak of dress, in connection with preventible mortality.

Perhaps I may be supposed to be referring to the notoriously afflicted and short-lived classes of milliners and slop-workers who are worn out and killed off in the cause of dress. No; I am not now going to bring forward their case, because it comes under a different head. At this moment I am not thinking of either the political economy or the general morality of the dress-question, or I should bring up the group of suicides who have perished, some from hopeless poverty, some from intolerable degradation, and some from the embarrassment of gambling debts incurred for the sake of dress.

If the secrets of the city were known, we might hear of more tragedies than the theatres show, from the spread of gambling among women, and especially among servant-girls and shop-women, who have been carried beyond bounds by the extravagant fashion of the day. But I am not speaking of suicides, nor of the victims of the needle, whose case is too grave to be treated lightly, and whose day of deliverance, too, is at hand, if the sewing-machine is the reality it appears — and not a phantom — cheating the hopes of thousands. We may possibly look into that another time. Meanwhile our business is with the injurious and sometimes murderous effect of dress which we see worn every day.

It will not seem so wonderful that the familiar clothing of our neighbours and ourselves may be of such importance when we remember the explanations of physicians — that dress may, and usually does, affect the condition and action of almost every department of the human frame; — the brain and nervous system, the lungs, the stomach, and other organs of the trunk; the eyes, the skin, the muscles, the glandular system, the nutritive system, and even the bony frame, the skeleton on which all hangs. If dress can meddle mischievously with the action, or affect the condition of all these, it can be no marvel that it is responsible for a good many of the hundred thousand needless deaths which are happening around us this year.

Putting aside the ordinary associations, as far as we can, and trying for the moment to consider what is to be desired in the clothing of the human body — what is requisite to make dress good and beautiful,—let us see what is essential.

Dress should be a covering to all the parts of the body which need warmth or coolness, as the case may be. It should be a shelter from the evils of the atmosphere, whether these be cold, or heat, or wet, or damp, or glare. This is the first requisite; for such shelter is the main purpose of clothing. In our own country the dress should easily admit of the necessary changes in degrees of warmth demanded by our changeable climate.

Dress should bear a close relation to the human form. No other principle can be permanent; no other can be durably sanctioned by sense and taste, because no other has reality in it. We may fancy that we admire the old Greek and Roman robes which look dignified in Julius Caesar on the stage, and in statues, and in our own imaginations of classical times; but we could not get through our daily business in such a costume; nor should we admire the appearance of our acquaintance in it. In fact, the wearers themselves were always tucking up or putting away their troublesome wrappers when they had anything to do, and the busy people of society appeared in their workshops and fields in garments which left their limbs free, and their whole body fit for action. On the whole, in a general way, with particular variations according to taste, the dress should follow the outline of the body. Any great deviation from this principle involves inconvenience on the one hand and deformity on the other.

Where it follows the outline of the frame it should fit accurately enough to fulfil its intention, but so easily as not to embarrass action. It should neither compress the internal structure nor impede the external movement. An easy fit, in short, is the requisite. It is a part of this easy fit that the weight of the clothes should be properly hung and distributed.

After the peace of 1815 it was said that we gained two things from the French — gloves that would fit, and the shoulder-piece. It would make the difference of some lives out of the great number thrown away, if we made due use of the shoulder-piece, now. By the shoulder-piece, the weight of the garment is spread on the part best fitted to bear it, instead of being hung from the neck, as it was before we knew better, or from the hips or the waist (in the case of women’s dress) as now, when we ought to know better.

Next; dress ought to be agreeable to wear: and this includes something more than warmth and a good fit. It should be light, and subject to as few dangers and inconveniences as possible.

These conditions being observed, it follows of course that the costume will be modest, and that it will be graceful. Grace and beauty are flowers from the root of utility. The worst taste in dress is where things are put on for no purpose or use, as in the earrings, nose-rings, bangles and necklaces of savage (or civilised) wearers, the feathers on the head, and flaunting strips of gay colour, whether of wampum or ubbou, and the fringes and furbelows that one sees — now in Nubia, and now by Lake Huron, and now in New York or London.

The best taste is where the genuine uses of dress are not lost sight of, and the gratification of the eye grows out of them; where the garments fit accurately and easily, and the colours are agreeable, and the texture good and handsome, and the ornaments justified by some actual benefit, such as marking outlines, as the Greek borders did, or beautifying the fastenings, or affording a relief to the limits and edges.

These seem to be the main conditions agreed upon as essential to a good mode of dress. It would appear to be a greater sin and absurdity in us than in our ancestors to dress injuriously and offensively, because the observance of these conditions is so much easier to us than to them. It is astonishing to us to discover, by thinking about it, how costly dress was to the gentry of the kingdom in the reigns of our Edwards and Henrys, and even under the last of the Charleses and Jameses.

The proportion of middle and upper class incomes spent in dress must have been something far beyond what prudent people in our day would dream of. We must suppose that garments were made to last very long. With the labouring-classes we know it was so, before the days of cotton, and when linen was only for the great. In the rural cottages and artisans’ dwellings throughout the land, men, women and children wore woollen garments, the history of which would not be agreeable to our readers, accustomed as we are in these days to think of clothes as meant to be changed every day and night, and often washed or otherwise cleaned.

The variety, the cheapness, the manageableness of clothes in our day, compared with any former time, ought to render us obedient in an unequalled degree to the main conditions of good dress. Instead of this, we see trains of funerals every year carrying to the grave the victims of folly and ignorance in dress.

How is it with regard to protection from heat, cold, damp, and glare?

The Englishman’s dress scoms to be, on the whole, as little exceptionable as any that can be pointed out. We are not thinking of our soldiers, dressed in tight woollen garments, stocks, and heavy head-gear in all climates and seasons alike. The mortality from that tremendous cruelty and folly is a separate item to be urged against the military authorities.

Non-military Englishmen wear a costume which may be rendered warmer or cooler without losing its characteristics; which indicates the form, may fit it easily, at the wearer’s pleasure; leaves the limbs free, and need press injuriously nowhere. Some years ago, we must have denounced the cravat, or stock, as dangerous; but the throat, with its great blood vessels, and its importance as connecting the whole body with the brain, is now subject to so little pressure that we have only to hope that the relaxation will go on till there is none at all.

Twenty years ago, people said, you might know a philanthropist in America by his turn-down collar, as an evangelical lady was supposed to be known in England by a poke-bonnet; but the turn-down collars, with a mere black ribbon or light scrap of coloured silk, long ago won their way far beyond the ranks of the professional friends of mankind.

Those who have the sense and courage to wear the natural “comforter,” which gives warmth without pressure — the beard — improve their chances for a sound throat, a clear head, and a long life. The hat is now, apparently, the only irrational part of the Englishman’s dress; and so many strange devices are upon trial as a substitute for it, that we may safely leave it to the wearers to select some head-covering which shall defend the eyes and brain, be light and easy to carry, and admit air freely.

A new danger, however, has arisen with the invention of waterproof clothing. My readers may have found themselves tortured, or have seen some friend in agony, with an unaccountable tooth-ache or face-ache, coming on at the counting-house or office, day after day, and may have traced it to wearing goloshes, which people wear now as if they were meant to serve instead of shoes, whereas they are fit only for passing from place to place in wet weather.

Take off the goloshes or (which is nearly the same thing) the patent-leather shoes of the children in a school or a family, and you will find their stockings all damp. Keep on your waterproof cloak at a lecture, and you will find everything you wear moist and steaming before you go out into the air again. This wear of impervious clothing, otherwise than in walking in the rain, is the cause of much ailment in these early times of the use of gutta-percha. Men who wear pervious clothing at all times, except when in the rain, have really little to do in the way of dress reform.

It is much otherwise with women. Their clothing does not protect them from cold, heat, damp, or glare. Some few uncover the chest and arms under trying circumstances of heat and draught: but they are few; and they must have heard all that can be said to them in the way of warning.

The great body of Englishwomen — those of the middle and lower classes — have usually some sort of covering from the throat to the hands and feet, but it is too seldom judicious in degree or quality. The modern linsey petticoats are excellent as far as they go; but it is certain that the working-women of our country are too thoroughly weaned from the woollen clothing of their ancestors.

At present, too, no woman who adopts the fashion of the hoop in any form is properly guarded against the climate. Any medical man in good practice can tell of the spread of rheumatism since women ceased to wear their clothing about their limbs, and stuck it off with frames and hoops, admitting damp and draught, with as little rationality as if they tried to make an umbrella serve the purpose of a bonnet.

Then, observe the head and the feet. The eyes are unsheltered from sun and wind, and the most important region of the head is exposed by the bonnets which Englishwomen are so weak as to wear in imitation of the French. Again, the doctors have their painful tale to tell of neuralgic pains in the face and head, which abound beyond all prior experience, of complaints in the eyes, and all the consequences that might be anticipated from the practice of lodging the bonnet on the nape of the neck, and leaving all the fore part of the skull exposed.

Why the bonnet is worn at all is the mystery. A veil, white or black, would be considered an absurdity as a substitute for the bonnet in a climate like ours; but it would be actually more serviceable than the handful of flimsy decorations now usurping the place of the useful, cheap, and pretty straw bonnet, which suits all ages in its large variety.

There are the hats, to be sure, which young ladies wear so becomingly. They are hardly simple enough in form for a permanence, but they arc substantially unexceptionable for youthful wearers. Their advantages unfortunately tempt elderly ladies to put them on; but the class of mistaken wearers of hats is not a very large one, and we may let them pass. In praising the hat, however, I am thinking of theo sort that has a brim. The new and brimless invention is nearly as bad as the bonnet for use, while more fantastic. A chimney pot hat with a tall upright plume may possibly suit a volunteer rifle corps or a regiment of Amazons rehearsing for the opera, but it is not very English in taste.

The fearful spread of throat and chest diseases is ascribed, by those who should know best, mainly to the modern notion of muffling up the throat in furs and other heating substances. Before the boa came in, we heard little of any one of the tribe of throat diseases which we now meet at every turn. Some ladies carry a boa all through the summer, and many tie up their throats with a silk handkerchief whenever they go abroad, in all seasons; suffering their retribution in hoarsenesses, bronchitis, sore throat, and other ailments never endured by those who cultivate more hardy habits, and reserve such wraps for very special occasions. People who use cold water in some form of bath every day of the year, and who give their faces and throats to the bracing air, under the safeguard of vigorous personal exercise, forget what colds and coughs are.

As for the other point — the feet — it is to be feared that some are still sent to the grave by thin shoes. The danger of gutta-percha and patent-leather shoes has been referred to. The Balmoral boots of the day would be admirable but for the military heels. Those heels throw the foot into an unnatural posture, by which a great strain is produced. If my readers happen to be acquainted with a respectable chiropodist, let them inquire the recent news of bunions — that severest of small maladies. They will learn that there has been an unheard-of increase and aggravation of bunions since the high-heeled boots came in. The danger of falls is also considerable: and those who have a dread of a long tumble down the stairs, had better put on their boots on the ground-floor.

If we consider the female dress of 1859 under any of the remaining conditions, what can we say of it? Does the costume, as a whole, follow the outline of the form? Does it fit accurately and easily? Is the weight made to hang from the shoulders? Are the garments of to-day convenient and agreeble in use? Is the mode modest and graceful?

So far from it, that all these conditions are conspicuously violated by those who think they dress well. Here and there we may meet a sensible woman, or a girl who has no money to spend in new clothes, whose appearance is pleasing — in a straw-bonnet that covers the head, in a neat gown which hangs gracefully and easily from the natural waist, and which does not sweep up the dirt: but the spectacle is now rare; for bad taste in the higher classes spreads very rapidly downwards, corrupting the morals as it goes.

The modern dress perverts the form very disagreeably. The evil still begins with the stays, in too many instances, though there is less tight lacing than formerly. It is a pity that women do not know how little they gain by false pretences in regard to figure and complexion. Our grandmothers would not have worn paint if they had been aware that it is useless after forty to attempt to seem younger — the texture of the skin revealing at a glance the fact which paint and dyed hair cannot conceal; except perhaps in the parks, or across a theatre.

In the same way, the round waist produced by tight-lacing is always distinguishable in a moment from the easy oval form of the genuine small waist. Compare the two extremes, and you will see it at once. Compare the figure of the Graces of Raffaelle, or the Venus de Medici, with the smallest and most praised waist in a factory, and observe the difference. Before the glass, the owner of the latter sees the smallness in front, and fancies it beautiful; but it is disgusting to others. It is as stiff as the stem of a tree, and spoils the form and movement more than the armour of ancient knights ever did; and we know what is going on within.

The ribs are pressed out of their places, down upon the soft organs within, or overlapping one another: the heart is compressed, so that the circulation is irregular: the stomach and liver are compressed, so that they cannot act properly: and then parts which cannot be squeezed are thrust out of their places, and grave ailments are the consequence.

At the very best, the complexion loses more than the figure can be supposed to gain. It is painful to see what is endured by some young women in shops and factories, as elsewhere. They cannot stoop for two minutes over their work without gasping and being blue, or red, or white in the face. They cannot go up-stairs without stopping to take breath every few steps. Their arms are half-numb, and their hands red or chilblained; and they must walk as if they were all-of-a-piece, without the benefit and grace of joints in the spine and limbs.

A lady had the curiosity to feel what made a girl whom she knew so like a wooden figure, and found a complete palisade extending round the body. On her remonstrating, the girl pleaded that she had “only six-and-twenty whalebones!”

Any visitor of a range of factories will be sure to find that girls are dropping in fainting-fits, here and there, however pure the air and proper the temperature; and here and there may be seen a vexed and disgusted proprietor, seeking the warehouse-woman, or some matron, to whom he gives a pair of large scissors, with directions to cut open the stays of some silly woman who had fainted.

Occasional inquests afford a direct warning of the fatal effects which may follow the practice of tight-lacing; but slow and painful disease is much more common; and the register exhibits, not the stays, but the malady created by the stays as the cause of death. That such cases are common, any physician who practises among the working classes will testify.

Do the petticoats of our time serve as anything but a mask to the human form — a perversion of human proportions? A woman on a sofa looks like a child popping up from a haycock. A girl in the dance looks like the Dutch tumbler that was a favourite toy in my infancy. The fit is so the reverse of accurate as to be like a silly hoax — a masquerade without wit: while, at the same time, it is not an easy fit.

The prodigious weight of the modern petticoat, and the difficulty of getting it all into the waistband, creates a necessity for compressing and loading the waist in a way most injurious to health. Under a rational method of dress the waist should suffer neither weight nor pressure — nothing more than the girdle which brings the garment into form and folds. As to the convenience of the hooped skirts, only ask the women themselves, who are always in danger from fire, or wind, or water, or carriage-wheels, or rails, or pails, or nails, or, in short, everything they encounter.

Ask the husbands, fathers, or brothers, and hear how they like being cut with the steel frame when they enter a gate with a lady, or being driven into a corner of the pew at church, or to the outside of the coach, for want of room. As for the children — how many have been swept off pathways, or foot-bridges, or steamboat decks by the pitiless crinoline, or hoops of some unconscious walking balloon! More children have been killed, however, by the extension of the absurd petticoat fashion to them.

For many months past, it has been a rare thing to see a child under the tunic age duly clothed. The petticoats are merely for show; and the actual clothing, from the waist downwards, is nothing more than thin cotton drawers and socks, leaving a bare space between. For older boys there is a great improvement in dress — the tunic and loose trousers being preferable in every way to the stiff mannish tailed coat and tight trousers of half a century ago.

But the younger children are at present scarcely clothed at all, below the arms; and the blue legs of childhood are a painful sight, whether in a beggar boy or a citizen’s son. Even in such a climate as Sierra Leone there is something forlorn in thinking of the lady’s maid in a great house wearing (and possessing) nothing more in the way of clothing than a muslin gown and a blue bead-necklace (on an ebony throat, of course), but in winters like ours to see children’s legs covered with nothing better than thin cotton (thin, because the ornamentation is the vanity), is in fact reading the sentence of death of many victims.

Let it be remembered, too, that the neuralgic, rheumatic and heart diseases thus brought on are of a hereditary character. The wearer of crinoline and invisible bonnets, in incurring such diseases herself, renders her future children liable to them; and the children now bitten by the wintry winds, if they live to be parents, may see their offspring suffer from the ignorance and vanity of their own mothers. It is universally observed that certain diseases are becoming more common every year — neuralgia and heart disease, as well as the throat ailments of which we hear so much. It would be a great benefit if we could learn how much of the form and the increase of maladies is ascribable to our modes of dress.

What is to be done? Will anything ever be done? or is feminine wilfulness and slavishness to fashion to kill off hundreds and thousands of the race, as at present? There are whole societies in America who do not see the necessity for such mischief, and who hope to put an end to it — in their own country at least.

The Dress-Reform Association of the United States was instituted some years since by women who refused the inconvenience of Paris fashions in American homesteads: and they have been aided, not only by physicians, but by other men, on the ground of the right of women to wear what suits their occupations and their taste, without molestation.

The dress which was long ago agreed upon, after careful consideration — the so-called Bloomer costume (not as we see it in caricature, but in its near resemblance to the most rational English fashion of recent times) — is extensively worn, not only in rural districts, but in many towns. It seems to fulfil the various conditions of rational, modest, and graceful dress better than any other as yet devised for temperate climates; and if so, it will spread, in spite of all opposition.

What opposition it met with here is not forgotten, at home or abroad, and never will be forgotten. Some of our highest philosophers and best-bred gentlemen were more indignant and ashamed than perhaps anybody else. They said that we constantly saw Englishmen angry and scornful because of the indignities cast by Mussulman bigotry on the dress of Europeans in Damascus and Jerusalem; but here were Englishmen doing the same thing, without equal excuse, when Englishwomen proposed to adapt their dress to their health, convenience, and notions of grace.

The aggressors triumphed. They induced outcast women to adopt the dress, and stamped it with disrepute before it had a chance of a trial. It was an unmanly act; and if those who were concerned in it have since suffered from the extravagance of wife and daughters, or from sickness and death in their households which might have been averted by a sensible method of clothing old and young, they have had their retribution. Some of our newspapers are rebuking others for meddling with the women’s choice of fashions — quoting the rebuke sustained by the old “Spectator” on account of that line of criticism: but it is an affair which concerns both sexes and all ages. What hinders a simple obedience to common-sense in the matter?

It is only for the women of those classes who really have business in life to refuse to encumber themselves with tight, or heavy, or long, or unserviceable dress, and to adhere to any mode which suits them; and then, whatever the idle and fanciful may choose to do, the useless mortality will be mainly stopped, and the general health prevented from sinking lower. It may be confidently avowed that in this way only can women win back some of the respect which they have forfeited by the culpable absurdity of their dress within the last few seasons.

From the duchess to the maid-servant, the slaves of French taste have lost position; and it will require a permanent establishment of some leading points of the sense and morality of dress to restore their full dignity to the matronage and maidenhood of England.

Harriet Martineau


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